It Takes a Village to Raise a Child—Especially for the Working Poor


Early discussions of Debra Harrell, the South Carolina mother who was jailed for “abandoning” her 9-year-old daughter, tended to revolve around the idea that she should have found some form of child care while she was at work instead of sending her to a nearby park alone. What those discussions fail to mention is how limited child-care options are for low-income parents, especially those who are single like Harrell, or even for married parents when both adults have full-time jobs.

Child-care options are often expensive and in short supply in the best of circumstances.

While it’s a nice idea that parents will have family members or friends to rely on if they need help with child care, the sad reality is that for those with a local support system, their friends and family members are also likely to be working. What happens to those who don’t have friends and family as an option?

In Debra Harrell’s case, after her original plan of having her daughter sit at McDonald’s with her fell apart, because the laptop her daughter had been using was stolen, she opted to allow her daughter to play in a local park. Were Debra Harrell in the same socioeconomic status as many advocates of the free-range kids movement, it’s possible she would have been able to argue her daughter’s right to unsupervised play time as a developmental necessity. However, she is not a well-educated, married, upper-middle-class white mother. She found herself arrested for child neglect, separated from her child for 17 days, and at risk of further consequences ranging from potential job loss to jail time. Even though the Internet has raised over $40,000 for her to put toward legal fees or her daughter’s education, there is no question this small family was adversely affected by a decision that would have been lauded in other circumstances.

In the past, there were public programs geared toward latchkey kids, and a plethora of low-cost and free summer options at libraries, community centers, and parks. Unfortunately for Debra Harrell, many of those programs have closed, and the programs that have sprung up to replace them are not low-cost, much less free. In fact, child-care costs have skyrocketed over the last several years, while programs offering full-time care have fewer and fewer subsidized spots available. The YMCA child-care program in Harrell’s town—North Augusta, South Carolina—does not have a full-time summer day camp. It does have part-time, drop-off services that are $9 for members and $15 for non-members per day. Utilizing this type of service, Debra Harrell would have been paying $45 to $75 a week to cover 15 hours and still need to find options for the remaining 25 hours of her work schedule.

Other YMCA locations in the area (loosely defined as within 20 miles) do have weekly day camp offerings that start at $80 a week for members and $110 for non–members. One can certainly make the argument that Harrell could have sought out one of those programs, but then comes the question of whether she was making enough to afford $400 a month for child care. A generous estimate of what she was likely to be making would be $330 a week before taxes; that assumes a consistent 40 hours per week, and an hourly pay of $8.25, which is actually a full dollar per hour above South Carolina’s minimum wage.

With full-time child care coming in at a third of her gross pay, before factoring in gas costs and the time it would take to drive the additional miles to take her daughter to another facility before returning to her place of employment, Harrell’s decision to let her go to the park to play makes even more sense. That’s before you factor in the shifting work schedules common to food service positions, and the possibility that there wasn’t enough money in the South Carolina child-care subsidy budget for parents like Harrell to receive assistance—or that Harrell’s annual income was higher than the threshold to qualify for subsidized child care, but still too low for her to be able to pay for child care.

Summerfield Park, where Harrell’s daughter was spending time while Harrell was at work, is a popular location for parents to send their children in the summer. There is a program that provides free breakfast and lunch to kids in the park, a splash pad water feature to make the hottest days bearable, and—according to other park goers—a host of kids and adults to keep an eye out.

If you believe in the old adage about it taking a village to raise a child, it’s clear that Debra Harrell trusted in her village to help her with child care, in part because the state does not provide the kind of social safety nets that make it possible for her to turn to her local agencies for help.

From the outside, it is easy to pass judgment on parents like Debra Harrell, who—when faced with a paucity of options—make decisions that are based on not having any socially acceptable choices available. But as we talk about reproductive health, freedom, and justice, we have to talk about supporting parents. It cannot just be about the right to choose whether or not to be a parent; we also have to advocate for programs that make parenting possible for those who choose to do it, regardless of their income. The right to parent should not be reserved solely for those above certain income levels, or those with more traditional lives or work schedules.

