Police Worry Girl In Park Might Get Kidnapped, Do It Themselves, Arrest Mother

The above headline might sound sensationalist. There’s a few other less alarming versions out there. Possibly due to recent world events rightfully dominating the news, this story didn’t garner nearly the exposure it should have when breaking weeks ago. Here’s the bare facts from Reason.com:

Debra Harrell works at McDonald’s in Augusta, South Carolina. For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald’s has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead. Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone [and a house key]. The girl went to the park – a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking – two days in a row. There were swings, a “splash pad,” and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied. The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl “abandoned” and proceeded to arrest the mother.

Augusta police took away Debra’s 9 year old daughter from the park, and instead of locating other relatives, placed the girl in the custody of the Department of Social Services, where she remains to this day.

First let’s think about the ‘crime’ Debra was arrested for. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with kids playing in parks. Unsupervised?  At the age of 9, I think most of us possessed the faculties to navigate a merry-go-round or swing set on our own. Just a generation or two ago the idea of kids going off on their own to play was normal. Now, a culture of fear perpetuated via marketing and media has us imagining a lone child as the stuff of nightmares. And it’s utterly illogical.

Again from Reason: “These fears pop into our brains so easily, they seem almost real. But they’re not. Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.

Can the do-gooder who called cops be entirely faulted? Probably not. The culture of fear wields powerful social strength. All across this country, the distance children are allowed to travel on their own has been crippled, partly from neighborhoods bisected and mutilated by urban highways truthfully making streets more dangerous – but also by fear of the what-if‘ propaganda targeting schools in the 1950’s and 60’s, often produced by the police themselves.

The problem isn’t entirely unique to the United States, as the graphic below above illustrates. In just a few generations, the space kids are allowed to walk has diminished by vast orders of magnitude. And as psychologist Peter Grey explains, the long-term harm to children who grow without the space – or the time – to play in is only just beginning to be completely understood. Burdened with these deficits, they may never fully mature.


Ask most urbanists about the phenomenon of children suffering diminished lives due the confining dangers of automobile infrastructure, and they’ll likely offer the solution needed is ‘more urban density’, that is, consolidating the places where we live, living closer together, in livable, walkable, vibrant, green-space abundant….you get the picture.

Sounds like a great idea – unless you’re a single black mother making minimum wage who can’t afford day care while her daughter is out of school for the summer. For working class people of color, there’s little room in these expensive New Urbanist utopias – what with their soaring housing costs and white-dominated social circles. While white working classes are also being displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods, nobody is being forced out faster than people in black and Latino communities – they suffer the highest unemployment rates and wage disparities of all, especially among women of color.

Yet when one such person does try to take advantage of a civic amenity available to her family – a park for her daughter to play in while she’s at work, she’s charged with a serious crime and her daughter is made a ward of the state.

If the police were truly concerned about children being kidnapped in this area, perhaps they should focus on arresting kidnappers instead of mimicking them. Or even – God forbid!help Ms. Harrell source free child care.

In this instance, a tragic lack of understanding of childrens’ need for play freedom, our illogical paranoia of crime, overzealous law enforcement, and the crushing racial realities of life under capitalism all collided to rob a mother of her child.

Debra Harrell is currently going through legal hell fighting charges of ‘unlawful conduct towards a child’, a felony in South Carolina punishable by up to ten years in prison. Only after this months long battle is complete can she even begin the process of attempting to regain custody of her daughter, assuming she avoids incarceration.

While there has already been an outpouring of support, you can find out how you can help at Debra’s fundraising page HERE.


Thumbnail image courtesy Jeffrey Collins – Associated Press.


  1. Totally agree with the main thrust of this article. My quibble is with your criticism of density as a solution. There’s a large amount of pent-up demand for dense living, so whenever some is built it sells for a high price and becomes a white enclave. That only means we need more of it.

    Of course that’s no instant solution, or even short-term. It’s so long-term that by the time it works nobody will ever connect it with the original problems it was hoped to solve, or even remember them.

    1. When ‘density’ is presented as only a yes or no argument, it fails to be a solution. When it becomes only a solution for whites, it becomes part of the problem. Displacing the working classes to the suburbs is still sprawl, and still makes people more car dependent while increasing their carbon footprints.

  2. Hi – Just a quick correction: Ms. Harrell’s daughter, Regina, was returned to her care on July 18th while the charges are pending. Obviously, it is a tenuous situation as her ability to retain long-term custody will depend on the outcome of the trial. To me, it is telling that DSS was able to determine that there is no threat to Regina at home in less than three weeks following the arrest given the speed at which these agencies typically move. It makes the decision to take her away in the first place all the more questionable.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation and linking the fundraiser. I started the fundraiser, FYI.

    1. Thanks for the update, Clair. I tried to find the most recent status there of and the most recent I found was that she was still in custody.

Comments are closed.