Neighborliness: Checking on an unattended child is okay, calling the cops is not

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Timothy P. Carney

The story of Debra Harrell is heartbreaking, interesting, and upsetting. It has many lessons. One of them: Neighborliness may be on the decline.

Harrell went to jail for leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a playground while she worked a shift at McDonalds.

The initial coverage all blasted Harrell for her decision to leave her child at a playground. Much of the follow-up commentary has attacked the mother at the playground who called the police when she realized the 9-year-old was unattended.

Today, on WTOP (our local DC news radio station) I heard a commentator blasting a "nosy adult" for asking the kid where her mom was. This is a line of argument I've heard elsewhere -- and it bothers me. The "nosiness" isn't the problem here.

It's helpful to break the story into three decisions:

1) Harrell's decision to leave her child at the playground. This is very debatable, and we don't have enough information. Is it a safe playground? What time did her shift end? Is it busy with kids? Did she know other parents there? Was it far from her house? From her work? For some parents, this may not matter. For others, it's a tough question.

2) The other mom's decision to call the cops. This was clearly the wrong decision. Harrell went to jail. The girl was traumatized.

But, don't forget:

3) The other mom's decision to approach the child. This was clearly the right decision. You may call it "nosy" but I call it neighborly. If there's an unaccompanied kid at a playground, it's good and right for a responsible parent to know that. The kid may need water, or food. Maybe the kid may need to borrow your phone to call mom or grandma.

If some other kid is acting up, being picked on, or doing something unsafe at a playground, it's nice to know whether you can alert their parent, or maybe you as the nearest available adult, may need to intervene.

In other words, neighborly adults look after other adults' kids when the parents are unavailable.

The problem was with calling the cops. It was unneighborly. If you find a kid taking care of himself, try to help take care of him, if he needs it — don't get his mom arrested.

And blasting a parent for looking after someone else's kid is the same sort of problem: it's also unneighborly.

The two extremes are Lord of the Flies and Calling the Cops. The middle ground is neighborliness.

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