Unsupervised Children: Independent or Against the Law?

By  | 

Our nation has adopted a new habit of charging parents with felonies for teaching their children independence. From Florida to South Carolina to Ohio to Tennessee, parents of elementary age children are being carted off to jail for allowing their children to play in parks by themselves. There is no federal legislation that designates what age is too young to leave children unsupervised. Most states merely adhere to the guideline that leaving a child unattended in imminent danger is a criminal offense. But it’s absolutely ludicrous to charge parents, who sometimes have no other options, with child abuse or maltreatment for merely allowing their children to experience the world on their own.

If this were the trend 10 years ago, both my parents would have landed themselves a nice cozy cot in our local jailhouse. And 50 years ago, their parents would have been sentenced to life. We all played by ourselves in local parks and pools, rode our bikes through the streets freely, and walked around town with our friends. No one thought this was strange or dangerous, it was simply the norm. But now parents must question when it is and is not appropriate to let their children play and roam independently, for fear of felony charges. Let’s look at a few of the recent cases.

In Florida, Nicole Gainey was arrested for allowing her 7-year-old son to walk to the park–cellphone in hand–to play by himself. She was charged with a felony for child neglect and arrested on a $3,750 bond. In South Carolina, Debra Harrell was charged with unlawful conduct toward a child because she let her 9-year-old daughter play at a park while she worked. The felony Harrell was charged with is punishable by up to 10 years in jail, and she lost her job at McDonalds after this incident. In Ohio, Jefferey Williamson was arrested for child endangerment after his 8-year-old son skipped church to take a solo walk to the dollar store half a mile away from his home. In Tennessee, April Lawson spent the night in jail for letting her 5-year-old and 8-year-old play at an elementary park a block and a half away from her home. Lawson now faces felony charges for child abuse and neglect.

Child Self-Care Trends

It’s important to understand the different situations that parents face. Some parents have to make the decision between putting food on the table for their children and letting them play in the park alone. Not everyone seems to understand the difficulties many low-income, single parents face in providing care for their children. Child care arrangements depend on each family’s unique circumstance. US News broke down a 2011 Census report on child care arrangement statistics:

In general, the percentage of school-age children in self-care has ticked down during the last 10 or so years, but when those numbers are broken down by a family’s marital status, employment and parental presence, that decline is less consistent.

There’s a misconception that children face more danger today than they did in the past. However, Mark O’Mara, a family law attorney, wrote that today’s crime rates are much lower than they were during his childhood in the ‘60s. Additionally, people’s reactions are much different today than they were back then. Instead of delivering the child safely home, bystanders are calling police and child services to have the parents arrested. This often has a more harmful effect on children than safely returning them to their families.

Impact of Parental Arrests on Children

Some families are probably better off letting their children play alone. Unless these children are in the heart of a dangerous city where it’s plausible that they will be abducted or harmed, busybodies should mind their own business. If they are not actually in harm’s way, why cause them pain and grief? Many people don’t realize the effect experiencing a parent’s arrest can have on a child. According to Family to Family California, parental arrest and separation from a parent are traumatic events for children.

Furthermore, separation can cause children to feel angry, rejected, or depressed. After separation from their parents, children may perform worse in school, experience developmental delays, and lack adequate social skills. The report goes on to explain the detrimental effects trauma has on children, including their increased likeliness to become substance abusers or end up in prison.

Time for Helicopter Parents to Fly Away

In all of the above cases, the children were not in any serious danger. They were only victims to busybody helicopter parents who lacked better things to do. In the case of Harrell, one by-standing mother made the following comments about Harrell’s situation:

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’s not always that simple. O’Mara pointed out that many parents in these situations cannot afford childcare, therefore we as a society are “criminalizing poverty.” The media isn’t helping the situation either. Cases from low-income neighborhoods that are thought to be less safe are emphasized in the media. This only furthers the public’s distrust of their fellow Americans, making parents hover.

I’m not saying parents should start letting their 5-year-olds roam the streets of New York City alone, but I think those helicopter parents need to relax a bit. Loosen up the reins. Helicopter parenting is not beneficial to anyone–the children often lack independence and have a harder time adjusting to life on their own and parents miss their individuality and freedom. Furthermore, when helicopter parents take this madness as far as imposing these ideals on other families, they only hurt those families. Parents get thrown in jail, children lose their homes and families become burdened with legal bills they probably can’t afford.

My parents’ generation roamed freely and played without 24/7 parental supervision, and they were able to survive and succeed. Helicopter parents, get the message: you’re not helping anyone, except for possibly your own ego.

Natasha Paulmeno (@natashapaulmeno)

Featured image courtesy of [Guian Bolisay via Flickr]

Natasha Paulmeno
Natasha Paulmeno is an aspiring PR professional studying at the University of Maryland. She is learning to speak Spanish fluently through travel, music, and school. In her spare time she enjoys Bachata music, playing with her dog, and exploring social media trends. Contact Natasha at



Send this to friend