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Monday, July 21, 2014

Criminal Parenting

A number years back, I was sitting on the grass in a park by the boardwalk along Mission Bay in San Diego. I noticed this guy sprinting past me with panic in his eyes.  He abruptly changed direction and sprinted the other way.  I began wondering what was going on so I observed the scene and began laughing my ass off.

He had two children: one, roughly four years old, was on a big-wheel tricycle and that little boy was riding as fast as he could away from dad in one direction; the other, an approximately six-year-old girl, was clearly just starting to learn how to ride a bicycle and was heading for the water screaming, "help, I don't know how to stop!!!!"  I was laughing because there was clearly no real danger in the situation, yet if I was in the dad's shoes, I probably would've been a bit panicked too.

The girl, as was easily predictable, encountered the sand before the water which gently slowed her down and she fell over into the soft sand without a scratch. The mischievous boy kept riding, but was not even a hundred yards away when the girl was safely on the ground, and visibility was probably 5 times that.  The dad easily retrieved him and everyone was safe and sound, the dad a little worse off for the wear and tear, and much of the rest of us in the park quite entertained.

That was roughly the same era as when my daughters were two and five years old.  I was at a different park with them and was right next to my two-year-old.  My five-year-old had somewhat different age-appropriate playground interests and was maybe 30 feet away on the other side of the park.  A mother came up to me and scolded me for allowing my five-year-old to be "so far away."  She said, "somebody could snatch her, it's very irresponsible of you!" Yes, that's me - Mr. Irresponsible.  I apparently should've forced both my children to play within a 3 foot radius of me at all times.  And probably bubble wrapped them while I was at it.

It was then that I became increasingly aware of how bizarrely overly concerned with safety society was and is. Unfortunately, it's become far worse in the intervening years and perfectly adequate parenting (in my opinion), is now being criminalized.  You know that it's gotten really bad when even the NY Times starts to take notice:
For instance, they might have ended up like the Connecticut mother who earned a misdemeanor for letting her 11-year-old stay in the car while she ran into a store. Or the mother charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” after a bystander snapped a photo of her leaving her 4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day. Or the Ohio father arrested in front of his family for “child endangerment” because — unbeknown to him — his 8-year-old had slipped away from a church service and ended up in a nearby Family Dollar. 
Or (I’m just getting warmed up) like the mother of four, recently widowed, who left her children — the oldest 10, the youngest 5 — at home together while she went to a community-college class; her neighbor called the police, protective services took the kids, and it took a two-year legal fight to pry them back from foster care. Or like the parents from two families who were arrested after their girls, two friends who were 5 and 7, cut through a parking lot near their houses — again without the parents’ knowledge — and were spotted by a stranger who immediately called the police. 
Or — arriving at this week’s high-profile story — like Debra Harrell, an African-American single mother in Georgia, who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked a shift at McDonald’s, and who ended up shamed on local news and jailed.
I'm going to focus on this last one a little bit as I actually sent money to a legal fund for Ms. Harrell because I'm so unhappy with her treatment:
Here are the facts: Debra Harrell works at McDonald’s in North Augusta, South Carolina. For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there 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. 
The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl “abandoned” and proceeded to arrest the mother.
I think it was pretty cool of McDonald's to let the daughter hang out and use the WiFi.  It was also, I might've thought, pretty cool that there happened to be a park less than half-a-mile from where Ms. Harrell was working that her daughter could hang out at. I might've guessed that that was what parks with playgrounds were for.  I, of course, was wrong. I don't know what they're for, but apparently not for children to hang out at.

The "shocked adult" who called the cops explained her reason for contacting the authorities: "this day and time, you never know who's around. Good, bad, it's just not safe."  Not quite true.  You do indeed know that the government is around. And that they will snatch your kid and arrest you if you let your child go to the park by herself! From Ms. Harrell's point of view, is it really better that the child was basically abducted by the government and is on her way to the foster care system where abuses of all kinds are continually documented, rather than the extraordinarily small chance that someone not from the government might take her instead?

Who's better off here?  Certainly not the daughter who now doesn't have access to her mother.  Certainly not Ms. Harrell who now has an arrest record and needs to fight felony charges in court.  Certainly not society who has to foot the bill now for jail, court costs, foster care costs, and will probably end up with a basket case to deal with when the daughter gets through the foster care system.

Nobody's saying that leaving a nine-year-old at a park every day is the best possible situation.  However, given that Ms. Harrell was a low-wage McDonald's worker with limited day care choices, it may not have been a terrible choice, and almost certainly better than the government's choice:
You needn’t approve of the parents’ actions in any of these cases to understand that dumping them into the criminal justice system is a terribly counterproductive way of addressing their mistakes. ... The mere fact that state officials were essentially micromanaging these parents’ decisions is creepy enough. That the consequences for the “wrong” decision are criminal is downright scary.
I think that the Ms. Harrell might likely agree with Ronald Reagan that:
The nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."
She's certainly in a terrifying situation dealing with the government now.


Anonymous said...

Excellent evidence for the "not as much liberty now" crowd.

Clovis e Adri said...


I guess I start to understand all those feelings of losing freedom...

Hey Skipper said...

My parents divorced when I was 7, my brother 5.

My mom immediately went to work full time, and took community college classes at night.

My brother and I never had a babysitter -- we were totally free range kids.

Ten years later, by which time my mom had remarried, my parents decided they were going to Europe for a month.

Of course, it was out of the question that my brother and I should be left alone at home for that much time.

So she handed me the keys to the car. I was to drive my brother and I to stay with our grandparents in New York. From Los Angeles. And back.

All that would be criminal now.

Come to think of it, might have been at the time, too.

erp said...

Wow, what an adventure that must have been. Bet you kids had a better times driving across the country than your parents did in Europe.

Hey Skipper said...

It was. But letting a couple teenage boys, only one old enough to drive and not even a senior in high school, loose with a car and a whole country to cross?

That's just begging for disaster.

Clovis e Adri said...

Now you need to tell us about that trip, Skipper.

What disaster has fallen upon you?

erp said...

True and I wouldn't have allowed it, but I sure would have like to have done it myself. ;-)

Peter said...

The draconian powers of child protection authorites, which would make the Gestapo jealous, have been with us for a very long time, so creeping statism is problematic as a cause. You can attack them, but be prepared to hear them defended with heartrending, gruesome tales of what happened when they gave parents the benefit of the doubt or a second chance. This is more of a cultural change driven by one part lurid tabloid-like 24/7 news coverage, one part psychobabble/neurotic parenting and one part the technological communications revolution. I wasn't permitted to drive across the country, but from a very young age I simply disappeared for the day. I remember at eleven hitchhiking with a friend across Montreal to an amusement park. Of course, in the (seatbeltless)car, I stuck my head as far out of the window as I dared while my parents chain-smoked in front. Try any of that with your child today.

I predict that within 10-20 years, it will be considered negligent and abusive to let a child out of the house for any reason, even school, maybe especially school, without a charged cellphone, which by then will be equipped with voice-activated 911, one-touch interactive video and a GPS.

Hey Skipper said...

What disaster [fell] upon you?


It, in the proper hands, could even make a pretty funny coming of age adventure story.

That still doesn't get away from the fact that letting a couple minors loose unsupervised on the nation's highways should feature prominently in the annals of parental foolishness.

... one part psychobabble/neurotic mothering ...

I see your one part, and raise it one.