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What's Behind the Arrests of Mothers for Leaving Their Children Unattended?

By Tierney Sneed
Mothers arrested in Florida and South Carolina in recent weeks are the latest in an ongoing trend of parents seeing legal punishment for letting their children play or travel in public unsupervised. The former was charged with child neglect by local authorities for letting her 7-year-old son walk to a park half a mile from their home by himself (the mother later told WPTV that a Florida Department of Children and Families official informed her the charges would likely be dropped). In South Carolina, the woman - a single mom who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park unattended while she worked her shift at McDonald's - served 17 days in jail and, if convicted of felony child neglect, could face 10 years in prison.

Both cases sparked debates on mommy blogs as well as daytime TV shows, but many agree there has been a generational shift in terms of what children are allowed to do by themselves. As the Florida mom put it to WPTV, "My own bondsman said, 'My parents would have been in jail every day.'"

According to Kristin Smith, a family demographer at University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy, the issue of parents leaving their children alone is nothing new.

"What may be new is that they're arrested - that was kind of a new thing for me is that the mothers are being arrested," she says.

It's likely no coincidence that both incidences arose when school was out, but previous arrests in Ohio and Arizona prove the issue is not limited to summertime. Smith says there is little research on how the rate of self-care - the term for children being left unsupervised - differs during the summer.

A 2011 Census report finds that 2 percent of children 5 to 8 years old, 8 percent of 9- to 11-year-olds and 27 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds are left in self-care. 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.

A study conducted by Smith and co-author Lynne Casper in 2004 showed that a number of factors came into play when parents decide to let their children care for themselves, including the availability of the parents to take care of them, the age and maturity level of the child, and the context of the neighborhood where they are being left.

"The media picks up on the kids who are in the low-income neighborhoods or in the areas that seem less safe," Smith says. "Kids from more affluent neighbors are more likely to be in self-care."

A common reaction to these stories is that the world is a more dangerous place than it was generations ago when children were allowed to roam freely. However, as Lenore Skenazy, the author of "Free Range Kids," has argued in The Huffington Post and elsewhere, crime is at it lowest levels since World War II.

"There is a greater emphasis in the media on cases of lack of safety, of fear of the stranger taking my child," says Whitman College's Michelle Janning, when the United States is compared to other countries. She has taught a course on the differences in child-rearing in the United States and Scandinavian countries, where children are far more likely to be left alone. ( Remember that Danish mother who was arrested for leaving her 14-month-old in a stroller outside of a New York restaurant where she was eating?)

"Stranger danger is a serious issue, but there are media cases that are hyped up and make people more afraid," she says.

Janning cites a number of the different reasons why leaving children unsupervised in the United States is more taboo than it is in other places. In addition to a media environment more likely to highlight kidnappings and other risks of leaving children unattended, a number of studies have also shown that Americans exhibit a lower level of social trust - trust in their fellow Americans - than their counterparts not just in Scandinavia, but in other Western European countries, China, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. The United States is a more litigious society, meaning if something happens to a child, a lawsuit is far more likely. It is also more individualistic, as opposed to socialist-oriented countries where there are more government policies and programs geared toward child care.

"Parents here are left to fend for themselves," Janning says.

Then there are the laws themselves that have been used to punish parents for leaving children unattended. Dorothy Roberts, author of "Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare," points out that many state and local child neglect laws have been on the books for years, but are so vague and broad that they leave plenty of opportunity for racial, class and gender bias in implementing them.

"When you have this possibility of discretion, we know in this field in child welfare, it has always been biased against poor parents and parents of color in very profound ways," says Roberts, also a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In addition to the cases that made headlines, Roberts says that thousands of other children of minority and lower-income families have been placed in foster care when they were found to be left alone.

"Escalating punishment of poor and low-income mothers is really blaming them for the risks their children face instead of tackling the institutional and systemic failures in terms of taking of children," Roberts says.

The issue makes strange bedfellows of those decrying such harsh punishment of parents who leave their children unattended. Progressive thinkers argue these arrests make the case for more government child care programs, and small-government advocates, such as the libertarian think tank the Reason Foundation, oppose such arrests on the basis that they're an example of government overreach.

"Why not assist the mother who is struggling to take care of the daughter instead of calling the cops?" Roberts says.

Timothy E. Zerillo has been included in every edition of New England Super Lawyers since 2010, for his Super Lawyers page, go to http://www.superlawyers.com/maine/lawyer/Timothy-E-Zerillo/ab011be9-fc96-44e9-ad28-3956da48c1b4.html

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