What to Do When You See Unaccompanied Black Children in Public Spaces.

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Laura Browder/Source: Houston PD

This weekend, a black single mother was arrested for leaving her 6-year-old daughter and two-year-old son sitting unaccompanied at a table in the food court of  Memorial City Mall in Houston, TX. “My children weren’t even 30 yards away from me,” Laura Browder, a college student, wrote in a statement following her arrest. A potential employer scheduled a last-minute interview with her at the mall food court (the position itself was not located at the mall) and Browder was unable to secure childcare for her children in time for the meeting.

She decided to buy them a McDonald’s lunch and seat them within her view while she interviewed. An onlooker, seeing them unaccompanied, called police, claiming the children had been left alone and crying. When Browder went to retrieve her children, an officer approached her.

Browder has already appeared before a judge who ruled that she could maintain full custody of her children, but Child Protective Services is investigating the family. Local news affiliate KHOU says that CPS has also offered to help Browder, who is new to the Houston area, find suitable childcare for her children. 

Shanesha Taylor/Source: Fox 10
Shanesha Taylor/Source: Fox 10

The story has rekindled an old dialogue about community policing (and, in some cases, over-policing) of black motherhood. Browder’s story is drawing some comparison to the story of Shanesha Taylor last year, who also left her two children unaccompanied while interviewing for a job. A key difference: Taylor’s children were left in a hot car with the windows rolled down for a half-hour, and the youngest child was six months old. In Taylor’s case, the intervention of a concerned citizen made more sense.

Debra Harrell/Source: YouCaring
Debra Harrell/Source: YouCaring

In another similar case, single mother Debra Harrell of South Carolina was arrested for leaving her nine-year-old daughter to play at a local, busy park while she worked her shift at a nearby McDonald’s. On the daughter’s third day at the park, an adult at the park, seeing the child alone, asked her where her mother was. When the girl said her mother was at work, the onlooker called police, who subsequently charged Harrell with unlawful neglect of a child, a felony that carries a maximum ten-year sentence. Harrell temporarily lost her job but was later reinstated.

Harrell’s case is a bit grayer. Her daughter was old enough to speak for herself and to explain her circumstances to others in the park. Her mother had provided her a cell phone in the event that an emergency arose, and the girl was in no immediate danger when the onlooker approached and questioned her. Police intervention wasn’t absolutely necessary.

In Laura Browder’s case, the children were indoors, in no immediate danger (even if they were crying), and food had been provided to them. The eldest, at six years old, may not have been able to explain the situation in clear detail, but none of the reports on this case specify whether or not the onlooker even approached the children to inquire before calling police.

What each of these stories have in common are financially struggling mothers whose childcare options are limited, especially at the last minute, as in Taylor and Browder’s cases or if, as in Harrell’s situation, children of employees are disallowed from staying on the premises for the employee’s entire shift.

Single parents across race and class lines struggle to secure safe and affordable childcare on short notice, and often those parents are faced with hard decisions. They can take the children to work or to a job interview with them and risk violating company policy (and, by extension, their chances of maintaining or securing a position with the company). They can leave the children at home, if they’re old enough, in “latchkey” situations. They can leave them with a childcare provider they don’t know and haven’t had time to vet. Or they can cancel their obligation, risking much-needed income. No decision is without its consequences, but black mothers find themselves making these decisions (and facing legal and penal consequences) disproportionately. These institutional consequences compound the economic stress and hardship one-income households already face.

The Los Angeles Times’ Noah Remnick penned a great opinion piece on this last summer, when Harrell’s case made national news:

Our welfare system is designed to put everyone to work regardless of circumstance. Unfortunately, the low-wage jobs attainable for most mothers lead to a parental quagmire. Between low paychecks and inflexible work schedules, how is one to arrange for adequate child care? With no apparent options, the answer is often that they simply cannot.
Such women, it’s been repeated to you, are bad mothers who deserve to be punished, and increasingly we’re doing just that. Indeed, the mythology of bad black mothers was never just a part of our cultural folklore — it’s entrenched in our legal system.
Over the last three decades, the population of incarcerated women has grown by over 800%, and women of color have been locked up at disproportionately high rates. African American women are three times more likely than white women to be thrown in jail or prison.

