The arrest of a South Carolina mom on charges that she left her 9-year-old daughter alone in the park while she went to work has sparked a furor over her decision and whether it was appropriate to arrest her for it. It’s far from the only instance of a parent doing something dangerous, even allegedly criminal, in order to go to work when there’s no childcare available. I wrote in December about a California woman who lost custody of her son—permanently—after leaving him alone in his crib one workday. And I am sure there are countless other parents facing similar dilemmas every day.
For women who need to work and don’t have reliable childcare, what are the options? Even Michelle Obama faced a similar dilemma in her past, recently making headlines for her recollections of bringing young Sasha along on a job interview.
That South Carolina mom, Deba Harrell, faced a no-win choice, as my colleague Lisa Milbrand wrote: “to let her daughter play in a park alone, leave her at home, or bring her to work, where she was forced to hang out for hours in McDonald’s with little to engage her. Debra picked the park.” Home seemed more dangerous and would also likely have led to Harrell's arrest, while having a child at work all day seems like a recipe for getting fired for needing to care for her while on the job (and hardly seems like a healthy environment for a child).
A lot of the discussion about Harrell’s case has focused on how protective and hovering parents should be, and whether we as a society have gone too far in “criminalizing” parenthood, as Radley Balko of the Washington Post put it.
But as essential as that debate is, there is another, related issue that these cases raise, and that is the question of affordable childcare. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat begins to address this in his latest column, questioning a “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.” He concludes that “we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.”
But Douthat stops short of taking his argument to its natural conclusion. Affordable, reliable, and safe childcare is a necessary component of a functioning society, especially one that expects—requires, even—parents to work. And so we need to figure out a way to guarantee it to all working parents. In Europe, "all European countries offer government subsidies and regulation support to early childhood care," according to the European Union's website. "These measures include tax breaks, vouchers, subsidies paid to parents or to the care provider; and in several European countries, capping of childcare costs relative to household income, or by obliging employers to support childcare costs (for instance in the Netherlands)."
I don’t know what form this sort of policy should take here in the United States, but whether it’s tax breaks or subsidies or publicly funded day-care centers or something else entirely, without addressing this problem, we will see many more Debra Harrells.
I also don’t want to let the absent dads off the hook. While moms like Harrell are arrested and may lose custody of their children, nothing is asked of the dads. Granted, many are not in the picture at all; but where they are or can be found, I don’t know why they are not required to be part of the solution, financial or otherwise, or why they don't share the blame for alleged neglect and other decisions.
Our public policy must recognize the realities of today’s families, especially the huge number of single parents (and the correlation between single parenthood and poverty). In addition, many families today lack the extensive familial and social networks that may have, in the past, provided (free) childcare so mom and/or dad could work. This is not just a problem for the very poor. There is nothing optional about working for most people trying to support their kids, and childcare could easily be beyond a single parent's means. As parents, most of us have said things to our kids like, “I don’t have eyes in the back of my head,” or, “I can’t be in two places at once.” For the single moms who must be at work in order to feed their families but have no one else to supervise their children, these are not flippant throw-away lines; they are realities that we as a society must help fix.
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