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