(CNN) — After letting her 7-year-old son walk from their home to a park to play, a Florida mother faces up to five years in jail for child neglect.
Nicole Gainey, 34, was arrested on July 26 after her son, Dominic, was found by police alone in a park less than a half-mile from her Port St. Lucie home.
On Saturday afternoon, Gainey had given Dominic permission to walk to Sportsman’s Park, a route he’s familiar with since he uses it to ride his bike to school, her lawyer said. On the way, he passed a public pool, and someone asked him where his mother was.
“They asked me a couple questions, and I got scared, so I ran off to the park and they called the cops,” Dominic Guerrisi told CNN affiliate WPTV.
An officer arrived at the park where Dominic was playing a short time later.
“Dominic checked in with his mom a few minutes before the police came and was getting ready to go home for dinner,” said Gainey’s attorney, John Whitehead, founder of the Virginia-based civil liberties group the Rutherford Institute.
He always has a cell phone with him and was wearing it in a case around his neck that his mother had made. According to Whitehead, the phone had fallen out of his pocket recently and she didn’t want him to lose it.
When the officer asked Dominic whether his mother knew where he was, the child told him that she did and he’d just spoken to her on the phone, according to the police report.
Dominic told the police his name, address and mother’s name but wasn’t able to answer when asked for his date of birth. He was then driven home.
“When I saw the police cars pull up in my driveway, and the officers started asking me about Dominic, I was frantic to know whether he was OK,” Gainey told CNN in an e-mail.
According to the report, Gainey told the officer that she let her son go to the park alone once or twice a week.
The arresting officer said that Gainey had failed to provide her son with care and supervision by allowing him to cross the street and go to the park alone. According to the report, he told her that there had been recent criminal activity in and around the park and a number of sex offenders lived nearby.
Gainey was arrested on a felony child neglect charge and taken to jail, leaving Dominic and her 17-year-old daughter at the house with her boyfriend. She was released seven hours later on $3,750 bond.
The Port St. Lucie Police Department has not responded to requests for comment.
As of Thursday afternoon, Gainey’s attorney still hadn’t received notice of a preliminary hearing. A representative from the Florida State Attorney told CNN that the case hadn’t been assigned to a prosecutor yet.
“This is a small town and a safe area,” Whitehead said. “Nicole knows she’s not guilty of anything, and she’ll plead that way if it comes to it.”
On Wednesday, Gainey met with an employee from the Florida Department of Children and Families who told her the charges would likely be dropped, according to Whitehead.
“I’m really sad about how this has already impacted our family,” Gainey wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “My son is worried that I’ll get in trouble if he goes outside. I’m even worried about getting in trouble if I let him walk down my driveway alone.”
A number of child neglect arrests are gaining attention nationwide, with some onlookers arguing local authorities are overstepping bounds in arresting parents for childrearing decisions that wouldn’t have merited notice a generation ago or which plunge families close to the poverty line into even more dire situations.
“Something has shifted and now we’re in the middle of a dangerous societal trend of arresting parents for noncriminal activities,” Whitehead said.
In early July, Debra Harrell of South Carolina made national news after being arrested after letting her 9-year-old daughter play unattended in a nearby park while she worked.
She lost her job at McDonald’s but has since gotten it back and regained custody of her child, according to her attorney, Robert Verner Phillips. She’s awaiting trial, and the Department of Social Services case against her is still open.
In March, Shanesha Taylor was arrested in Scottsdale, Arizona, on two counts of felony child abuse after leaving her two children in her Dodge Durango for about an hour while she interviewed for a job.
On July 18, she reached a settlement with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office dismissing her case if she completes a diversion program. Along with parenting and substance-abuse classes, Taylor is required to establish education and child-care trusts for each of her three children, two of which are still in state custody.
Florida’s child neglect statute has no age written into the law. Many states do not specify an age at which a child can be legally left at home or allowed to go places alone. This leaves some parents unsure of when it’s appropriate or even legal to leave a child unsupervised.
The Florida Department of Children and Families said in a statement that people who believe they’ve witnessed a case of neglect can call a hotline to report it.
“The hotline can be called when a child of any age is without adult supervision or arrangements appropriate for the child’s age or mental or physical condition, so that the child is unable to care for the child’s own needs or another’s basic needs or is unable to exercise good judgment in responding to any kind of physical or emotional crisis,” according to the statement.
But the resource is little help to parents who are trying to figure out at what age they can legally allow their children to go out into the world alone.
“Parents I talk to are nervous about doing anything, thinking they could get charged for something without knowing what they’re doing wrong,” Whitehead said.