Commentary Family

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child—Especially for the Working Poor

Mikki Kendall

Many discussions of Debra Harrell, the South Carolina mother who was jailed for "abandoning" her 9-year-old daughter at a park, fail to mention how limited child-care options are for low-income parents, especially those who are single.

Early discussions of Debra Harrell, the South Carolina mother who was jailed for “abandoning” her 9-year-old daughter, tended to revolve around the idea that she should have found some form of child care while she was at work instead of sending her to a nearby park alone. What those discussions fail to mention is how limited child-care options are for low-income parents, especially those who are single like Harrell, or even for married parents when both adults have full-time jobs.

Child-care options are often expensive and in short supply in the best of circumstances.

While it’s a nice idea that parents will have family members or friends to rely on if they need help with child care, the sad reality is that for those with a local support system, their friends and family members are also likely to be working. What happens to those who don’t have friends and family as an option?

In Debra Harrell’s case, after her original plan of having her daughter sit at McDonald’s with her fell apart, because the laptop her daughter had been using was stolen, she opted to allow her daughter to play in a local park. Were Debra Harrell in the same socioeconomic status as many advocates of the free-range kids movement, it’s possible she would have been able to argue her daughter’s right to unsupervised play time as a developmental necessity. However, she is not a well-educated, married, upper-middle-class white mother. She found herself arrested for child neglect, separated from her child for 17 days, and at risk of further consequences ranging from potential job loss to jail time. Even though the Internet has raised over $40,000 for her to put toward legal fees or her daughter’s education, there is no question this small family was adversely affected by a decision that would have been lauded in other circumstances.

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In the past, there were public programs geared toward latchkey kids, and a plethora of low-cost and free summer options at libraries, community centers, and parks. Unfortunately for Debra Harrell, many of those programs have closed, and the programs that have sprung up to replace them are not low-cost, much less free. In fact, child-care costs have skyrocketed over the last several years, while programs offering full-time care have fewer and fewer subsidized spots available. The YMCA child-care program in Harrell’s town—North Augusta, South Carolina—does not have a full-time summer day camp. It does have part-time, drop-off services that are $9 for members and $15 for non-members per day. Utilizing this type of service, Debra Harrell would have been paying $45 to $75 a week to cover 15 hours and still need to find options for the remaining 25 hours of her work schedule.

Other YMCA locations in the area (loosely defined as within 20 miles) do have weekly day camp offerings that start at $80 a week for members and $110 for non–members. One can certainly make the argument that Harrell could have sought out one of those programs, but then comes the question of whether she was making enough to afford $400 a month for child care. A generous estimate of what she was likely to be making would be $330 a week before taxes; that assumes a consistent 40 hours per week, and an hourly pay of $8.25, which is actually a full dollar per hour above South Carolina’s minimum wage.

With full-time child care coming in at a third of her gross pay, before factoring in gas costs and the time it would take to drive the additional miles to take her daughter to another facility before returning to her place of employment, Harrell’s decision to let her go to the park to play makes even more sense. That’s before you factor in the shifting work schedules common to food service positions, and the possibility that there wasn’t enough money in the South Carolina child-care subsidy budget for parents like Harrell to receive assistance—or that Harrell’s annual income was higher than the threshold to qualify for subsidized child care, but still too low for her to be able to pay for child care.

Summerfield Park, where Harrell’s daughter was spending time while Harrell was at work, is a popular location for parents to send their children in the summer. There is a program that provides free breakfast and lunch to kids in the park, a splash pad water feature to make the hottest days bearable, and—according to other park goers—a host of kids and adults to keep an eye out.

If you believe in the old adage about it taking a village to raise a child, it’s clear that Debra Harrell trusted in her village to help her with child care, in part because the state does not provide the kind of social safety nets that make it possible for her to turn to her local agencies for help.

From the outside, it is easy to pass judgment on parents like Debra Harrell, who—when faced with a paucity of options—make decisions that are based on not having any socially acceptable choices available. But as we talk about reproductive health, freedom, and justice, we have to talk about supporting parents. It cannot just be about the right to choose whether or not to be a parent; we also have to advocate for programs that make parenting possible for those who choose to do it, regardless of their income. The right to parent should not be reserved solely for those above certain income levels, or those with more traditional lives or work schedules.

Realistically, the person best suited to determine whether or not Harrell’s 9-year-old daughter was capable of being at the park unsupervised is Debra Harrell. There is no indication that her daughter, an honor student with excellent grades, was harmed at all by being at the park for a few hours alone. What was harmful was the trauma of being away from her mom for 17 days, and now living with the fear that it could happen again.

If we’re truly concerned about the welfare of children, shouldn’t we engage less in fear-mongering over whether or not a child’s parent knows where her kid can play, and offer more support for programs that make playing in the park accessible for all kids? Being a good neighbor—being part of that proverbial village—extends beyond not calling the police on a child in the park. It’s also more than keeping an eye out on all the kids at the playground. Being a good member of the village includes advocating for policies that may not have an impact on your life, but do have a positive impact on the lives of those less fortunate than you. It means expanding your definition of reproductive health and justice to the policies that affect kids after they’re born, and to supporting community features that make life as a parent feasible for everyone.

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