Criminally Bad Parenting

Lenore Skenazy defends Debra Harrell, a mother who was imprisoned for sending her nine-year-old daughter to a park alone:

Just because something happened on Law & Order doesn’t mean it’s happening all the time in real life. Make “what if?” thinking the basis for an arrest and the cops can collar anyone. “You let your son play in the front yard? What if a man drove up and kidnapped him?” “You let your daughter sleep in her own room? What if a man climbed through the window?” etc.

These fears pop into our brains so easily, they seem almost real. But they’re not. Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.

Friedersdorf throws his hands up:

Statistically speaking, the South Carolina mother would almost certainly be putting her daughter in more danger if she strapped her into the car beside her for a hypothetical one-hour daily commute.

No one would arrest her for that. It wouldn’t surprise me if the child would more likely suffer harm sitting in a McDonald’s in front of a laptop, presumably eating fast food at least reasonably often, rather than spending summer days playing outdoors in a park with lots of parents. I can’t say with certainty that she’d be statistically safer. But neither have the South Carolina officials who arrested this woman.

Jessica Grose asked law professor Dorothy Roberts “if state laws give any specifics about how parents should behave.” Her response:

The short answer is that every state has its own child maltreatment laws and definitions of neglect—and they are all very vague with no specifics. Most include within neglect failure to provide adequate supervision. South Carolina’s child welfare law is actually more specific than most, but still doesn’t specify the age—”supervision appropriate to the child’s age and development.” But how does the judge/jury determine what’s appropriate? I don’t know of any law that specifies the age or the precise nature of failure to supervise.

Chait is disturbed how “reporters and onlookers alike are united in disgust at Harrell”:

America has decided to punish Harrell if she fails to acquire full-time employment; her employment does not provide her with adequate child care; and the community punishes her for failing to live up to unobtainable middle-class child-care standards. There are many perpetrators in this story. Debra Harrell was not one of them.

Balko connects Harrell’s arrest with recent stories about parents getting in trouble with the law for behavior such as leaving children in cars, as well as a recent case in which a mother was arrested for using narcotics while pregnant. Katie McDonough provides some context on the latter:

The Tennessee law is the first in the nation to charge a pregnant woman with criminal assault if she uses certain drugs, but remains part of a national trend that makes women vulnerable to detention and incarceration because of their pregnancies. An additional 17 states currently consider prenatal drug use a civil offense, South Carolina law handles drug use during pregnancy as child abuse, Alabama prosecutes pregnant women using a law intended to protect children from explosive meth labs and several statutes across the country have been used to the same ends.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is currently seeking plaintiffs to challenge the law, and released a statement calling it “dangerous” and noting that the law “unconstitutionally singles out new mothers struggling with addiction for criminal assault charges.”

And Art Carden goes into more detail on the risks of leaving kids in cars:

According to this site, 623 kids have died from heatstroke from being left in cars since 1998. From the bar graph in the middle of the page, there doesn’t appear to be a clear upward or downward trend. The total from 1998-present is only about 3/4 of the number of kids who died from poisonings in 2010 alone. As tragic as these deaths are, it’s a mistake to say “if it saves one life, it’s worth it.” I wasn’t able to find data with a quick Google search, but my guess is that the risk of injury or death from a kid getting hit while walking in the parking lot–even while holding hands and looking both ways and all that–is as great or greater than the risk of a kid being injured while being left in the car.

“Kids dying in hot cars” looks to me like the 2014 version of the 2001 “Summer of the Shark” hysteria. It plays to some of our worst fears. It could happen to anyone. It ranks pretty low on the list of mortality risks, though.