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School closures during pandemic worsen home alone perils in US

Communities in many states have been pressing for more lee-way in 'free-range parenting'.



By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 9 Feb 2022, 11:47 PM

On a summer morning in May 2020, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, Melissa Henderson, a single mother of five from Blairsville, Georgia, headed out to work, leaving her eldest daughter Linley, 14, to care for the other four — all at home because schools and daycare centers were closed. Engaged in her online learning course, Linley did not notice that her four-year-old brother, Thaddeus, had slipped out of the house to go down the street to play with a friend he had seen outside. A neighbour who saw the child alone outside called the police.

Although Linley found her little brother at the friend’s house within 15 minutes, the local police responded to the 911 call from the neighbour, looked into the issue, and took down details of the incident. Why the neighbour would call the police instead of simply taking charge of the child perhaps speaks a little about American society at this juncture. Still, the matter seemed to have ended there.

But the police returned two weeks later after finding out that there had been a previous instance of Thaddeus wandering out of the house when he was three. Henderson was charged with criminal reckless conduct, and arrested and handcuffed in front of her children. The charges carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of $1,000. She spent a night in custody before her ex-husband bailed her out. The arresting officer, Deputy Sheriff Marc Pilote, wrote in his report that anything terrible could have happened to Thaddeus in the time he was outside, including being kidnapped, run over, or “bitten by a venomous snake”.

While Henderson was under scrutiny a year before the incident, Georgia state guidelines do allow children who are 13 or older to look after siblings for up to 12 hours. Such guidelines vary by state and even counties. But broadly, America is strict when it comes to childcare supervision. Children under 16 are seen as good “mother’s helpers”, but are not recognised as babysitters.

The nanny state can come down hard on offenders, including those who leave children even up to the age of 14 alone at home. Parents have been prosecuted for allowing children as old as 10 to walk home alone from a neighbourhood park.

Communities in many states have been pressing for more lee-way in “free-range parenting”, a term used to describe raising children to function independently and with limited parental supervision, in line with their development, and a reasonable acceptance of the risks involved (as opposed to oversupervised “helicopter parenting”) Some states have dropped the home alone age to eight, others to 10. After two years of cabin-fever during the pandemic, some parents may be ready to bolt even earlier.

The Henderson case has now been going on for nearly two years, with public sympathy largely leaning towards the single mum, who is now terrified of leaving her children alone even for a moment. A GoFundMe campaign organised by the National Association of Parents had raised over $ 13,000. What is galling for many of her supporters is that the state took no note of the extenuating circumstances — a pandemic that not only shut down schools and daycare centres but also put a crimp on engaging babysitters because there was so much fear of people contact in the early days of the pandemic.

That fear is largely gone now and life is slowly returning to normal, not so much because the virus has vanished, but more because America — and much of the world — is exhausted with the protocols, the rules, the mandates, the disruption to normal life and the economic outcome. Families with young children have borne the brunt of the breakdown. They are burned out. Parents with children under five are having a particularly hellish time because vaccines have not been okayed for the toddlers and it is hard to have them keep masks on properly all the time.

The situation is particularly dire in the United States, a country that lacks institutionalised child care and systems for early childhood education, compounded by households with two working parents, high divorce rates, and family breakdown. A recent poll found that 46 per cent of respondents thought Americans should “learn to live with” the pandemic “and get back to normal”, while only 43 per cent thought “we need to do more to vaccinate, wear masks and test”. Other surveys have found more than 70 per cent of respondents want to get on with their lives, tired and ragged as they are with the pandemic.

The frustration is rubbing off even in countries and constituencies that held strong to protocols and mandates — witness the truck drivers’ agitation in Canada and even Democrat-run states in America jettisoning mask mandates. The pandemic may not be over and may still be petering out, but the people have run out of patience. Sadly, the virus may not have.


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