Ashley Richardson is a struggling mom of four kids, ranging from six years old to eight, who found herself behind bars this week after she let her children walk to a local park while she went to get food for her family at a nearby food bank. Richardson faces four counts of negligent child abuse without bodily harm.
The arrest in Winter Haven, Florida, comes about three weeks after a woman in Port St. Lucie, Florida, was arrested for allowing her seven-year-old son to walk to a park unaccompanied.
Typically, wait times at food banks can run over an hour. When Richardson, 28, returned to find her four children now under the supervision of a police officer, about two-and-a-half hours had passed. Richardson told police that the food bank wait took longer than usual.
The children made it to the park just fine, though the walk was about a mile-and-a-half, but after they had been playing there for a while, the eight year old boy got himself stuck in a playground swing that was designed for much younger children.
The officer had parked across the street to keep an eye on the children, who noticed her and waved her over to help the boy free himself from the swing — which the officer was unable to do. In the end, she summoned the Winter Haven Fire Department, who removed the whole swing and freed the boy.
Alarmed that the children were left unattended in the park, the officer called for assistance but at that time, the mom pulled up in her SUV.
At that point, the officer placed Ashley Richardson under arrest.
"Our officer had great concern for the safety of these children," Winter Haven Police Chief Gary Hester explained. "She gave ample opportunity for an adult to come forward. For anyone to think it is okay to allow small children to walk almost a half mile alone across a heavily-travelled road, not to mention left in unsafe conditions, is criminal and will not be ignored."
But not only do low-income moms often have difficulty finding affordable child care while they engage in such normal, family-supporting activities as work or obtaining food — with available subsidies for child care less available now than at any point since 2002 — the stigma against allowing children to do almost anything outside the home without an adult around represents a recent major shift in American attitudes toward kids.
Recent studies have shown that 80 percent of third-grade kids in 1971 walked to school alone. By 1990 that number was only nine percent, and may well be lower today.
Parents often blame the fear that children will be abducted as reason to prohibit them from walking alone. But in fact, the rate of child abductions by non-family members has not changed significantly since the 1970s.
Nonetheless, Winter Haven Chief Hester said that Ashley Richardson "doesn't look like she's mature enough to be a parent," and added that he hopes she "learned her lesson" by spending time in jail for letting her four kids play in the park while she went to get food.