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Mom arrested for leaving 9-year-old alone at park

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old at the park while she was at work
  • The arrest led to an online debate about how young is too young to leave kids alone
  • State laws don't set a minimum age at which a child can be left on his or her own
  • Helicopter parenting can get in the way of a child's growth, many parents say

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- The case of a South Carolina mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park for hours while she worked at a nearby McDonald's has sparked a robust debate online, first about whether this mother should ever have been arrested, and second about how young is too young to leave a child on his or her own.

Let's start with the arrest, shall we.

Place me solidly in the outraged camp about the arrest of the North Augusta mother, Debra Harrell, who was charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

Harrell's attorney, Robert Verner Phillips, said he took the case pro bono because it "struck a nerve" with him.

He said when Harrell worked, she would sometimes leave her daughter at a friend's house, let her go with a group of friends to the park or take her to McDonald's and let her play on a laptop inside the restaurant.

But, after the laptop was stolen from their home and Harrell's daughter was "bored to death" being at McDonald's with nothing to do, Harrell ended up taking her to the park on a few occasions -- a park that was about a six-minute walk from their home and about a seven-minute drive from where Harrell worked, said Phillips.

"She could have gone home at any time. She has a key," he said, adding that she also had a cell phone.

"It just was absurd to make this insinuation that she's abandoned at the park." Phillips noted the park was the site of a government-sponsored program where an adult would be on hand giving out free breakfasts and lunches from 9-10 a.m. ET and 12-1 p.m. ET every weekday.

"This is a very independent little child," said the attorney, who believes there is a "very big public policy at stake" in this case.

"Because if this woman gets convicted, guess what? ... From now on, do officers now have an obligation every time they see a 9½-year-old not in the presence of their parents, do the parents get arrested?"

"It truly is the classic slippery slope," he added.

Many people across the country raised the question (which I wonder about, too) whether the same thing would have happened if a 9-year-old was left in a park for hours by a more privileged mom in an affluent neighborhood. Harrell is an African-American working mom living on minimum wage.

"The clear bias against a .... mother of color is so glaringly apparent," said the children's television host Miss Lori.

"The child in question had a responsible working mother, a cell phone, a plan and an obvious history of trustworthy and responsible behavior that made her mother comfortable enough to allow her to play on her own," said the mom of three, who's also a Babble.com blogger.

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Taigi Smith, a full-time working mom of a toddler, said the time has come "to stop criminalizing poor women -- black and white -- for doing whatever it takes to provide for their children."

"Wouldn't it have been better to help this mom find reliable child care or a day camp instead of placing her daughter with social services?" Smith asked. (Harrell's daughter, who was in the custody of South Carolina's Department of Social Services, is back with her mom, who has been fired from McDonald's, according to Phillips. Meanwhile, an online petition to raise money to help Harrell afford child care has been started on youcaring.com.)

Debate over how young is too young

Similar anger was directed by many women and men I chatted with via e-mail toward the bystander who felt the child should not be alone in the park and decided to call the police.

"We, as parents, need to be more supportive and less accusatory," said Buzz Bishop, a father of two boys in Calgary, Alberta, who founded the blog Dad Camp. "A mom trying to do her best in tough circumstances was knocked a few pegs lower by a busybody."

On the other side are people like Terry Greenwald, a divorced father of three, who believes "no 9-year-old should be left alone in a park while (their) mom works."

"Today's world is a dangerous place for children, especially those who are unattended."

Lesa Lamback, who uses the park Debra Harrell's daughter was playing in, agrees, telling CNN affiliate WJBF, "You cannot just leave your child alone at a public place, especially. This day and time, you never know who's around. Good, bad, it's just not safe."

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How old does a child need to be before he or she can be left alone? That's a question many of us were asking ourselves after news of this story first broke.

If we look at the laws on the books, we won't come up with anything clear-cut. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, there is no legal minimum age at which a child can be left alone. However, if leaving a child alone puts him or her at risk, it is considered a crime.

Phillips, Debra Harrell's attorney, confirmed there is no age at which a child can be left on his or her own specified in South Carolina law. The challenge for the prosecutor will be to prove that this child's needs and care were not adequately arranged before she was left at the park, he said.

We left a message seeking comment from the prosecuting attorney in the case, but have not yet heard back.

"The longest seven minutes ever"

So what's a parent to do?

I remember growing up in a small tight-knit neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, and walking to the store myself in the first grade. I'm sure by the age of 9 I was going to the park with my friends. (Thankfully, my mom was never arrested!)

I'll admit I'm not sure I'll let my girls, ages 6 and 8, start doing things on their own as early as 9, but I'm hoping I'll have the courage to let go soon after, especially when they desire to do more and more by themselves.

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace, a mom of two, remembers going to the store by herself as young as the first grade.
CNN's Kelly Wallace, a mom of two, remembers going to the store by herself as young as the first grade.

Bishop let his 7-year-old son ride his bicycle around the block for the first time a couple of weeks ago and wrote a blog post about it, calling it "the longest seven minutes ever."

"He rode a half-mile out of my sight. I was terrified, but guess what? He did it. And he loved it," said Bishop. "We, as parents, need to get over ourselves."

Gina Rau, a mom of two in Portland, Oregon, said her son, who is now 10, will always remember the first time he walked the dog or rode his bicycle around the neighborhood "because he was filled with so much pride."

That said, she believes every child is unique and thinks parents need to determine what each child can do and at what age.

"My daughter may do things before or later than her older brother, simply because she's unique and may not be following the same readiness track as her brother," said Rau, who runs her own marketing and brand consulting business.

Dangers of helicopter parenting

Whenever I think about this topic -- how young is too young to let our kids fly free -- I think back to Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mom, speaker, author and television host who never expected the firestorm of outrage she encountered after she wrote a story in 2008 on why she let her 9-year-old son take the subway by himself.

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After being called the worst mother on the planet and countless other things that couldn't be printed here, she wrote a book, "Free Range Kids," which has since become a top parenting blog, about how helicopter parenting is holding our children back.

"If you think back to your own childhood and some event that made you feel like king of the world -- maybe you made a tree house, or started a neighborhood game of kickball, or even got lost and then found your way home again after some very scary moments -- chances are, you were not holding your mother's hand at that moment," said Skenazy, who is also host of the international show "World's Worst Mom" on Discovery/TLC.

"Time on our own as kids allows us to screw up but also to triumph. This lays the foundation for our own definition of ourselves. (I'm the kid who took the train downtown by myself at 11!)" she said. "To get those memories, parents have to trust their kids enough to let go."

Author and blogger Avital Norman Nathman, who wrote about her outrage over Harrell's arrest, also believes that parents who tend to "helicopter" are doing "a disservice" to their kids.

"Of course we need to protect our children, but part of that protection is making sure they have the knowledge and skills to handle things on their own," said Norman Nathman, editor of the motherhood anthology "The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality."

"We should be there to guide them and help them figure out how to navigate situations properly with the end goal being one of independence."

So watch this space in the next year or two. I'm sure I'll be freaking out when my daughter makes her first trip to the store by herself or her first ride sans parents on the subway or bus.

Knowing that flying solo will make her feel proud and better able to handle the challenges she'll ultimately have to face -- alone -- will hopefully get me through it. That and some advice Skenazy offered when I asked her what she tells parents who are afraid to let go.

"This saying helps a lot of people: 'All the worry in the world doesn't prevent death. It prevents life.' "

How young do you think is too young to leave a child on his or her own? Share your thoughts in the comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.

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