Mother of five facing prosecution for leaving her 14-year-old daughter to babysit after Covid closed daycare

The case of a solo mother of five being charged with criminal reckless conduct after leaving her 14-year-old daughter to babysit her four young siblings raises questions about how law enforcement should police parents, writes Bevan Hurley

Friday 11 February 2022 14:39
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<p>Melissa Henderson is facing jail after leaving her eldest daughter to babysit the other children after Covid closed their daycare</p>

Melissa Henderson is facing jail after leaving her eldest daughter to babysit the other children after Covid closed their daycare

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Melissa Shields Henderson thought Blairsville, Georgia, population 724, would be the perfect place to raise her children.

It’s a place where kids ride their bikes everywhere and play pick-up basketball in the street, and “everybody knows everybody”.

At the height of the pandemic in May 2020, with schools and daycare closed and bills to pay, Ms Henderson, 41, went to her job as an administrator at a health spa 37kms (23 miles) away in Blue Ridge, leaving her five children at home under the care of her 14-year-old daughter Linley.

While Linley was completing an online school lesson her youngest brother Thaddeus, 4, spotted a friend who lived next door and went out to play with him in their cul-de-sac.

In the 10 to 15 minutes it took for Linley to realise her brother had disappeared, the friend’s mother phoned 911.

The view from the front door of Melissa Shields Henderson’s home in Blairsville, Georgia

When Ms Henderson arrived home from work, she found two police cars parked in her driveway. They explained that her son had been seen out unaccompanied and left. That was where she thought the matter would be left.

However two weeks later, Ms Henderson received a call to say there was a warrant out for her arrest. She says she didn’t even get the opportunity to hand herself in; before she could arrange for a babysitter to come, five police cars had turned up at her home.

According to a Union County Sheriff incident report obtained by The Independent, the arresting officer claimed Thaddeus could have been kidnapped, “got lost in woods or been bitten by a venomous snake”.

Melissa Shields Henderson says she was simply trying to provide for her children when she left under the care of her 14 year old daughter to go to work

The report states that Thaddeus was wearing no clothes from the waist down and that a storm was approaching.

“They really were grasping,” Ms Henderson said.

“They were playing the ‘what if’ game. What if this happened? But it didn’t. None of those things happened, none of those were actual dangers.”

Ms Henderson says she was cuffed by the side of the house, taken to Union County Jail where she was fingerprinted, charged with criminally reckless conduct and put in in a cell before she was bailed out.

The charge has a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

“I was shook. I just remember being shocked. It didn’t make any sense to me. It was the most humiliating moment of my life,” Ms Henderson told The Independent.

“I was being treated like an actual criminal. The whole time I remember thinking ‘this isn’t right, I don’t belong here’. I was mortified that that was the situation I was thrown into.”

A year before the incident, law enforcement were called after Thaddeus and another sibling were seen out alone walking along a busy road.

The Georgia Division of Family and Children’s Services investigated the incident at the time, let Ms Henderson with a warning, and put a safety plan in place that Linley would not babysit the kids on her own, according to the sheriff’s incident report.

Melissa Shields Henderson says the threat of prosecution on criminal reckless charges has drained her emotionally and financially

Union County District Attorney Jeff Langley told The Independent that the key issue was whether the eldest child, who has a learning difficulty, was capable of looking after the children while completing her schoolwork, and while her mother was working in another town.

“Our information is that this child was not able to care for multiple children all day long,” he told The Independent.

“It puts me in a difficult position to defend my actions, publicly commenting on a teenage girl with learning difficulties.”

Mr Langley said a prison sentence had never been on the cards, and he had offered Ms Henderson a plea deal which would have seen her complete a 20-hour parenting course.

Ms Henderson told The Independent that her daughter is a responsible, mature teenager, perfectly capable of looking after the children.

Nearly two years on, she said the threat of prosecution has been a massive financial and emotional drain.

“As a mom you really pride yourself in making your children healthy and happy. When something does like this happens you suddenly feel so small.

“I’m not neglecting or failing or hurting my children. Why would you put this out there that I’m a terrible mother? I’ve given every ounce of my soul to them. It’s world-crumbling.”

Melissa Shields Henderson with her attorney David DeLugas, founder of the advocacy group Parents USA

Under Georgia state law, children can babysit from the age of 13.

Ms Henderson’s lawyer, David DeLugas, who is the founder of advocacy group Parents USA, told The Independent the charges were a gross overreach of police powers.

Mr DeLugas says he often sees similar cases often in his advocacy work, and believes that law enforcement is unnecessarily seeking to insert itself into how parents raise their children.

“That whole irrational fear, as if that’s a clear and present danger in our lives, all the time. It’s fearmongering.

“Just because they have concerns, doesn’t mean they need to rally the troops, send out the national guard, just because somebody doesn’t agree with you.”

Mr DeLugas has filed a motion to dismiss the case in July, which is still pending.

Melissa Shields Henderson has returned to work part-time, but says she is worried about facing prosecution

Ms Henderson has been able to return to work part-time while the children are in school, but is afraid of further charges.

“It’s like living in constant fear. Everything you’re doing is being watched and critiqued and even if you’re doing the right thing, it’s still the wrong thing.

“I love being with my children but you got to have a paycheque you know.”

Two fundraising pages have been set up to assist Ms Henderson. One to pay for her legal fees and advocacy work has received nearly $30,000.

Another GoFundme page that goes direct to Ms Henderson to assist with day-to-day costs has received just over $3,000 by Thursday.

“I just want other moms and dads to know that this is not OK,” she said.

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