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Mom accused of leaving child in park
01:45 - Source: WJBF

Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

Story highlights

Mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old at the park while she was at work

The arrest led to an online debate about how young is too young to leave kids alone

State laws don't set a minimum age at which a child can be left on his or her own

Helicopter parenting can get in the way of a child's growth, many parents say

CNN  — 

The case of a South Carolina mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park for hours while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s has sparked a robust debate online, first about whether this mother should ever have been arrested, and second about how young is too young to leave a child on his or her own.

Let’s start with the arrest, shall we.

Place me solidly in the outraged camp about the arrest of the North Augusta mother, Debra Harrell, who was charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

Harrell’s attorney, Robert Verner Phillips, said he took the case pro bono because it “struck a nerve” with him.

He said when Harrell worked, she would sometimes leave her daughter at a friend’s house, let her go with a group of friends to the park or take her to McDonald’s and let her play on a laptop inside the restaurant.

But, after the laptop was stolen from their home and Harrell’s daughter was “bored to death” being at McDonald’s with nothing to do, Harrell ended up taking her to the park on a few occasions – a park that was about a six-minute walk from their home and about a seven-minute drive from where Harrell worked, said Phillips.

“She could have gone home at any time. She has a key,” he said, adding that she also had a cell phone.

“It just was absurd to make this insinuation that she’s abandoned at the park.” Phillips noted the park was the site of a government-sponsored program where an adult would be on hand giving out free breakfasts and lunches from 9-10 a.m. ET and 12-1 p.m. ET every weekday.

“This is a very independent little child,” said the attorney, who believes there is a “very big public policy at stake” in this case.

“Because if this woman gets convicted, guess what? … From now on, do officers now have an obligation every time they see a 9½-year-old not in the presence of their parents, do the parents get arrested?”

“It truly is the classic slippery slope,” he added.

Many people across the country raised the question (which I wonder about, too) whether the same thing would have happened if a 9-year-old was left in a park for hours by a more privileged mom in an affluent neighborhood. Harrell is an African-American working mom living on minimum wage.

“The clear bias against a …. mother of color is so glaringly apparent,” said the children’s television host Miss Lori.

“The child in question had a responsible working mother, a cell phone, a plan and an obvious history of trustworthy and responsible behavior that made her mother comfortable enough to allow her to play on her own,” said the mom of three, who’s also a Babble.com blogger.

Taigi Smith, a full-time working mom of a toddler, said the time has come “to stop criminalizing poor women – black and white – for doing whatever it takes to provide for their children.”

“Wouldn’t it have been better to help this mom find reliable child care or a day camp instead of placing her daughter with social services?” Smith asked. (Harrell’s daughter, who was in the custody of South Carolina’s Department of Social Services, is back with her mom, who has been fired from McDonald’s, according to Phillips. Meanwhile, an online petition to raise money to help Harrell afford child care has been started on youcaring.com.)

Debate over how young is too young

Similar anger was directed by many women and men I chatted with via e-mail toward the bystander who felt the child should not be alone in the park and decided to call the police.

“We, as parents, need to be more supportive and less accusatory,” said Buzz Bishop, a father of two boys in Calgary, Alberta, who founded the blog Dad Camp. “A mom trying to do her best in tough circumstances was knocked a few pegs lower by a busybody.”

On the other side are people like Terry Greenwald, a divorced father of three, who believes “no 9-year-old should be left alone in a park while (their) mom works.”

“Today’s world is a dangerous place for children, especially those who are unattended.”

Lesa Lamback, who uses the park Debra Harrell