Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Kids outside/How closely should children be supervised/free range kids/the narrative of "bad African-American mothers" etc.

There is a terrible story out of South Carolina, where a woman, Debra Harrell, was jailed for "child abandonment" and her child has been taken away because she let her unsupervised 9-year-old child play in a local park while she was at work ("Daughter spends summer days in park, mother gets busted for it," Los Angeles Times).

The splash park at Summerfield Park in North Augusta, SC, where Debra Harrell's daughter spent her days.  Photographer unknown.

There are many things going on in this story, but the biggest is poverty and how the resources necessary to support people working--especially child care when they have children--are too often absent, especially during the summer, when school is not in session.

The story is that the mother was shifted to day work from the night shift and she couldn't afford childcare.  The girl spent some time sitting at the McDonalds during the day when the mother was at work, at home unsupervised--but while they were out the house was burglarized and the girl didn't feel safe there by herself, or at the local park, where many other kids played and there is a summer meal program.

There are many issues:

1.  What is the age at which children "can be unsupervised"?  The problem is that over the past 40 years, the societal expectation is that children should always be supervised, not left alone for more than two seconds.

See "How much independence should children have?" from the Independent. where the author of Paranoid Parenting argues the hysteria around absolute supervision of children at all times has reached epic proportions.

The CNN piece on the story features quotes making the point that Ms. Harrell had a plan in place for her daughter while at the park, that she was close to home and close to the McDonalds where she was working.

2.  How do societal expectations about child supervision fit the reality that in an increasing number of households, both parents work, or in single family households, the parent works, and the fact that impoverished households have limited formal and informal resources to pay and receive childcare, and that limitations increase during the summer, when school is out of session?

In DC for example, pre-K education is provided by the school system starting at age 3, but isn't provided in the summer.  However, the Office of State Superintendent of Schools provides a summer food service program, to provide meals to children who might be without, unlike when school is in session.

3.  The demonization of the poor, especially African-Americans.  In the Los Angeles Times, Noah Eckstein writes in "Debra Harrell and the mythology of bad black mothers" that:
After decades of debate among politicians, sociologists, clergy and countless others, it is a widely held belief among many Americans that poverty is rooted not principally in a lack of opportunity and a history of structural disadvantage, but rather in a collection of social “pathologies” ranging from laziness to an undisciplined, even dissolute lifestyle. The poor, you’ve been told time and again, are moochers, sapping resources from the public wealth as they collect check after check from the unsuspecting hard-working rest-of-us.

The solution, politicians explained, was welfare reform, which, as the law’s title plainly stated, sought to encourage “personal responsibility.” ...

Like all mythology, that of the criminally bad black mother spread through storytelling — lurid tales told with bitter resentment. Haven’t you heard the one about the jaywalking mother whose son was hit by a drunk driver? Surely you know all about the homeless mother who left her two children in the car during a job interview. And now there’s the McDonald’s mother who abandoned her daughter at the playground.

But what do these stories leave out? Our welfare system is designed to put everyone to work regardless of circumstance. Unfortunately, the low-wage jobs attainable for most mothers lead to a parental quagmire. Between low paychecks and inflexible work schedules, how is one to arrange for adequate child care? With no apparent options, the answer is often that they simply cannot.
4.  The value of children being outside, playing, versus being inside, often using some form of computer, and missing out on real life experiences.

When I was a young child, while my mother "was home" for the most part after school, we were left "on our own" to do whatever.  Mostly we didn't go to parks, but to various open spaces, without our parents being present.  This was when I was between the ages of maybe 7 to 9 years old, the same age as the girl in South Carolina.  But that was more than 40 years ago and expectations were different.

To my way of thinking, Debra Harrell was busting her butt to work and pay her way, but society has let her down, and is compounding this failure to help by initiating the criminal justice complaint.

A crowdfunding donation program has been set up to help Ms. Harrell pay for a lawyer.

-- Support Debra Harrell, Help a Neighbor -

And the poor, who have limited extranormal resources to begin with, tend to be totally screwed when a problem happens, because it typically cascades.  For example, McDonalds has fired Debra Harrell ("McDonald's Fires Mom Who Was Arrested For Leaving Her Child," Business Insider).

A couple decades ago I dated a woman who wanted to be a nurse, and I learned that at that time (I don't think they do it anymore), the Houston Medical Center ran a 24 hour day care center operation for employees, so that people working the night shift would have access to reliable child care.  Having such a system in place to support people in need, people who are working to better themselves, certainly makes sense to me.

That's where we need to be focusing out attention, not in imprisoning people like Debra Harrell or Shanesa Taylor ("Prosecutors get it right on Shanesha Taylor," Arizona Republic" ).

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At 12:04 PM, Blogger Mari said...

To answer your first question it varies by state, in Maryland the age is 8. See for more state by state info. I did not see anything for the District of Columbia. recommends 12, which I think is too old.

Question #2- Takes a village blah, blah, blah. Informal, in the case of relatives or community connections are cheaper but harder to find and depend heavily on good relations. You can't get grandma to watch the kids if you've had a falling out with her. Childcare is difficult & challenging for 2 parent households with good jobs, so there is enough pain to go around.
3. The problem with the myth of bad black mothers is there are plenty living breathing examples of bad black mothers running around DC cursing LOUDLY at their children.
Question 4- Fear keeps children locked inside. It keeps middle class kids locked up and the poor alike. Not just parental fear but community fear. Yes, when I was a kid in the 70s, I was free to walk about the neighborhood (did not cross 4 lane roads bounding where I lived) at least by the age of 5 when I & others had to walk to my segregated black neighborhood school. Also my parents knew a majority of our neighbors (many were relatives) and our neighborhood was occupied most hours of the day with retirees, SAHMs, the unemployed, etc.

Society did not let Ms.Harrell down by not providing child care, it let her down by imposing unreasonable expectations and arresting her.

At 12:22 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Re: Society did not let Ms.Harrell down by not providing child care, it let her down by imposing unreasonable expectations and arresting her.

I wish I would have said it that way.

2. But as more and more households become nuclear and neighborhoods are no longer places where lots of people know each other, those kinds of informal relationships are much harder to develop.

So I guess when I wrote "systems for supporting people in need" I still haven't figured out how best to say it, but the point is about providing the supports to help people help themselves.

In stressed communities it's hard for people to do this without help.

... even things like setting up a babysitting/child care co-op.

But the example I like to use is immunizations so kids can go to school. Lots of people don't manage to have this done over the summer. Then the school system says "do this by x date, or your kid can't go to school."

Why not just set up a day--before school opens--with a nurse who can give shots?

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

2. I also wrote a blog entry in response to a GGW post about soccer playing, pick up vs. people who sign up in leagues, and how the parks dept. should step up and schedule time for the unplanned, that those people's interests need to be represented as well.

At 11:51 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Mari's words are very wise.

While our welfare system may be designed to put you to work, our disability system -- which is now larger -- is designed to keep you out of work.


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