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Mother's plea: Stop acting like any risk to a kid warrants calling cops

Mother's plea: Stop acting like any risk to a kid warrants calling cops
Regina Harrell, 9, holds her dog Roscoe outside her home in North Augusta, S.C. Regina was taken from her home and her mother charged with a felony after her mother, Debra Harrell, left her alone to play at a park while she worked at a nearby McDonald's. (Jeffrey Collins / Associated Press)

Let's stop judging parents. That was my New Year's resolution for myself and fellow parents. Instead of turning against each other, I suggested we become more supportive. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

This summer we've gone beyond judgment. The policing of parenthood reached a new level of ridiculousness.

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In August, a South Carolina mom was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly swearing in front of her children. According to a South Carolina news station, a fellow shopper overheard Danielle Wolf using the F-word in front of her family, and called the cops, who proceeded to arrest her. "Because a child hearing the F-bomb is definitely more traumatizing than watching her mother get handcuffed in the middle of a supermarket," Katie McDonough commented on Salon.

This story is not unusual. More and more we're seeing stories in the news of parents arrested for supposedly "endangering their children" because of their parenting decisions.

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For example, take Connecticut mom Christina Williams, who was charged for leaving her 11-year-old daughter unsupervised in a car, at the request of the child. Or Nicole Gainey, a Florida mom who faces up to five years in jail for letting her 7-year-old son walk by himself to a park less than a half-mile from her house. Then there's the case of Ohio father Jeffrey Williamson who was arrested and charged with child endangerment when his 8-year-old son skipped church to play around the neighborhood. And of course, there's the much discussed story of South Carolina mom Debra Harrell, who spent 17 days in jail for letting her 9-year-old daughter play alone in a well-attended park, while she worked her shift at a nearby McDonald's.

In each of these cases, the primary concern about a child's safety was likely the impetus for getting the police involved. "It takes a village to raise a child," the saying goes, but it seems nowadays the village has been replaced by vindictive busybodies who are more interested in calling the cops than helping or even talking to one another. Calling the police on a parent in these cases shows an absurd lack of empathy. Except in the most extreme cases, exactly how is getting a parent entangled in the criminal justice system a way to ensure a child's well-being?

Combine today's increasing lack of a compassionately involved community with a pervasive paranoia about how children are constantly in danger and we have a perfect storm. From media fear-mongering about abductions and molestations to the belief that children should never leave the sight of an adult, parents are now being held hostage by the often-chided "helicopter parenting" model of raising children.

According to a recent poll, 62% of Americans think children face more threats to their physical safety than previous generations. But studies show that threats of violence against children are actually on the decline and the chance of a child being abducted by a stranger is rare.

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Of course, there are cases in which calling the cops is warranted and the world can certainly be a dangerous place, but we need to stop acting like any chance of risk to a child -- either large or small, imagined or real -- warrants calling the cops. There's a world of difference between the extreme cases that warrant police involvement and the vast majority of situations that can be resolved with a more neighborly approach.

Stoking parental fears and then escalating them by getting law enforcement involved hurts not just parents, but kids too. Shouldn't we also be worried about the long-term effects this kind of policing can have? How are we supposed to raise a generation of independent, content and fearless adults when we've sanctioned this kind of over-protectiveness?

Concern for a child's well-being is natural. However, a culture of fear has gripped the public and has overshadowed reasonable concerns for a child's safety -- where criminalizing certain parenting decisions is the new norm. And that's no way to raise secure and happy kids.

Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion.

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