Realistically, the person best suited to determine whether or not Harrell’s 9-year-old daughter was capable of being at the park unsupervised is Debra Harrell. There is no indication that her daughter, an honor student with excellent grades, was harmed at all by being at the park for a few hours alone. What was harmful was the trauma of being away from her mom for 17 days, and now living with the fear that it could happen again.

If we’re truly concerned about the welfare of children, shouldn’t we engage less in fear-mongering over whether or not a child’s parent knows where her kid can play, and offer more support for programs that make playing in the park accessible for all kids? Being a good neighbor—being part of that proverbial village—extends beyond not calling the police on a child in the park. It’s also more than keeping an eye out on all the kids at the playground. Being a good member of the village includes advocating for policies that may not have an impact on your life, but do have a positive impact on the lives of those less fortunate than you. It means expanding your definition of reproductive health and justice to the policies that affect kids after they’re born, and to supporting community features that make life as a parent feasible for everyone.

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  • dana becker

    The ideal solution is employer sponsored daycare. It will never happen.

    The arresting of these women though is way overboard and adversely affects her the rest of her life and jobs will be more difficult to get as well.

    She is being punished for being poor and being forced to spend money she does not have, 40 grand or not, she can’t afford this and people need to demand this overreach by the law be reigned in and more case by case considerations. This mother was working not giving blowjobs in some crack house. Arresting her was not right.

    • Arekushieru

      I agreed with you right up until the point you seemed to dismiss someone as nonhuman because of addictive personalities or the type of work they may do.

  • StealthGaytheist

    Antichoicers want to force poor women to have children they can’t afford. They seem to think the women will magically get the resources they need to feed, clothe, and otherwise care for the child. They’re not there to help and in fact they’re often there to hinder (cut SNAP, WIC, block Medicaid, etc). But they’re right there to wag their fingers when she fails.

    • BelligerentBruncher

      How about if you cannot afford a kid, making responsible decision that don’t get you pregnant in the first place? I know, I know you want free contraception. But, hey I know something that is free and is 100% effective. Do you know what it is?

      Act like an adult for once in your life.

      The problem with this mother is that she didn’t use the “it takes a village” concept. She didn’t leave her child with a family member. Or a friend. Or even with other children. She was dumped at the park by herself. A 9-year old. 1.5 miles from her mother. I don’t agree with the jail sentence, but this was dumb parenting.

      • fiona64

        How about if you just STFU for a change? One day, you will be out in RealityLand instead of high school … and you will learn that life is not as black-and-white as you think.

        This child is 9 years old; it’s a little late for your sophomoric contraception argument at this juncture. And just because no one in their right mind wants to have intercourse with *you,* doesn’t mean that other people have to be celibate to satisfy your whims.

      • ceallaigh

        You sound like you’ve never had to make this kind of choice in your life. How about shutting up and having a bit of empathy and realizing not everyone has your privileged life.

        • fiona64

          He’s an anti-choice MRA high school kid who thinks he’s a genius.

          • ceallaigh

            Hoo boy. What a clown with an inflated ego and delusional sense of self-importance. I do so love how he thinks he knows the lives of grown women (parents!) better than they themselves do. Must be so easy living in his world.

        • Alex Hunter

          It’s always the privileged who tell you to suck it up. They assume that people who struggle are alcoholics and gambling addicts, despite the existence of Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan.

      • Sara Lin Wilde

        Did you even read the article? Not every woman HAS family members or friends who are able to mind their children. Plus most family members and friends also need to be at work. She did not have access to other options.

        As for the idea that she should practice lifelong abstinence to avoid having a child is pretty offensive. Human sexuality is not a privilege of the wealthy; it’s part of every human life. And the idea that poor people who dare to have sex are failing to “act like an adult” is terribly judgmental and unfair, and reeks of privilege.

        • Rdzkz

          Yes, biology is more compelling than morality. Morality is an ideal, that we all strive for and no one reaches a 100% in all areas. For many, certain aspects of morality are a luxury.

      • Shan

        “How about if you cannot afford a kid, making responsible decision that don’t get you pregnant in the first place?”

