Statistically speaking, the South Carolina mother would almost certainly be putting her daughter in more danger if she strapped her into the car beside her for a hypothetical one-hour daily commute. No one would arrest her for that. It wouldn't surprise me if the child would more likely suffer harm sitting in a McDonald's in front of a laptop, presumably eating fast food at least reasonably often, rather than spending summer days playing outdoors in a park with lots of parents. I can't say with certainty that she'd be statistically safer. But neither have the South Carolina officials who arrested this woman.
The actual safety of a given kid is not being rigorously determined. State employees are drawing on their prejudices to make somewhat arbitrary judgment calls. They wouldn't think of preventing many statistically riskier parenting decisions so long as those decisions jive comfortably with social norms. They're sometimes taking away children based on what amounts to their gut feeling–even though kids are far more likely to be abused in state-administered foster care. Again, I haven't run the numbers, but my hunch is that a single parent with a new boyfriend or girlfriend hanging around the house puts a kid at greater statistical risk of being molested than letting them play alone in a typical park.
Unfortunately, Deon Guillory and the crack news team at WJBF raised none of these counterarguments in their one-sided television story on the incarcerated mother, who ought to be getting assistance with an attorney. She needs to get out of jail, get her daughter back, and possibly sue the state. South Carolina needs to focus its meager resources on actual child abusers. Agree or disagree, I invite parents who've grappled with this issue to share their stories by email. If warranted, I'll share the best responses in a future article.
UPDATE: A widow and mother of four shares her story of having her kids taken away.