Free-Range Kids

Mom Handcuffed, Jailed for Letting 14-Year-Old Babysit Kids During COVID-19

"I almost don't have words for how low it made me feel," says Melissa Henderson.

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When COVID-19 shut down her children's daycare in May of 2020, and Melissa Henderson had to go to work, she asked her 14-year-old daughter, Linley, to babysit the four younger siblings. Linley was engaged in remote learning when her youngest brother, four-year-old Thaddeus, spied his friend outside and went over to play with him. It was about 10 or 15 minutes before Linley realized he was missing. She guessed that he must be at his friend's house, and went to fetch him.

In the meantime, the friend's mom had called the police.

Now Henderson, a single mom in Blairsville, Georgia, is facing criminal reckless conduct charges for letting her 14-year-old babysit. The charges carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison and fine of $1,000. The arresting officer, Deputy Sheriff Marc Pilote, wrote in his report that anything terrible could have happened to Thaddeus, including being kidnapped, run over, or "bitten by a venomous snake." (When Henderson protested that the kid was only gone a few minutes, Pilote responded that a few minutes was all the time a venomous snake needed.)

Here is a photo of the busy street and jungle-like conditions Thaddeus faced. That's his buddy's home on the right, photographed by Henderson from her porch.

The case has been dragging on for almost two years now, while Henderson's lawyer, David DeLugas, argues that charging a mom for a normal parenting decision was declared unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court in 1997. In that case, a mom left her 11-year-old babysitting a younger sibling who died in a tragic accident. Even then, the court ruled, it was arbitrary and subjective to call the mom's decision reckless. What's more, DeLugas points out, Georgia's own child protective guidelines say kids can babysit at age 13.

DeLugas is founder of Parents USA, which exists to fight cases like this. Three weeks ago he filed a new motion to dismiss the case.

Henderson had been investigated by the Georgia Division of Family and Children's Services about a year earlier, when Thaddeus, age three at the time, had also wandered outside. She was no longer under DFCS supervision when this second incident occurred. DFCS investigated Henderson's conduct this time around and found it unexceptional, case closed. But Pilote recalled the earlier investigation; believing this proved some sort of pattern, he initiated the arrest about two weeks later.

Five cop cars came to her house, Henderson tells Reason.

"I almost don't have words for how low it made me feel," she says. "To truly feel in the bottom of my heart that, if I'm anything, it's a good mother and everything you do is for your kids. To be stripped of that to the point where you are handcuffed in front of them."

She was placed inside a police cruiser and taken to the county jail, where she was photographed, fingerprinted, and given a pair of bright orange crocs to wear. Then she was put in a cell. "I remember curling up in a ball in the corner and just wanting to hide," she says. Her ex-husband bailed her out.

When I spoke with the district attorney, Jeff Langley, he said he felt the cops acted prudently, as the boy had been outside once before on his own. He added that even a guilty verdict would most likely not result in prison time for Henderson, but thought that forbidding her from letting her daughter babysit might be a good idea. "We just want to make sure the children in our small community stay safe," he says.

Langley said he believed the boy was "wandering naked in a thunderstorm." In reality, while the boy was wearing only a shirt, there was no storm.

Langley added the officers informed him that 14-year-old Linley had "some measure of learning disability," making her an unreliable sitter.

Henderson told me that her daughter was previously diagnosed with ADHD. She has a GPA of 4.45, is vice president of the 4-H Club, broke school records in varsity track, completed the Red Cross Childcare program, and is certified in CPR.

Nonetheless, it shouldn't be necessary to have a superstar teen before a parent can make hasty childcare arrangements during a pandemic.  That's why Let Grow is working to narrow states' neglect laws, ensuring that they kick in only when parents put their kids in likely and obvious danger, not when they make a decision a cop or caseworker disapproves of.

As for the incident itself, four is definitely on the young side. The boy's parents would be well-advised to remind him not to go outside without telling anyone. But a kid "wandering off" to play with the neighbor used to be considered childhood, not child abuse.

There is a GoFundMe for the Hendersons here.