Did Debra Harrell deserve to go to jail? Authorities in South Carolina think so. After all, she let her child play in a park.
The 46-year-old mom works (or worked) at a McDonald's in North Augusta, S.C. Her nine-year-old daughter would go with her to work and play on her laptop. Then the laptop got stolen, and the girl asked if she could go play in the park instead of sitting around the restaurant. Sure, said her mom. There's a nice park, full of kids and other moms. She gave her daughter a cellphone.
Then someone at the park found out the girl was there unsupervised. Police were summoned. They could have let Ms. Harrell off with a warning. Instead, she was arrested for unlawful conduct toward a child and thrown in jail. Her mugshot was broadcast on the local news, like that of a common criminal. Other people in the park said they were appalled. Her daughter was put in state custody.
Lenore Skenazy isn't surprised. The blogger and author of Free-Range Kids is a leading critic of the modern panic over child safety. Kids are safer now than at any time since the 1960s, she observed, writing about Ms. Harrell's case for Reason magazine. But our hysteria is at an all-time high. Many people believe the world is so dangerous that children must never be left alone, not even for a second, not even in places where nothing ever happens.
Last week in Prince Edward Island, two kids, 7 and 9, made the news when their bus driver dropped them off from day camp a few minutes early. He left them under a tree outside a school where their father had arranged to pick them up. They had to wait for as much as 10 minutes, alone, before their dad showed up. The media ran full reports of this atrocity.
"I was scared … He put my kids' lives in danger," their father told The Guardian newspaper. "Anything could have happened. There are predators out there … They could have been abducted. I might never have seen them again," their mother added. The Red Cross, which runs the day camp, apologized profusely and said it might put another adult on the bus, or request that parents arrive at drop-off points 30 minutes early.
Those poor kids. One thing they now know for sure: The world is a terrifying place.
All this panic has two bad consequences. Kids aren't allowed to run around on their own, which deprives them of their independence and also robs them of a lot of fun. And many adults are censured or criminalized for nothing at all.
I'm not talking about the horrible cases of infants left to broil for hours in the back of a car on a hot summer day. I'm talking about a mother who leaves a kid sleeping in a car seat for a few minutes while she runs an errand. In some places, that's enough to get you arrested and put on the child-abuse registry. "We have lost the ability to distinguish between a nearly non-existent threat (a baby in a car for four minutes) and a huge threat (a baby left in the car for four hours)," Ms. Skenazy wrote.
In Salon, Kim Brooks, who describes herself as a typical overprotective mother, recently recounted the horrifying story of the day she ran an errand with her four-year-old in tow. He was having a temper tantrum and didn't want to leave the car. So she did something she'd never done before: cracked the windows, left him in the car and dashed into the store. Elapsed time: five minutes.
What happened next is the stuff of nightmares. A vigilante bystander filmed her on a cellphone and (without bothering to speak to her) reported her to the police. She was charged with a crime. Eventually she got off with 100 hours of community service, plus parenting classes. Her son started to panic if she left his side, fearful that the police would come and take her to jail.
"There's been this huge cultural shift," Ms. Skenazy told Ms. Brooks, who sought her out. "… This shift is not rooted in fact. It's not rooted in any true change. It's imaginary. It's rooted in irrational fear."
Worst of all, we don't trust parents any more. We think they are endangering their children when they're not. In many people's view, Ms. Harrell, a working mother who might not have had the money for child care, is guilty as hell. And that is tragic.