July 23, 2014

Issac Bailey | Don’t over-react and criminalize parents

I need to be arrested.

I need to be arrested.

I let my kids play in the park without parental supervision.

I let them run around the neighborhood without my eyeballs perpetually glued to the backs of their heads.

I’ve left them alone in cars as I ran errands in stores.

That makes me, according to the reaction I’ve seen to the arrest of a South Carolina mother letting her 9-year-old daughter play in the park while the mother worked, irresponsible and even criminal.

Lock me up.

And if there’s no statute of limitations, swing by my mom’s house and arrest her, too. She let me and my brothers do all of that, and more.

In fact, she sent us on errands – alone – and demanded we handled things such as billing disputes with the electric company and grocery shopping to build up our confidence to deal with those in authority, as well as our independence.

We were required to know how to care for our younger siblings and, yes, to know how to avoid potentially dangerous strangers in public.

And that was during a period in which the crime rate was worse than it is now.

According to various reports, Debra Harrell worked at a McDonald’s in North Augusta. She gave her 9-year-old a cell phone and let her play in a park a 6-minute walk from home, where supervised breakfast and lunch meals were served.

On the third day, a concerned adult at the park full of other kids called the police.

For that, Harrell faces a felony charge that could put her in prison for 10 years, her daughter was briefly taken away and she apparently lost her job.

It is just the latest bit of evidence that we have come to despise parents who aren’t as afraid of the world as the rest of us, particularly those on the lower end of the economic scale who can’t afford high-priced day care on a salary that isn’t much higher than minimum wage.

We’ve determined that a report of a kid left in a dangerously hot car or being snatched by a stranger – no matter how rare such things occur, and they are rare – gives us license to throw out common sense.

Every instance of a clueless, heartless or irresponsible parent neglecting a kid in a car on a hot day causes a chain reaction in the way the death of a child already under state supervision does. It heightens our awareness and fear of things that hardly ever happen. That leads to calls for more aggressive law enforcement tactics and policy changes and more vigilant strangers who are ready to report any public parental misstep to make sure “not one” kid is left in harm’s way with no appreciation that such a reaction actually puts more kids in danger.

By subjugating kids who are not in danger to knee-jerk, over-reactions, we make it harder to identify and protect kids who actually are.

The S.C. Department of Social Services is often left holding the bag, with under-paid and under-appreciated social workers carrying caseloads sometimes two and three times the recommended national standards, making it more difficult to check in with kids and families who are truly distressed. The State newspaper found that at least 40 percent of workers carry a heavy load, including one worker charged with monitoring 103 kids at once.

Every false report, every mother jailed and daughter placed in care when there’s no compelling reason for such actions leads to an increased clogging of an already clogged social services system.

Harrell’s daughter was taken into state custody into a child protective services apparatus that has been under duress and over-loaded for decades and in the middle of ugly allegations about neglect that put kids’ lives at risk.

Into that system we dump a kid because she was playing at a park. How does that make her safer? Putting her in the middle of a system that has had trouble protecting kids already under its charge improves the odds that her future will be bright, how? Though, and thankfully, her stay wasn’t long, even small disruptions can cause big problems in the system.

How is it better for that little girl for her mother to be paraded throughout state and national media and painted as a criminal for the sin of allowing her daughter to do what millions of responsible parents have done?

There is a rush to criminalize parents, but seemingly little urgency to help those in the toughest circumstances. Where is the push to offer better, widely-available, comprehensive parenting education?

What about rethinking a welfare reform from the ‘90s that did a great job depleting welfare rolls but was horrible at providing outlets for young mothers who need assistance with their children while they put in long hours at low-wage jobs?

As the rest of us pat each other on the backs for responding to what superficial news reports can make seem like an epidemic of kids being left alone in dangerous situations, the poor take it on the chin, in the child welfare and criminal justice systems.

That’s not justice, not for the kids or parents involved.

Contact Issac Bailey at ibailey@thesunnews.com or @TSN_IssacBailey.

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