In defense of a ‘Bad Mother’: Debra Harrell’s village fails her

    It takes a village to shame a mother.

    That’s what happened this month in South Carolina, where 46-year-old Debra Harrell was charged with unlawful conduct toward her child, a felony that carries up to 10 years in jail.

    Harrell’s crime? Perhaps you’re picturing a mother withholding food as punishment or wielding the blunt end of a spatula over her daughter’s bottom … or worse. But you would be wrong.

    Harrell was arrested because she let her 9-year-old daughter play in a public park while she, Harrell, worked as a shift supervisor at a nearby McDonald’s.

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    Harrell used to bring her daughter to work and let her doodle around on a laptop inside the restaurant (McDonald’s has free wi-fi). But the family’s home was burglarized in June; thieves swiped the laptop, along with the television set.

    So, rather than let her daughter idle all day in fast food purgatory with a Quarter Pounder and a McCafé Strawberry Shake by her side, or sit alone in a recently ransacked house, Harrell opted for a solution that must have struck her as healthy and safe: Harrell gave her daughter a cell phone and a house key and took her to a park about a six-minute walk from their home.

    It was Summerfield Park, to be exact, a well-used oasis of North Augusta, a city of 22,000 on the north bank of the Savannah River. The park has a spray ground, a basketball court, a kid play area, restrooms, a jogging path and a free breakfast and lunch program on summer weekdays. Not to mention fresh air, other children and a smattering of adults — parents, babysitters, child-care workers — keeping an unofficial watch.

    But from the outraged reaction of the woman who ratted on Harrell — and her subsequent arrest by North Augusta’s Department of Public Safety — you’d think the mom had dropped her kid off at the nearest crack den.

    A passer-by saw Harrell’s daughter playing in the park in the morning and afternoon of Monday, June 30. When she asked the girl where her mother was, she answered truthfully: “At work.” Harrell was charged and jailed (she was out a day later on $5,000 bond), and her daughter spent 18 days in a group home, courtesy of South Carolina’s Department of Social Services.

    Meanwhile, Harrell was excoriated as a Bad Mother heedless of her child’s well-being and naïve about the dangers of 21st-century life.

    This story is about the safety net flipped inside-out — the frayed result of a society that pays lip service to “family values” but refuses to ante up for the supports that families need: affordable, accessible, high-quality child care; public schools that equip graduates to do meaningful and sustaining work; and a living wage.

    It’s about a culture that preaches a fable of self-reliance and then slams a mother for cobbling together her own less-than-perfect child-care plan with no help from the government, relatives or neighbors.

    It’s about the way we exaggerate the risks facing children, despite the actual numbers: Violent crime has dipped to a 40-year low; a child is far more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a stranger who kidnaps her. “You cannot just leave your child alone at a public place,” scolded a woman interviewed by a North Augusta TV crew. “Especially this day and time. You never know who’s around — good, bad. It’s just not safe!”

    Statistically, Harrell’s daughter was safer in that park than I was, in the mid-1970s, when my parents would drop me and a 12-year-old friend at the Atlantic City boardwalk — at night, mind you — with $10 in our pockets. Happily untethered from adult watchfulness, we rode the rattly carts of the Haunted House at Million Dollar Pier, ate too much frozen custard and bought monogrammed shlock in boardwalk gift shops until it was time to meet my parents at Arkansas Avenue at 10 p.m. Kids’ safety — then and now — is largely a matter of perception.

    Finally, and most shamefully, the Debra Harrell story is about a knee-jerk reaction to parents — especially to the actions of an African-American single mother — that dishes up blame rather than empathy, punishment instead of support.

    The initial coverage of Harrell’s arrest just bolstered the Bad Mom stereotype; there was a mug shot of Harrell in her jailbird-orange jumpsuit, looking the way I would look if someone had just whisked my kid away and popped me behind bars — sullen and defiant, chin clenched and lips tight.

    There are other pictures of Harrell, easily available online. In those she wears a smile and her sky-blue McDonald’s uniform blouse, hair braided and swept to one side. She doesn’t look criminal. She looks like someone who might say, “And would you like fries with that?”

    There’s a sort-of silver glimmer to this mean cloud of a story. Clair Ryan is a 31-year-old grant manager for a regional environmental non-profit in Nashua, New Hampshire, several worlds away from Harrell. Ryan has no children. But when she read about Harrell’s plight, something about the story poked her conscience. Though she’d never done anything of the kind, she launched a crowd-funding campaign on, hoping to raise $10,000 for Harrell’s legal expenses.

    Turns out a lot of people felt the way Ryan did; to date, the site has raised more than $40,000, with donations coming from as far away as the United Kingdom and South America. And since Harrell’s lawyer took the case pro bono, Ryan hopes the money will help Harrell to replace stolen household items and perhaps even start a college fund for her daughter. She’s spoken to Harrell three times by phone and reports that she is “overwhelmed with gratitude. She said she wants to give every donor a hug.”

    So, okay, a happy ending to a sorrowful American tale?

    Not quite. Harrell still has to face her day in court. Both mother and daughter must cope with the trauma of being forcibly separated for more than two weeks.

    And what about all the other Harrells — women and men struggling to be decent parents and wage-earning citizens without an Internet fairy godmother in their corners? Better not look to that proverbial village, the one that’s supposed to help raise each child. Because the villagers are too busy shaking a finger to offer a helping hand.


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