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Chalk wars: Mom ticketed for child's chalk drawing in public park

A Virginia mom has been ordered by a judge to perform community service after allowing her daughter to do chalk drawings in a public park.

Last Tuesday, Susan Mortensen appeared in a Richmond, Va. court and agreed to serve 50 hours of community service by January 3, or return to court for sentencing and possibly a $2500 fine. Some parents have responded with outrage that a treasured childhood pastime could result in legal action.

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Budding artists, or little vandals? Some cities are cracking down on chalk art.

But it seems the whole chalk dust-up may be overblown.  “There’s more to the story here,” Tracee Murphey, the deputy clerk of the Richmond Manchester General Court, told TODAY Moms. 

The crime? Back in March, Mortensen let her 4-year old daughter draw a “door to magic land” on rocks at Belle Isle, a granite-studded park in the middle of the James River, with sidewalk chalk. The punishment: the judge ordered the “chalk mom” to paint 200 boundary posts on the sides of a bridge. Tit for tat, so to speak – or paint for chalk.

Some parents are none too pleased with the idea that they could be penalized for their kid’s chalk drawings. A group showed up at the courthouse Tuesday to support Mortensen, leaving messages on the courthouse sidewalk that said “Chalk Is Not A Crime,” written in — you guessed it — chalk. Friends of the 29-year-old mom held a similar protest outside the town’s police headquarters after she was originally ticketed for vandalism in the spring.

Mortensen told WTVR  that the officer (or park manager as they call them in Richmond) who confronted them was a little overzealous and that the incident has caused a lot of stress for her daughter. “She’s very scared of chalk for one,” Mortenson told the TV station. “And she’s very nervous around cops.”

But “chalk mom” apparently has a history of trouble in this park.  Murphey confirmed that Mortensen had been ticketed in 2010 for destruction of property for painting on the Belle Isle rocks — that time, without her daughter present. Murphey said Mortensen was combative when the officer approached her about her child’s drawings in March.

NBC 12 reports that when Mortensen was ticketed in March, “she responded with a bad attitude and curse words.”

Local Richmond officials have been working hard to keep those particular rocks clean of any sort of graffiti, whether chalk or paint. Mortensen’s lawyer, G. Brian Tacey, said that Richmond has had a lot of issues with graffiti. “Because of the problems, the city has essentially placed a ban on anything that could be applied to the [James Park] rocks.”   

According to Murphey, who was inside the courtroom for Tuesday’s proceedings, the judge told Mortensen that she’d shown no remorse for what she’d done.

“You’re just trying to stir up a news story,” the judge told Mortensen, according to Murphey.

People certainly are stirred up.

Babble’s Meredith H. Carroll wrote about the case in a post titled “Surely you must be joking!”

“It’d be understandable if Mortensen’s daughter were spray-painting the rocks. Or painting them. Or even using crayons on them. But sidewalk chalk? That stuff washes away when it rains, when a sprinkler hits it or when a dog pees on it. That’s vandalism? A 4-year old’s scribbles are vandalism? Last time I checked that was a called a weekday afternoon activity. One that doesn’t hurt anyone.”

As Carroll points out, there’s something ridiculous about criminalizing an activity that encourages kids to play outside and express their sense of creativity. (Who doesn’t love the scene where Mary Poppins and Bert jump into those chalk drawings?)

However, Richmond isn’t the only place clamping down on sidewalk chalk. In June, a Denver Home Owner’s Association tried to ban children from using it, after a group of neighbors complained that the chalk art interfered with their enjoyment of the neighborhood’s common outdoor space. Meanwhile, Brooklyn parents have an ongoing debate about whether kids should be allowed to draw on the sidewalk outside their apartment buildings.

For many parents, forcing a mother to appear in court to defend a child’s chalk drawings sounds like a big waste of time and energy — not to mention taxpayer dollars.

At the same time, with all the challenges facing kids and parents these days, it’s hard to get too worked up over children’s “right” to scribble a few sidewalk drawings. There are plenty of concrete canvases, from the pavement in your driveway to playgrounds that do allow chalk art, that it shouldn’t be too hard to find a lawful place to let your little Picasso flourish.

Jacoba Urist, a Manhattan mom and lawyer, lets her toddler express his artistic creativity on her parents’ driveway in the ‘burbs. She also writes about legal and parenting issues for Forbes. Follow her on twitter @Thehappiestpare.

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