        We’ve all heard “Too big to fail.” Here we have “Too poor to fuck.”

        • BelligerentBruncher

          Oh, so if you were struggling financially you willingly make choices that would make your financial situation worse.

          OK. That sounds super responsible.

          • Shan

            Again, do you realize that you’re saying that poor people shouldn’t fuck?

          • BelligerentBruncher

            No. They should be responsible. And that includes buying and correctly using contraception. It also includes knowing that contraception doesn’t always work and can result in more expensive consequences – like abortion or having a kid.

            And if they don’t like those options, then they can choose the free, 100% effective method. Abstinence.

          • Shan

            Again: You’re saying poor people shouldn’t fuck.

          • BelligerentBruncher

            Your reading comprehension is atrocious.

          • Shan

            Really? Tell me: who in your world is allowed to fuck.

          • BelligerentBruncher

            Anyone responsible enough to deal with the consequences. And that includes poor people.

            What, you don’t think poor people can be responsible?

          • Shan

            What is your definition of being responsible enough to fuck?

          • BelligerentBruncher

            Being able to deal with the consequences.

            I feel like I’m repeating myself. Are you not absorbing any of this?

          • Shan

            I don’t need to absorb anything. You are the one who still needs to explain who you think should be allowed to have sex. You’ve said blah blah “responsible” and blah blah “deal with the consequences” over and over but you haven’t defined what either of those things are.

          • BelligerentBruncher

            See my comment from 43 minutes ago. This isn’t hard.

          • Shan

            Link it or copy/paste it. The forum has a clock on the posts that keeps ticking.

          • BelligerentBruncher

            Scroll up.

          • Shan

            Yeah, still the same thing. Teh poorz don’t deserve to fuck.

          • BelligerentBruncher

            I give up. You win.

          • Shan

            Jeez, you were SO close.

            Maybe next time.

          • Shan

            Here’s an easier question: Do you think abortion should be illegal?

          • Alex Hunter

            This is the 21st century. Everything we’ve made so far is designed to avoid consequence. And don’t tell me that the poor are less responsible. I’ve seen what the wealthy spend their money on.

          • catseye

            He’s in a snit (a la Elliott Rodgers) because no woman will touch HIM with a 10-foot pole.

          • Arekushieru

            Nope, that’s EXACTLY what you’re saying. Since the only reason you deem that they aren’t fit to be parents is because they aren’t wealthy enough to survive without financial support. If a person who reads your comments has atrocious reading comprehension what does that say about YOURS when it comes to reading your OWN? That it’s six feet underground? AW.

          • Shan

            Just about everything people like BB say about birth control, abortion and reproduction comes from the same place: the attitude that only a few select types deserve to have pleasure in life. Our culture sets the “have nots” up for failure should they be insolent enough to expect any, then labels them “irresponsible” if they break the rules by getting some, all so that they can be blamed for their own downfall. Because the “haves” need to rest comfortably in the assumption that they’re the just and deserving ones in the world.

          • basiorana

            If you are living with your romantic partner– which is, of course, the
            most economical option, and will save you more money than roommates or
            other family since you can share a much smaller space, share food, an
            dprovide mutual financial support– abstinence is about 50% effective at
            preventing pregnancy.

            As in, 50% of the time, this choice will
            result in pregnancy. For comparison, doing nothing results in pregnancy
            85% of the time. If you DON’T live with your partner it’s 70-80%
            effective.

            If you assume you never drink or get intoxicated or
            are suffering from little sleep, you might get that down to 30%. Because
            guess what, human nature will override high-minded ideals and human
            nature really, really wants you to have a lot of kids.

            The most
            economical solution for all is to provide free birth control and
            encourage monogamous adults in committed partnerships without kids for
            those not able to afford it.

      • Arekushieru

        So, only the POOR have to be responsible in the way YOU see fit? Perhaps if the WEALTHY (meaning your idols, obviously, the oh-so-not-poor ReTHUGlicans) hadn’t cut funding for WIC, black Medicaid, Snap and Tanf social programs, poor women wouldn’t be in a situation like this in the FIRST place. But, oh, no, it’s only the responsibility of the POOR to make up the shortfall that the WEALTHY imposed on them. And if they impose ‘hardship’ on the wealthy well they must take responsibility for THAT, as well. And you wonder why I call you a classist, misogynist, ASS?

