The sad and scary story of what happened to Debra Harrell, 46, and her 9-year-old daughter (unnamed in news reports) has gone viral after the woman was chucked in jail because, oh, my God, is this really what we want to happen in a situation like this?
The arrest of Harrell and removal of her daughter to the care of state-funded strangers is sort of a generational divide, in ways, as everyone who was raised in the ’80s or earlier finds the story to be one of horrible bureaucracy gone wrong.
By all accounts, the story is a straightforward one. Oftentimes when social services is involved, it is not, and rarely are parents who come forward with tales of child welfare overreach even believed. As it happens, most cases are sealed to protect the children involved, and there is generally a large barrier between journalistic verification and the actual details of the case.
That is to say that if CPS or DYFS or whatever state agency handles child welfare is investigating, the agency is not permitted to disclose other case factors. Here, it appears, as an arrest was involved, the the factors are straightforward.
Harrell had to work during the summer while her 9-year-old girl was in school. As the mom is an employee of McDonald’s, it is probably safe to deduce that she is living at or below the poverty line, and affording rent is likely difficult — childcare notwithstanding.
It appears that in the absence of a caregiver or affordable summer camp, Harrell created a way to ensure her daughter would be happy and nearby while she toiled for minimum wage pay.
The girl would play at a park during her mom’s shifts, and walk over to the McDonald’s to eat lunch and play on a laptop — but their home was burglarized, and the laptop stolen. The arrangement worked, as the girl was able to play at the nearby playground and her mom was able to earn money and provide for them, laptop notwithstanding.
Until… someone noticed the horribly abusive scenario of a child spending the summer at the park, and interrogated the girl regarding her mother’s whereabouts.
And police were called. Harrell was arrested and jailed for the crime of trying to put food on the table and not be homeless, and charged with “unlawful conduct towards a child.”
The girl was also detained, removed to the custody of strangers. And, quite terrifyingly, the process of attempting to regain custody is itself prohibitive, not to mind the fact that Harrell is facing a conviction as well. She’s unable to attempt to get her daughter back, and even if the charges were dropped, she’d almost certainly lose her job at McDonald’s given the exhaustive number of court appearances involved in such a case.
Slate spoke to Dorothy Roberts, a professor who has written books about the vague and easily fallible laws of child protection — laws which vary from state to state, and which can be interpreted in nearly any way given their ambiguity:
“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.”
Also: the kid had a cell phone to call her mom should any issues arise.
It’s worth noting that the case involving Debra Haskell would not have garnered attention had Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids not written about it, and as of now, the case’s outcome remains unclear — however, without some intervention, it does not look like Harrell will get to see her daughter any time soon.