A South Carolina mom is facing up to 10 years in prison for leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she went to work.
Police arrested Debra Harrell at her job as a McDonalds shift manager after a woman approached her daughter at a park a few blocks away asking where her mother was. Harrell’s daughter, Regina, told the woman her mom was at work. The woman called the police, who took Harrell to jail for one night and charged her with “felony child neglect.” Regina spent 17 days in the custody of Social Services before being returned to her mother.
The case is inviting commentary from all angles. Some say Harrell’s actions amounted to criminal abandonment. Others decry her hyper-criminalization: “What the heck are we doing arresting parents for things that were perfectly normal 30 years ago?” asked Megan McArdle in an article for Bloomberg. Harrell’s neighbors say leaving a child at the park is not unusual, especially for a single parent who cannot afford childcare during summer break.
“Her child is not the only one at the park without a parent. There are children all over this neighborhood,” said Angelina Scott, one of Harrell’s neighbors with a daughter the same age as Regina. She said the park, Summerfield Park, is a welcoming place: “They hold a feed-a-child program. There’s that splash pad too,” she said, referencing the free volunteer-provided meals. The park also has basketball courts and a playground.
Regina used to spend her mother’s work shifts at McDonalds playing games on a laptop. But when a burglar stole the laptop from their home, Regina asked her mom if she could instead spend the day at the park.
South Carolina law is not clear about whether leaving a child at a park is a crime. The law criminalizes behavior that puts a child at “unreasonable risk of harm affecting the child’s life, physical or mental health, or safety,” but Harrell’s attorney said that gives prosecutors wide discretion to decide what is criminal and what is simply unwise.
Harrell’s next scheduled court appearance is in September.
In two other high-profile cases of child endangerment, the mother’s fate seems largely dependent on the prosecutor’s interpretation of intent. Shanesha Taylor of Phoenix, Az., left her 2-year-old and 6-month-old sons in her car while she went to an hour-long job interview in March. Authorities say the temperature in her SUV was over 100 degrees when passersby heard her infant crying. Taylor, who was recently homeless, said she could not afford childcare and needed the job. Sympathetic strangers raised more than $100,000 online for her children’s educational funds and the county attorney agreed to dismiss the charges if Taylor completes a series of parenting classes and establishes educational trust funds for her kids.
Another Phoenix mom, Catalina Clouser, left her 5-week-old baby buckled into his car seat on the roof of her car while she drove away from a friend’s house. The baby was found without injury in a nearby intersection. Clouser had been smoking marijuana. She pleaded guilty to child abuse and misdemeanor DUI and was sentenced in April to 16 years of supervised probation.