      • lady_black

        What you are calling “dumb parenting” was the general rule when I was growing up. Yes, my kids also played at a park a mile away at that age, and we didn’t even have cell phones yet. They walked both ways. And I insisted that they get out from underfoot on a daily basis and get out to enjoy doing what children are supposed to be doing. Sue me.

      • Rdzkz

        You are right about the mom needing to be there or officially have some one responsible watching over her child, at least in phone contact. But you are off on the contracepti9on and wonder how many times you have walked away?

  • Jake Harban

    And to think, just 20 short years ago (when the crime rate was at its peak) I was allowed to go to Coney Island by myself after school and no one suggested arresting my parents for it.

    That said, I can’t agree with the claim that people have a “right” to reproduce regardless of whether they can afford it. Reproducing is a very expensive hobby— if the government will subsidize THAT, they should be subsidizing my hobbies too.

    • Shan

      “That said, I can’t agree with the claim that people have a “right” to
      reproduce regardless of whether they can afford it. Reproducing is a
      very expensive hobby— if the government will subsidize THAT, they should
      be subsidizing my hobbies too.”

      So should the government increase subsidies for birth control and abortion or should poor people just be required to stop having sex?

      • P. McCoy

        With butcher, if you abort you’re irresponsible and a murderer-if you have a child and are too poor to afford daycare or unlucky and have no relatives to help you you’re an irresponsible parent. So yeah, you don’t have a right to boink but if poor non Whites didn’t exist who would be fodder for the prison industry-idiots like Justin Beaver?

    • J.D.

      And you did that back in the Dark Ages before there was a cell phone with 911 on speed dial in every little hand too. ::clutches pearls::

  • J.D.

    “the person best suited to determine whether or not Harrell’s 9-year-old daughter was capable of being at the park unsupervised is Debra Harrell. There is no indication that her daughter, an honor student with excellent grades, was harmed at all by being at the park for a few hours alone. What was harmful was the trauma of being away from her mom for 17 days, and now living with the fear that it could happen again.”

    THIS. A THOUSAND TIMES THIS! FREE-RANGE DOES NOT EQUAL ABANDONED.

    When I was not much older than this woman’s child, my mother, who worked a government job in an outstation building in a city park, used to drop me in the play area of the park (not within sight line of her building) where I could amuse myself until the library adjacent to the park opened, and then I would go to the library and read until noon. I would then meet up with my mother for lunch, then go back to either the playground or the library or the local toystore until 5:00 PM when we’d head home (over an hour’s drive away.) I’m sure the librarians knew I was coming and going every day. The huge stack of books I checked out had to be a clue. The staff at the chi-chi toy store down the block would have known too, since I browsed almost daily after lunch. But nobody ever glanced at me twice, nor approached me, nor threatened my mother that she was somehow ‘neglecting me’. Actually, that summer of freedom and independence is a very fond memory for me. I got to do things I loved, read and play and spend time with my mother mid-day, despite her job, all summer long.

    But that was in the 80s and my mother was a college-educated, well-married white woman with stable employment who had white child and this was taking place in a wealthy white community. I guess it’s easier for the state to try and intimidate/prosecute a poor single parent of color with a minimum wage job and no back-up system.

    • Shan

      Exactly. I was a free-range kid myself and never once felt abandoned or neglected. When I was the same age as Harrell’s daughter, I spent summers either swimming all day at the local pool, riding around on my bike, playing at the park or hanging around bookstores and the library. If anybody had thought to ask me where my parents were, I wouldn’t have had a clue. But nobody asked because I was a nice little Caucasian girl. It’s called white privilege, and Debra Harrell and her daughter obviously didn’t have any of that.

