Aiken County, South Carolina resident Deborah Harrell has been booked on charges of "unlawful conduct" after she confessed to leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she went to work.
The story, originally reported by ABC news affiliate WJBF, goes something like this: An adult in the park asked a guardian-less girl where her mother was. The little girl told that person that her mother would "drop her off all the time" — for several hours — while her mother went to work. According to an incident report filed by Public Safety investigators, the little girl said she would walk from the park to a nearby McDonald's for lunch; her mother works at the McDonald's.
Columnist Lenore Skenazy writes:
For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed [in McDonald's] with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald's has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead.
Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park—a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking—two days in a row. There were swings, a "splash pad," and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied.
That adult called the cops. Now the mother is in jail and the girl is in the custody of the Department of Social Services. Is that really what's best for everyone involved? What has been accomplished? Nothing. Oh, wait: Punishing a mother for trying to do right by her child, punishing a child who wanted to be outside.
Anecdotally: My parents let me be outside alone constantly. Sometimes I was not alone: My younger brother, younger sister and I played, unsupervised, in Central Park and Riverside Park for hours and hours, days and days in a row. We were also deposited in the Museum of Natural History while my parents went to matinées. It's impossible to count how many times we were in public spaces, alone, unsupervised. Under the age of 10. In New York City. In the 80s. We lived. My colleagues all have stories about bike rides and hijinks and all kinds of unsupervised fun. None of us were, as the WJBF news graphic declares, "NEGLECTED." And neither was Harrell's daughter. If the adult who questioned Harrell's daughter really wanted to help —and not just tattle — she could have reached out to Harrell before she contacted the cops.
…Because some busybody thought she knew more about this girl's safety than the girl's own mother, a family has been separated. Harrell is in jail and the child is in the custody of the Department of Social Services. If only the girl had spent her whole summer sitting in McDonald's—surfing the internet and eating a Big Mac instead of playing outside and getting fresh air—this never would have happened.
And as New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait puts it:
America has decided to punish Harrell if she fails to acquire full-time employment; her employment does not provide her with adequate child care; and the community punishes her for failing to live up to unobtainable middle-class child-care standards. There are many perpetrators in this story. Debra Harrell was not one of them.
Hopefully mother and child are reunited shortly. It's worth noting that McDonald's is a company where wage gap is so vast that the CEO makes up to 721 times what the minimum-wage workers do. Mother Jones reports that at the Golden Arches and other fast-food chains:
Imagine the PR coup it would be if McDonald's stepped up and tried to help Harrell.