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State overreach? Woman arrested, daughter in state custody for using park as childcare

Published time: July 16, 2014 01:25
Reuters / Olivia Harris

Reuters / Olivia Harris

A South Carolina woman is in jail and her 9-year-old daughter is in the state’s care after the mother used a local park as a babysitter on more than one occasion while she went to work.

Debra Harrell works at a McDonald’s in North Augusta, SC. During summer break, she brought her daughter to work with her, where the 9-year-old played on a laptop that “Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase,” Reason.com reports. The laptop was stolen during a home break-in, leaving the daughter nothing to do while sitting at the fast-food restaurant.

So the girl asked her mother to drop her off at the park to play, instead.

Harrell said yes, bought her daughter a cell phone, and sent her to play at Summerfield Park. That park contains a spray pad, playground, plenty of shade and a free play area, according to the North Augusta Star.

On her third day there, an adult asked the 9-year-old where her mother was. When the girl responded that her mom was at work, the adult called the police.

Authorities declared the girl “abandoned,” and arrested Harrell, who confessed to leaving her daughter alone in the park.

According to the incident report, the girl says she would go to the McDonald's inside a Walmart for lunch, which is about a mile and a half walk from the park where she was found.

"What if a man would have came and just snatched her because you have all kinds of trucks that come up in here so you really don't know," park visitor Tonya Cullum, who works at a childcare center, said to WJBF.

Another woman at the park also condemned Harrell’s decision. "You cannot just leave your child alone at a public place, especially. This day and time, you never know who's around. Good, bad, it's just not safe,” Lesa Lamback said.

"I understand the mom may have been in a difficult situation, not having someone to watch the child, but at the same time, you've got to find somebody."

Harrell has been charged with unlawful conduct towards a child, and her daughter is now in the custody of the Department of Social Services.

Online, some are criticizing the South Carolina authorities for going too far.

Harrell gives her daughter “the freedom to play at the neighborhood park while she works at a McDonald’s restaurant to support her family. For her efforts, Ms. Harrell was locked in a cage and her daughter was taken into the custody of the Department of Social Services,” the blog Police State USA said. “The unsupervised play took place at a location specifically designed for children and for safety, and yet it still turned into an incident that may ruin a woman’s life and break apart a family.”

“Perhaps the busybodies would prefer it if the mother unnecessarily lodged her 9-year-old into a daycare center that would absorb most or all of the wages she would earn during the course of a day at work,” the blog continued. “Or, better yet, quit working and just collect welfare checks.”

Others scoff at the “stranger danger” fear overwhelming the country in general, and this case in particular.

“While the term ‘missing child’ may conjure up visions of malevolent, trench-coated men luring children into their cars with candy or Pokémon cards, the reality is much different,” Benjamin Radford wrote in his book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us. “The vast majority of ‘missing’ children are taken by family members, often when one divorced parent absconds with a child during legally sanctioned visitation.”

Radford notes in a Discovery News column that only 3.1 percent of cases handled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children between 1990 and 1995 were abductions by strangers. In 2000, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency released a report that said more than 75 percent of kidnappings were committed by family members of acquaintances of the child.

Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law, sociology, and civil rights at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, told Slate, “South Carolina's child welfare law is actually more specific than most, but still doesn't specify the age—’supervision appropriate to the child's age and development.’ But how does the judge/jury determine what's appropriate? I don't know of any law that specifies the age or the precise nature of failure to supervise.”

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic says that North Augusta authorities put the family - especially the daughter - into a worse situation by placing Harrell in custody and the girl with Social Services.

“By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there,” Friedersdorf wrote. “Even if the state felt it had the right to declare this parenting decision impermissible, couldn't they have given this woman a simple warning before taking custody?”

“The state's decision is coming at a time when it is suffering from a shortageof foster families, as well as a child protective services workforce so overwhelmed that serious child abuse inquiries are regularly closed in violation of policy,” Friedersdorf added.