It takes a village to raise a child – unless that village is full of vigilantes. It feels like the Parent Police were working overtime June 30 when single mom Debra Harrell was arrested in North Augusta, S.C., and charged with child neglect while her daughter was taken to the Department of Social Services.
Her crime? Harrell left her 9-year-old daughter — armed with a cell phone — at a nearby park while she worked her shift at McDonald's. It was the third day that Harrell had let the girl play in the park while she went to her job.
Until then, the child had been accompanying Harrell to the fast food restaurant, where she played on the family's laptop computer, using McDonald's free wi-fi. But then the computer was stolen from their home. The girl, according to news reports, asked her mother to let her go to the park.
I don't know Harrell, but as a mom I'd guess that she wasn't keen on the idea. But what else to do? If you don't have family nearby to babysit, childcare's an expensive proposition — and sometimes difficult to find if you don't work a regular 9-to-5 job. It can cost up to $4,000 to $5,000 or more a year in South Carolina where the price tag's low — try subtracting that from a minimum wage paycheck.
The 46-year-old Harrell was released on bail July 3, according to Clair Ryan who set up a fundraiser for Harrell's legal fees and other expenses at youcaring.com, where $31,000 had been raised as of Tuesday night.
But now her pro bono lawyer says McDonald's has fired Harrell.
I'm outraged at this story. I'm disappointed that the "do-gooding" concerned stranger, worried about a child who didn't have an attentive adult hovering over her, overlooked making some attempt to help, like offering to watch the child until her mother got off work.
I'm frustrated that the police didn't simply discuss the matter with Harrell and point out that perhaps she ought to make different arrangements, instead of throwing her in jail and charging her with a crime, while taking her daughter away as well.
I'm appalled that McDonald's reaction apparently was to fire Harrell. For what? Trying to eke out a living on fast-food wages and take care of her daughter as best as she can?
And I can't help but wonder whether Harrell was treated the way she was because she's an African-American single mother.
Yes, it's a tragedy when a child is being neglected, abused or molested, and no one bothers to report suspicious behavior. But we've gone overboard in our zeal to ferret out the "bad" parents. Yes, children do get snatched by strangers, but it's rare — and it's more common among teenagers.
We'd all like to wrap our kids in bubble wrap, topped with a bicycle helmet, before letting them out the door and have them text us, minute by minute, that they're safe. Instead, we need to raise them to become independent so they can learn how to make good decisions.
Harrell's daughter is 9. Not 3 or 4. She had a cell phone. No, I don't think the park was the best place, but it might not have been the worst, either.
I was lucky when my kids were young that my husband's salary supported us, because one of the reasons I abandoned my career as a freelance writer was the issue of childcare. Forget the cost. Just finding someone dependable when I needed help was a challenge. I had a neighbor who ran a home daycare and could watch my daughter if she had room. I hired the teenager across the street occasionally. And more than once I drove a hundred miles to stay at my parents' home so they could spoil their grandchild while I worked.
Both of my kids also watched a few more episodes of Barney and The Magic School Bus than otherwise allowed because Mama had a deadline.
Harrell is trying to make a living and raise her daughter. Working at McDonald's is a hard way to earn your keep, but she was doing it.
Instead of reporting Harrell for abandonment, let's praise her work ethic and determination to support her family. Let's support a living wage that would enable Harrell to pay for childcare. We could demand that on-site childcare be required or that the government pay for childcare for workers on the low end of the pay scale. Here's an even more radical idea: Pay moms to stay home and raise their children.
Let's figure out how to fix the problem instead of punishing Harrell.
Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. She wrote this for the Washington Post's She the People blog.