I am bad at being a summer mom. I’m always the one Googling “help last minute camp” the day after school gets out. One summer, I got my babysitter to take my kids each day to my gym, which had a pool, and pretend she was me. (Finally, an upside to wearing a skintight latex cap and goggles: anonymity.) Another summer, I managed to sign one of my kids up for an advanced-skills soccer camp, even though he didn’t really play soccer. It’s not surprising that the emergency child-care center at my workplace cottoned on fairly quickly to the fact that my emergencies occurred for a week or two every August.
For many parents, summer is oppressive not mostly because of the heat but because of the scheduling. The lengthening days are a hint of the specter of more than 50 million school-age children with six more hours of free time than usual. It’s a child-care chasm that I usually end up crossing by building an emergency bridge made of cash: for more babysitting, more late fees, more hastily put-together sort of fun-ish activities.
But no matter how unprepared I am, I’ll never be arrested for my choices. That’s what happened to Deborah Harrell, who was taken into custody earlier this month, officially for unlawful conduct toward a child, also known as leaving her 9-year-old daughter in a park in North Augusta, S.C., for several hours while she was at work. Her kid had a cell phone, and the McDonald’s Harrell works at was close by, but the girl was there without any adult supervision for much of the day, a witness said.
The mom’s arrest led to a round of national hair pulling (our own and one another’s) about How a Person Could Even Do That or How a Person Could Even Report That. In fact, about 40% of parents leave their kids on their own, at least for a while, estimates the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Three states have even established a minimum age for being home alone, ranging from 8 years old in Maryland to 14 in Illinois.
Kids have raced around outside by themselves since the dawn of time. That’s why those on the free-range end of the child-raising spectrum blamed the busybody who reported Harrell. Yet she was doing exactly what child-protective-service agencies have asked citizens to do, especially since data indicates that child-abuse reports tend to go down over summer but child-abuse incidents do not.
So, once we get past the finger-pointing, it might be worth having a different conversation: one about the gap between what we expect and what we’re willing to pay for. If, by way of analogy, we go to Harrell’s place of work for our luncheon needs, we cannot order McTruffles. McDonald’s can’t make the numbers work on that. Similarly, we cannot expect somebody to fund enriching child-centric summer activities on minimum wage. She can’t make the numbers work on that.
Age is a factor here. More than 45% of hourly workers whose income falls at or below minimum wage are older than 40, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and more than half are women. Harrell is 46. Parents in that type of job are caught in a double bind. The lower their earnings, the more inflexible their job. I could be writing this essay from home, in case my teenage kids suddenly needed help or to accuse someone of ruining their lives. Fast-food workers have to be where the food is. “High-wage jobs are associated with hard-to-replace skills,” says Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute. “[Corporations] need to do something to keep those individuals. Low-wage jobs are generally associated with highly replaceable people, so it’s not worth investing in flexibility.”
Harrell can’t do that job without child care, but at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, she can’t get child care doing that job. End result: she cobbles together something ad hoc, just like I do. The difference is that my bad choices are cushioned by cash and society’s false assumption that people who have it don’t abuse their kids. When I make a mistake, my kids don’t get taken away by social services.
Harrell may get lucky. On July 21, child-abuse charges against 35-year-old Shanesha Taylor, who left two toddlers in a hot Arizona car for more than an hour, were dropped. Taylor left the kids there because she had a job interview and nowhere else to take them. Both women’s plights have touched a nerve; Harrell and Taylor have been given support and thousands of dollars in donations via social media.
As for me, I’m not sure where my 13-year-old daughter is at this moment. I left her some money this morning and told her to have a nice day. If anyone wants to arrest me, I’ll probably be at McDonald’s, getting her some dinner.
This appears in the August 04, 2014 issue of TIME.