The Nation also published an enlightening report on the criminalization of working mothers last summer. Wrote contributor Sarah Jaffe:

The demonization of poor mothers but particularly of black mothers was used to sell the “welfare reform” policy signed into law by Bill Clinton, the precise policy that made it necessary for mothers like Debra Harrell to go to work at McDonald’s and not to be home with their children, a policy that shoved parents into work and did nothing to provide them with childcare. This same stereotype of the lazy bad welfare queen serves to reinforce our idea of childcare as a private responsibility rather than a community good, and thus leaves us all without a childcare system that works.

The socioeconomic issues that result in news stories like Laura Browder’s, Shanesha Taylor’s, and Debra Harrell’s are entrenched, and to the extent that they can be addressed, progress will be slow and will vary state-to-state. The impact of any solutions implemented will affect all families differently.

But there are ways that the average community member or onlooker can do to minimize longterm familial harm, when they see children unaccompanied. Again, those actions will vary based on many factors, including age of the children, their communication ability and comfort, their readiness to account for their parents’ whereabouts, and their location at the time of an onlooker’s approach.

We asked some of the black parents in our Twitter community to weigh in on what they’d want to happen if a stranger spotted their child unaccompanied, and we received a wide range of response. Unsurprisingly, very few wanted the police called as a first recourse, unless the children were in immediate danger:

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Visit FreeRangeKids.com’s laws page for a state-by-state list of child supervision guidelines.

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3 thoughts on “What to Do When You See Unaccompanied Black Children in Public Spaces.

  1. I feel like Child /Family Services and Unemployment need to create child care programs for mothers/fathers searching for work. I completely understand why a stranger (maybe even a mall employee) may have had the police contacted when they saw crying children sitting in the mall alone (ages 6 and 2). Kids wonder off in the mall / store all the time and lose their parents. Maybe the bystander though the children were loss (especially if the children were crying and they didn’t see a parent or guardian approach the child in a reasonable amount of time). As someone who has worked in retail, anytime we find a child unattended (young children are supposed to be accompanied by adults when in most malls / stores) and the child is crying and can’t tell us where their parent is located we have to reach out to store security and if we can’t locate the parent in a reasonable amount of time then the police are called.
    I’m glad this woman was able to keep her children and charges have been dropped. In most cases if I’m in the mall, I’m not really paying attention to anyone’s children. If I happen to see a child that looks distressed / crying and I don’t see a parent/guardian interacting with them ( calming them down, or just acknowledging them) I would mention it to a mall employee and let them handle it from there.

  2. Maybe it’s just me, but how does one ascertain when it’s “safe” for unattended children in crowded spaces with no parents around? Personally, had I seen two unattended, young children and I scan the perimeter and do not see a guardian, I’m going to think first before approaching them to see if they need help. Not because, the guardian may be nearby, but because in today’s society, I don’t want that guardian finally approaching and jump to conclusions on why I’ve approached the young ones. Everything isn’t just black and white, there’s a lot of gray areas in these cases. Suppose something had happened to these children? No one wants to jump to that conclusion ever, but had something happened to them, then I’m sure a different tune would be sung. I cannot imagine it being smooth sailing had the outcome been something more tragic. I get that there’s no childcare. I get that the mother is single, new to the area, and needed that interview, but what if that person who alerted authorities hadn’t done so and the outcome ended up being a crazier one (kidnapping resulting in injury or death)?

    This is hard for me as a person with no children and great compassion. I’m sure I’d look for the guardian first before alerting authorities, but that’s me. Everyone isn’t going to do that, especially when they’re babies, not even toddlers involved. So, I am a bit on the fence with this topic. I always want to see children accompanied by adults especially if they’re younger than let’s just say 10. But, that’s my preference. So, how do we truly know when to leave well enough alone whenever this occurs?

  3. Agree with the other comments here. Let’s not blame the ‘village’ who is looking out for the kids. It would be nice if the village also stepped in to provide care.

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