      • catseye

        So was I; either in _very_ small towns or out in the actual wilderness that was my backyard until we moved into town. I didn’t get along with the local brain-dead redneck brats, and I was happy as a (sorry) bear in the woods, and I learned a lot.
        I also was never harmed by a wild animal or a rattlesnake.

    • lady_black

      When I was a kid, we ALL played at the park during the summer. All day long. No parental supervision. There was a shallow pool filled with fresh water (and children) daily, and supervised by park staff. We had sliding boards, big and small swing sets, and a basketball and volleyball courts. I spent many happy days there with my friends. When my own kids were young I had them signed up for activities at the local park, and I was chasing them out the door to go play. Of course, there were no computers and x-boxes then either. I don’t know how all of a sudden it became OK for kids not to be kids, and need parents hovering over them day and night. I find this notion very sad. And now arresting women who let their kids be kids. What the hell is going on?

  • Forbidden Fruit

    I commend Harrell for working and supporting her daughter, but I don’t agree with the tone of this article. It does not take a village to raise a child. It’s no one’s responsibility but the parent(s). That’s why the decision to reproduce or not is so very important. If you don’t have the emotional, intellectual or financial means to give a child the best life possible, it’s selfish and irresponsible to have a child at all.

    Having a child should not be seen as an innate right, but a huge lifelong responsibility. It affects many other people besides the parent, including the innocent child and society as a whole. Income is important but not the most important factor. Wealthy people can be hideously abusive and neglectful too. (See: the Inman twins). This isn’t about eugenics or preventing the poor from having kids. It’s about responsible reproductive choices.

    What if the child had gotten sick? Or hurt? Or abducted? Or molested? Would the mom turn around and sue the city since it happened on their property? Sounds silly, but I’ve seen much more ridiculous lawsuits make it through the courts.

    • Arekushieru

      Um, you totally missed the point of the article, yet somehow you are still able to judge its tone? Weird. As several posters have already commented, the child is nine-years old, LONG past the time when any consideration of one’s current economic status has ANY relevance to your disingenuous complaint. Besides, you people really expose your ASSES when you expect poor people to pull themselves out of the ‘gutter’ so to speak without any sort of financial support, completely IGNORING the fact that no wealthy person has EVER come ACROSS or MAINTAINED theirs without some form of luck or outside assistance being available to them, then ASSuming that they cannot change their financial situation no matter WHAT they do. Which is a holdover from past prejudices that ALSO ASSume that the poor deserve to be poor. Yeah, you people are SO fucking contradictory.

    • lady_black

      My understanding is that the child had been at McDonalds while the mother works, using the Wi-Fi connection, but that her device had been stolen (or lost, who knows with kids). The child ASKED to go to the park instead. When I was growing up, that would have been a no-brainer. We didn’t have internet access devices (or an internet). OF COURSE we would have gone to the park. I sure hope you don’t raise your children terrified of all the harm that*might* befall them, because kids deserve a chance to be kids. Also, the child had a cell phone to contact mom in an emergency. We didn’t have THOSE either when I was growing up, and we still went to the park. All day, sometimes.

  • Suba gunawardana

    “The right to parent should not be reserved solely for those above certain income levels, or those with more traditional lives or work schedules.”

    Prenthood should not be a right but a privilege to be earned only by those willing to provide all resources a child needs for the next 18 years (or more if the child is disabled).

    Money alone doesn’t fulfill a child’s emotional needs, and love alone doesn’t fulfill their physical needs. They need BOTH, and the right of children to have all their basic needs met is far more important than the right of adults to breed.

  • Suba gunawardana

    Debra’s child was not harmed by her action. If they punished her for POTENTIAL harm that “might have” occurred from leaving her child in the park, then all CPCs & sidewalk counselors (basically the whole forced-birth movement) should be thrown in jail for promoting neglect/abuse of future children by forcing them to be born to situations where they are not wanted.

  • expect_resistance

    It does take a village to raise a child. Great article!

    This case illustrates the institutional racism and classism in our country. If Debra Harrell was a middle class white woman she probably would not have been arrested. At 9 or 10 years old I was a latchkey kid and took care of my little brother. My parents were never arrested for that but they were middle class white people.