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Scapegoating the Poor

Earlier this month, 46-year-old Debra Harrell, a single mother, was arrested and jailed for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play at a park unsupervised while Harrell worked her shift at a nearby McDonalds. She was released from jail after posting bail, but her daughter remains in custody of South Carolina’s Department of Social Services. According to her attorney, Harrell faces a felony charge of “unlawful neglect of a child,” and up to 10 years in prison.

There’s clearly a major problem with this scenario — and it’s not that Harrell allowed her daughter to play at a popular park where she often goes with friends and receives free breakfast and lunch. It’s also not necessarily that a concerned adult called the police to report the unaccompanied child. The problem is when the authorities intervened, they did so with punishment rather than support — not just arresting her, detaining her in jail, and threatening her with a decade in prison, but also taking away her child. They blamed the mother as a criminally irresponsible parent and ignored the immediate cause of her situation: low wages, inflexible hours, and lack of affordable childcare.

According to the state’s DSS, “Child Protective and Preventive Services … are provided to strengthen families; to enable children to remain safe in the home; to temporarily remove from parental custody a child who is at imminent risk of harm” (emphasis added).

The idea that Harrell’s daughter is or was “at imminent risk of harm” is ludicrous. One woman interviewed on the news wondered, “What if a man would've come and snatched her?” The likelihood of such an abduction actually taking place is practically zero. According to a 2002 analysis by the Department of Justice, just 90 children aged 14 and younger were victims of a “stereotypical kidnapping” during the study year. That’s about one in a million — she’s about 15 times more likely to die while riding in a car on the way to the park than to be “snatched” while she’s there. Further, as a ward of DSS, her daughter is now at far greater risk of emotional and physical damage, as well as future involvement with the justice system, than she was playing in the park.

Regardless of whether the park was statistically safe, it seems like letting her child play there unsupervised was not Harrell’s top choice for childcare. But it does seem like it was her only choice. The police’s zealously punitive response is a heart-breaking example of our society’s over-reliance on incarceration and punishment in place of assistance and support. And, as others have written, it is unlikely Harrell would be facing these consequences if she was not African American.

Nothing in the news reports indicates that Harrell is a bad mother, nor a threat to public safety who needs to be locked up. But she does appear to have been in a difficult situation — one for which society needs to take some responsibility. Rather than relying on incarceration and punitive child welfare programs, we need to fund programs that support people in need and begin tackling the real problems of poverty-level wages, systemic racism, and a feeble social safety net.

Keywords: children of incarcerated parents, foster care, Lizzie Buchen, poverty

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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