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

Compiled by Emily Hales, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Wed, July 23, 2014, 4:05 a.m. MDT

 Parents need to be careful with their children these days—not for the safety of the children, but for the well-being of the parent. More parents are facing arrests and court battles for leaving children alone, even if the kids aren't in danger

Parents need to be careful with their children these days—not for the safety of the children, but for the well-being of the parent. More parents are facing arrests and court battles for leaving children alone, even if the kids aren't in danger

(Lenar Musin, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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

1. barakhlo
London, 00,
July 23, 2014

This article says that: "In Katy, Texas, this week, shoppers smashed the windows of a woman's jeep after she left her children inside while getting a haircut, USA Today reported."

Turns out this was not correct. The woman accidentally locked the kids in the car and actually asked these "shoppers" to smash the windows.

2. MNmamaof4
Lakeville, MN,
July 23, 2014

There are currently around 100 stranger abductions of children in the U.S. each year. Compare that to around 2,000 child fatalities due to car accidents per year. So statistically, children are safer left at home than riding with parents. But we now live in a society that says 1)children must be constantly hovered over and protected from every negative life experience and 2)parents are to be blamed for every bad thing that happens in a child's life. So maybe all this hovering could save a handful from physical harm, but do we know the social and emotional consequences of helicopter parenting to millions of children in exchange?

3. Kings Court
Alpine, UT,
July 23, 2014

The kids were probably crying because they didn't want to have to sit in the car, not because they were dying. If anyone has ever raised any children, they are kidding themselves if they don't think this is a likely possibility. My parents had us sit and wait in the car for a few minutes while they ran into the bank or some other quick errand when we were this age. We could roll down the windows or open the door if we got warm. We hated it because we wanted to go every place our parents were going, but there was no harm done and as an adult, I can see why my parents didn't want to unload a car of kids to go into the bank for five minutes. I would really hate to be a parent nowadays where the public is voluntarily turning themselves into informants and reporting on the activities of others without even knowing the facts or circumstances. I agree that the public needs to be vigilant when it comes to the safety of children, but that also means to act responsibly as well.

4. MsStanley
Sewell/USA, NJ,
July 23, 2014

I find the tone of this article sad...be careful about leaving your kids alone or you might get into trouble? How about be a responsible parent? If any situation arises where one is not available to watch their own children, they should hire a sitter, or ask a neighbor. I cannot fathom going to work a shift, or to classes at university while leaving young children unsupervised. Sadly, UT does not have a set age for when it is ok to leave kids home - but the national SAFEKIDS campaign suggests 12. I feel that 12 is a good age suggestion for leaving children alone in public as well. Being with your kids does not mean you have to hover over them, or be overprotective, it just means being there if a problem or emergency arises - isn't that what parents are supposed to do?

5. coltakashi
Richland, WA,
July 23, 2014

In most there societies, when adults see a young child without a parent nearby, they help to watch over the child, not call the police to arrest the parent, and have social services place the child in the custody of a stranger, where there is a much higher risk of child abuse.