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Leaving your child alone in public? Better be careful you don't get in trouble for neglect | Deseret News National
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Leaving your child alone in public? Better be careful you don't get in trouble for neglect

The recent arrest of a mother who let her 9-year-old daughter play alone at a park is drawing criticism from other mothers who have been accused of child neglect in similar incidents.

South Carolina mother Debra Harrell let her daughter play at a public park alone for several hours while she went to work at a local McDonald's, according to ABC 6. Harrell was arrested and her daughter was taken into the custody of the Department of Social Services after another parent asked the girl where her mother was.

Lesa Lamback, a local mother interviewed at the scene, supported the arrest, saying, "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."

But most people around the country reacting to the incident had a different take.

Lenore Skenazy, a proponent of free-range parenting who made headlines several years ago after letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway home by himself, came to Harrell's defense in a blog post on Reason.com.

"But what are the facts? She let her daughter play at the park for several hours at a time — like we did as kids. She gave her a daughter a phone if she needed to call. Any 'danger' was not only theoretical, it was exceedingly unlikely," she said.

An article in The Atlantic about the incident points out that playing at a park has not been proven statistically more dangerous than other common risk behaviors, such as driving in a car or sitting in a McDonald's restaurant and eating fast food every day. The difference, the author said, is the presence of a parent. Officers aren't looking out for the safety of the child so much as trying to uphold "social norms."

In response to The Atlantic article, a woman wrote a letter to the editor detailing her own experience. The new widow, whose name was withheld, was attending classes at a local college. She couldn't afford the cost of daycare, and believed it was safer to let her four school-age children stay home for a few hours. A neighbor saw her leave her kids alone, and the children were placed in the foster care system until the woman could prove that she was a competent mother. After a two-year battle with Child Protective Services, she got her children back.

"I was not out partying, at a bar, or anything. I was at college," the mother said. "I realized it wasn't an ideal situation. I did not think it was illegal or was associated with such severe consequences."

Another mother, Kim Brooks, had a warrant issued for her arrest after a bystander watched her leave her son in the car while she ran into the store. According to her account in Salon, the day was cool and overcast, the windows were cracked, and she was only in the store for a few minutes. She also considered herself a generally overprotective mother. Since settling the case, she's become even more so.

"I accompany when I probably don’t need to. I supervise and hover and interfere. And at least half of the other parents are probably doing it for exactly the same reason. This is America and parenting is now a competitive sport, just like everything else," she said.

"What do we get if we win? A kid who will never be hurt of frightened or alone? The promise and assurance of safety? I’m not that naive."

It can be difficult to determine whether or not a child needs protection, and there are situations where children are put in danger, such as leaving them alone in a hot car. This summer, two parents in Florence, South Carolina, were arrested and charged with neglect after their 13-month-old son died from overheating, according to the Associated Press.

The parents "told police that they forgot the toddler was in the vehicle when they returned home from church," and didn't remember until over an hour later, at which point they took the child to the hospital.

In other cases, however, The Washington Post suggests that such harsh punishments as arrests and removal of the children are counterproductive: "It doesn’t benefit these kids in the least to give their parents a criminal record, smear their parents’ names in their neighborhoods and communities and make it more difficult for their parents to find a job."

Email: ehales@deseretnews.com