Police arrested Ashley Richardson, a mother in Winter Haven, Florida, on Tuesday after they found her four children playing alone in a park while she went to a local food bank.
An officer saw the children, who range in age from six to eight, playing in a park alone and said they waved her over when the eight-year-old got stuck in a toddler’s swing, which required assistance from fire rescue personnel to get him out. She also said they played near a road and in water along the lakefront.
When Richardson, 28, returned to the park, she was arrested. She told the officers that she had gone to a food bank and didn’t think it would take as long as it had. She’s now facing four counts of negligent child abuse without bodily harm.
While the situation for her children is far less than ideal, Police Chief Gary Hester had strong words for her. “I met some pretty mature 6, 7, 8-year-olds but you don’t leave them unattended,” he said. “I guess the question we should be asking is this 28-year-old mother, should she be left unattended. Doesn’t look like she’s mature enough to be a parent. She’s being supervised today in the county jail. Hopefully she learns her lesson.”
Child care is increasingly expensive, and mothers in the U.S. can’t get subsidized help for errands like going to a food bank. Day camps during the summer vacation are also usually out of reach financially. The time it takes to wait in line for a bag of food at a pantry varies greatly and can stretch as long as an hour or more.
Other low-income mothers have recently been penalized after facing similarly tough choices. Shanesha Taylor was homeless and her child care arrangement fell through when she had an interview for a job, so she left her children in the car and ended up arrested, although her charges are now likely to be dropped. Debra Harrell was arrested for letting her eight-year-old daughter play in a park alone while she worked at McDonalds after their laptop was stolen and there was nothing for her daughter to do at her work. Both mothers were doing what is expected of them (and required of them if they receive welfare benefits): get and hold a job to provide for their families, even in spite of the fact that help affording child care is at a decade low.
Other mothers have been arrested for letting their children out of their sights for short periods of time. Nicole Gainey of Port St. Lucie, Florida was “dumbfounded” to be arrested for letting her seven-year-old son walk to a park alone. Courtney B. Tabor was charged with leaving her three children in a car while she smoked a cigarette nearby.
These arrests may be coming after a cultural shift around when and how children are thought to be capable of being left alone. Slate conducted an unscientific online survey and found that in the 1940s, most children were allowed to walk a mile to five miles from home alone in second or third grade, but by the 1990s parents only allowed middle schoolers to do so. Similarly, children in the 1940s and 50s were allowed to go to a playground alone in second or third grade, but by the 90s they had to wait until fourth or fifth grade.
There can certainly be dangers to leaving children alone: they could hurt themselves, get heatstroke if left in a hot car, and many worry that children could be kidnapped if left alone. The risk of the latter is relatively rare, however, and children aren’t any more likely to be abducted by a stranger today than in the 70s.