Many have probably heard the story about Debra Harrell, the Georgia woman who left her 9-year-old child at a park while she went to work her shift at McDonald’s and ended up being arrested for “unlawful conduct towards a child.” Harrell’s daughter had previously accompanied her to work, as other day care options weren’t available. But after the laptop she’d let her daughter use while she worked was stolen, the bored daughter asked to be allowed to play at the park.
Giving her daughter a cellphone to call her if there was an emergency, Harrell dropped her off. After three days without incident, someone at the park who had noticed the unsupervised child contacted the authorities. They picked up and interviewed the daughter, after which the child was turned over to a child-welfare agency and Harrell was sent to jail.
What speaks to me most about this sad story is the fact that, apparently, rather than directly involving themselves by questioning the child, or befriending her, or trusting in her, one or more strangers simply decided to call the cops. That has also happened to my wife and me.
We live on the west side of Wichita. We have always let our daughters roam through the neighborhood and through the usually empty overflow gully from the Cowskin Creek across the street from us.
A year ago a policeman showed up at our front door and proceeded to chastise my wife for allowing our two youngest girls (then 9 and 7 years old) to play with two friends in the gully – inventing games, overturning rocks, generally being inquisitive children. Some anonymous resident had reported them.
What if they were kidnapped? What if a car jumped the bridge over the gully and crashed into them? Leaving four children to play by themselves out in the open was terribly irresponsible, or so the well-meaning police officer made clear.
This intrusion bothered us. My wife and I aren’t stupid; we know there are always bad elements everywhere, and we teach our children caution. But we also know that the paranoia about child-snatching has no real basis in fact. More important, we both remember being able to wander unattended around the countryside and suburbs in which we were raised as children, and we want that for our kids.
A week after my wife was lectured by the cop, a woman was out walking and saw a couple of girls playing on a small pedestrian bridge that crosses the gully. She saw me in our front yard, pointed down the street, asked me in those were my children. When I said they were, she told me she thought what they were doing looked dangerous. I thanked her for her interest, and walked down the street to check on our two youngest (who were fine, by the way), and remind them of our rules for playing safely around the footbridge.
That, I think, is the right way to do it.
We need state authorities, particularly when there are real concerns about abuse out there. But we need them not to overreach, and the only way that will happen is if we can set aside our fears long enough to exercise some “neighborhood authority.” That means taking the time to get to know and, thus, show some trust in one another – especially in regard to how we all try, as best we can, to raise our kids.