A 28-year-old Winter Haven mother was arrested Tuesday after allowing her four young children to walk to a local park almost a half-mile from her residence and leaving them alone while she went to a food bank.
Officials say Ashley Richardson was booked into the Polk County Jail on four counts of Negligent Child Abuse w/o Bodily Harm.
Around noon on Tuesday, a Winter Haven police officer spotted four small children (ages 8, twin 7-year-olds and a 6-year-old) playing in the park.
The officer did not see any adult in the immediate area, so she parked her patrol car across the road from the park facing the area where the children were playing.
After a few minutes, she saw the children waving her over to their direction.
When she went to check on the children she found the 8-year-old stuck in a swing designed for toddlers with his legs caught between the seat divider.
After finding she was unable to free the child from the swing, she contacted the Winter Haven Fire Department. Rescue crews were able to remove the swing from the frame and free the crying child.
Still unable to locate an adult, the officer quizzed the children who were initially unable to say where they lived.
Once the fire department crew left, the officer continued to watch for an adult and monitor the children.
The children began playing close to the roadway, climbing on a five-foot tall concrete sign and playing in water along a lakefront.
Fearing for their safety, the officer once again quizzed the children for their address or family information.
The children ultimately provided their names and ages and revealed that they lived across Avenue T and would walk to the park by themselves, leaving their home "in the morning."
At this point, police say more than two and a half hours had passed since the officer first encountered the children.
The officer called for assistance and while waiting for another officer to arrive, an SUV pulled in.
The oldest child indicated that was their mother, Ashley Richardson, in the vehicle.
She said she didn't think it would take so long at the food bank.
Richardson was taken into custody and interviewed at the Winter Haven Police Department, then booked into the Polk County Jail.
It is still unclear when the children left their residence or where the food bank Richardson went to was located.
"Our officer had great concern for the safety of these children," said Chief Gary Hester. "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."