A Winter Haven woman was arrested after police said she let her four children walk alone to a park while she went to a food bank.
Ashley Richardson, 28, is facing four counts of negligent child abuse without bodily harm.
According to Winter Haven police, an officer on routine patrol near Lake Maude Nature Park saw four small children, ranging in age from 8 to 6, playing alone at the park on Tuesday at about noon.
The officer noticed there were no adults around, so she parked her patrol unit across the road from the park, facing the area where the children were playing.
A few minutes later, the officer said she saw the children waving her over in their direction. Police said she went to see what had happened and found the 8-year-old boy stuck in a swing designed for toddlers. His legs were caught between the seat divider and the boy was becoming increasingly upset, police said.
Police said the officer tried to free the boy but was unable to do so, so she contacted the Winter Haven Fire Department. Fire rescue personnel responded and took the swing off the frame, freeing the child, police said.
Police were unable to find an adult, and when the officer asked the children for information, they were initially unable to tell her where they lived.
The officer stayed near the children to watch for an adult, and she said they started playing again, ending up near a road, climbing on a five-foot concrete sign and playing in water along the lakefront, police said.
The officer again approached the children and asked for their address and their family information, and this time they gave their names and ages and told her where they lived, police said.
Police said the children then told the officer that they had crossed Avenue T and walked to the park by themselves, and had left their home that morning. Police said that at this point, two and a half hours had passed since the officer initially encountered the children.
The officer called for assistance, and while she was waiting, an SUV pulled up to the park. Police said the oldest child indicated their mother was in the SUV.
Richardson was arrested and taken to the Winter Haven Police Department to be interviewed. Police said she told them that she had gone to a local food bank, and that she didn't think she would take as long as it had.
"Our officer had great concern for the safety of these children," Police Chief Gary Hester said. "She gave ample opportunity for an adult to come forward. For anyone to think it is okay to allow small children to walk almost a half mile alone across a heavily-travelled road, not to mention left in unsafe conditions, is criminal and will not be ignored."
After news of Richardson's arrest was released to the public, several people posted on the department's Facebook page that they did not believe she should have been arrested.
Hester said he disagreed with the people who left those comments.
"Six, seven and 8-year-old kids are not equipped to be left unattended, I mean period," he said. "I met some pretty mature 6, 7, 8-year-olds but you don't leave them unattended. I guess the question we should be asking is this 28-year-old mother, should she be left unattended. Doesn't look like she's mature enough to be a parent. She's being supervised today in the county jail. Hopefully she learns her lesson."