Skip to main content

Does leaving kids alone make parents 'criminals'?

By Mark O'Mara
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark O'Mara: In March, homeless mom arrested after leaving kids in car during job interview
  • Arrest drew outrage -- one among many recently in which parents left kids while at work
  • He says poverty being criminalized and neighbors used to help but now just call police
  • O'Mara says his mom let him play unattended as kid in New York but today she'd be arrested

Editor's note: Mark O'Mara is a CNN legal analyst and a criminal defense attorney. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- In March, single mother Shanesha Taylor, destitute and effectively homeless, was arrested on charges of leaving her children in her car during a 40-minute job interview. The children were unharmed, but Taylor then faced two counts of third-degree felony child abuse -- charges that sparked outrage across the country.

It sparked outrage with me as well, and I've worked with Taylor's attorney to help handle the media attention surrounding the case. My involvement in the story opened my eyes to a number of cases where parents have been arrested for behavior that, just a generation ago, may have raised eyebrows but would certainly not have risen to the level of criminal charges.

For example: In a split decision this month, an appellate court in Florida upheld the conviction of Jovita Ibeagwa, who served a year in jail for two counts of aggravated manslaughter of a child following the drowning deaths of her children, aged 6 and 3. Ibeagwa left her children unsupervised while she went to work at her second-shift job. During that time, her children tragically drowned in a neighbor's pool.

Mark O\'Mara
Mark O'Mara

Debra Harrell, a South Carolina mother, found herself under arrest this month when a bystander discovered her 9-year-old daughter playing in the park alone. Harrell had been allowing the girl to play there while she worked at a McDonald's a mile and a half away.

Here are some more recent examples:

In North Carolina, a mother was arrested after leaving her 5- and 11-year-olds alone for 2½ hours.

A Connecticut mother was arrested when her 7-year-old, who wasn't wearing a helmet, suffered head injuries after falling off his scooter.

In Pennsylvania, a mother died in jail while serving a 48-hour sentence after she couldn't pay fines incurred for the truancy of some of her seven children.

In Ohio, a father was arrested when his 8-year-old gave the church bus the slip and played with neighborhood friends instead of going to youth group.

Mom accused of leaving child in park
Homeless mom arrested after interview
A mother's 'desperate' choice

And then just this week, a mother in Florida was arrested after allowing her 7-year-old to walk half a mile to a neighborhood park. The boy even had a cell phone to call home if he got into trouble.

What's going on here?

From one perspective, we're criminalizing poverty. Some of the parents I mentioned above clearly acted out of economic necessity. In our post-recession economy, good jobs are hard to come by and child care is expensive. For low-wage earners, child care costs can easily eclipse earning potential.

In Taylor's case, she had previously been offered a full-time job, but child care costs would have left her with less income than she was able to earn by picking up a few hours here and there.

A news report in the Harrell case quoted another parent who said, "I understand the mom may have been in a difficult situation, not having someone to watch the child, but at the same time, you've got to find somebody." It sounds as though she is suggesting that having some unqualified person to stay home alone with the daughter would somehow be better than letting her play in the park, surrounded by other children and parents.

I'm not a parent, but I am a board-certified family law attorney, and I frequently deal with families facing difficult decisions. The truth is that too many parents are finding themselves having to make a desperate choice between providing for their children and caring for their children. Unless you've been put in that situation, I don't think you're entitled to judge.

I grew up in Queens in the '60s -- during a time when crime in New York was notoriously on the rise. My father was a battalion chief for the New York Fire Department, and he worked two other jobs to support our family. My mother worked hard to keep my two sisters, my two brothers (and me) in line. She was an amazing mother but didn't always succeed in keeping us out of hot water.

We were allowed to play unsupervised in our neighborhood, and sometimes we got in trouble. But my mother knew we were with other neighborhood kids. She knew other adults in our neighborhood kept tabs on us and would look out for us. She expected that if we got into real trouble, we'd encounter a police officer, and that officer would deliver us home -- and it did happen from time to time.

I'm concerned that in the average neighborhood today -- where the crime rate is far lower than it was in the 1960s -- adults are not looking out for neighborhood kids. Instead of helping a youngster who may be in trouble, they're calling the cops. And the police, instead of bringing children home, they're handing them over to child services and arresting the parents.

Last week, prosecutors offered Taylor a deal: After she completes a parenting plan, which includes six months of counseling, they will drop the felony charges. But Taylor now has to fight to regain custody of her children.

In South Carolina, Harrell has been reunited with her daughter but still faces criminal prosecution, and she lost her job as a result of the arrest. In Florida, Ibeagwa is out of jail now -- after suffering the double tragedy of losing her children and enduring incarceration for her role in the misfortune.

Elsewhere other children are being taken from their parents, and families are being torn apart.

I have to wonder if my mom, who I think was a wonderful mother, would face criminal charges if she were alive and raising children in today's world -- if she raised them the way she raised my brothers and sisters and me.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT