A mother lets her daughter play in the park unaccompanied. A mother leaves her son in the car for a few moments, while she runs into a store to buy headphones. Many parents would consider these actions to be unwise—but are they criminal? According to three recent stories in the news, yes.
In the first case, Debra Harrell, a resident of North Augusta, South Carolina, allowed her daughter to play at the park while she worked at a local McDonald’s. She gave her daughter a cell phone. Lenore Skenazy noted in Reason that the park is “so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking … there were swings, a ‘splash pad,’ and shade.” But on her second day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. When the little girl said she was working, the adult called the cops, who declared the girl “abandoned,” and arrested Harrell.
The second story was shared by Kim Brooks in Salon back in June: her four-year-old son insisted on accompanying her to the grocery store for a quick errand, but then refused to go inside the store. After noting that it was a “mild, overcast, 50-degree day,” and that there were several cars nearby, Brooks agreed and quickly ran into the store. Unbeknownst to her, an adult nearby saw her leave her son, and proceeded to record the whole incident on his phone, watched Brooks return and drive away, and then called the police. The police issued a warrant for her arrest.
These are only a few recent stories in which parents have faced arrest after leaving their children unsupervised. As Radley Balko notes at the Washington Post, these incidents seem to signal the “increasing criminalization of just about everything and the use of the criminal justice system to address problems that were once (and better) handled by families, friends, communities and other institutions.”
This latter point hearkens back to Robert Nisbet’s excellent book The Quest for Community: Nisbet predicted that, in a society without strong private associations, the State would take their place—assuming the role of the church, the schoolroom, and the family, asserting a “primacy of claim” upon our children. “It is hard to overlook the fact,” he wrote, “that the State and politics have become suffused by qualities formerly inherent only in the family or the church.” In this world, the term “nanny state” takes on a very literal meaning.
Balko’s article provides an example of a recent arrest in which the parent doesn’t appear to have done anything particularly wrong:
What started out as a normal Sunday morning for Jeffrey Williamson of Blanchester, Ohio, turned into a nightmare when police officers showed up to his front door and arrested him in front of his family. His crime? Child endangerment—as the authorities described it—because his son skipped church to go play with friends. He now faces up to six months in jail.
According to Williamson, the local Woodville Baptist Church sends a van to his neighborhood twice a week to offer free transportation to those interested in attending services. Williamson’s children ride the van regularly on Wednesdays and Sundays. This morning was no different, as his eight-year-old son Justin and siblings said goodbye to their father and left their house to board the van.
One problem: Justin skipped church and went to play instead.
The young boy stayed in the neighborhood to play with friends and then later ended up at the local Family Dollar store down the road. After police officers were called to the store by a customer who recognized Justin, they took him back to his neighborhood where they proceeded to arrest his father for child endangerment.
The father could not have foreseen or altered the sequence of events. Skipping church doesn’t appear to be something his children normally did, nor did he abandon his child in any way. His arrest appears to be a clear overreaction on the part of the police. It can be argued that the mother who left her daughter to play unsupervised in the park, as well as the Salon writer who left her child alone in the car, both made foolish decisions. But is it the government’s job to police our social decisions?
There’s also the question of the three “good samaritans” in these situations—the people who noticed a child unaccompanied, without a parent, and decided to call the police. In the first instance, perhaps, calling the police made sense: the girl was a complete stranger, by herself at the park. In Brooks’ case, however, a person recorded the whole incident and watched Brooks get into her car before calling the police. They could easily have talked to her, reprimanded her, warned her that they could report such activity. Williamson’s child was seen in the dollar store by a customer who recognized him—thus implying that the person had at least some knowledge of the child’s family. Why didn’t they talk to Justin, or call Justin’s parents?
In each case, the citizen jumped first to the State to care for the situation, rather than exercising any sort of personal involvement. This hardly seems to fit the definition “good samaritan”—these actions reveal a more passive, isolated attitude. But here, again, we see the result of breakdown in modern American community—without a sense of communal closeness or responsibility, we act as bystanders rather than as stewards. As Brooks puts it in her article,
We’re told to warn our children not to talk to strangers. We walk them to school and hover over them as they play and some of us even put GPS systems on them, confident, I guess, that should they get lost, no one will help them. Gone are the days of letting kids roam the neighborhood, assuming that at least one responsible adult will be nearby to keep an eye out. I’m told there are still things like carpools and babysitting co-ops, but I’ve never found one. In place of “It takes a village,” our parenting mantra seems to be “every man for himself.”
This is the unfortunate result of living in a world where parenting is no longer supported and bolstered by private association and community. If only there had been a family member, friend, or church member who had volunteered to watch Harrell’s little girl. If only the “good samaritan” at the dollar store had considered calling Justin’s father, or offered to take the boys home. We live in a society that neglects the sort of private stewardship that could foster truly safe environments for our children—and unfortunately, when parents are thrown into prison, it hardly seems to create more safe surroundings for these kids.