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Marcy Keelin after her arrest Sept. 28, 2012, in Fernley, Nev.

If one story recently prompted parents to shake their heads in dismay, it was the tale of Marcy Keelin, the 38-year-old woman who -- according to police -- left her 10-year-old daughter in the lurch in a shoplifting escapade at a Morgan Hill Safeway.

A host of folks sarcastically dubbed her "Mother of the Year,'' suggesting she wasn't fit to have custody of her daughter after driving off when authorities stopped the 10-year-old girl leaving the store with groceries the mother had selected for theft.

I'll let smarter folks than I decide custody issues. I often doubt that the alternative to a biological parent necessarily means an improvement, however flawed the parent is.

What disturbs us, however, is the use of childhood itself as a con -- and then the betrayal of a child. The police say Keelin and her daughter did this once before the Sept. 19 incident. Mother picks groceries, leaves to get the car, daughter rolls out the cart without paying. It has a practiced feel to it.

It's not as though enlisting kids in crime introduces a new precedent. In the past, San Jose gangs have used young teenage shooters because they're likely to face lighter penalties than older teens.

Political ads

In a different sort of con, political ads that deploy children almost always distort the truth, threatening a bleak future for the innocent if so-and-so is elected. This year's presidential election features more than a few such hoaxes.

In Keelin's case, we hardly know all the facts. We do know that Keelin, who also has an 11-month-old child, is accused of loading $160 worth of groceries into the cart her daughter was supposed to wheel outside. She was arrested Friday at a Nevada motel after a sheriff's deputy spotted her Ford Explorer in the parking lot.

The core problem is the abandonment. Had Keelin stopped when she saw her daughter detained at the door, it would be bad, but hardly the stuff of statewide news. It was her decision to flee, leaving her daughter to answer questions from authorities, that moved us to outrage.

Now it's always possible that this was set up beforehand: "Honey, if the heat comes down, I may have to drive off. Don't worry about it. Tell them that you want to go to Grandma's and I'll catch up with you later.''

Daughter's viewpoint

But think of this from the daughter's point of view. If she was distraught at her mother's departure, we could at least say that she wasn't hardened to her role. We could conclude she believed in family loyalty.

If she accepted her mother's decision to drive off, or even understood it, it would be worse. It would say that she knows there is no honor among thieves, no right and wrong, just a path of least resistance, a shrug at a con gone bad.

In the long run, that hurts us as a society far more. We only have to look at Paul Ray Castillo, the killer of radio host Cindy Nguyen, to know how a kid can be inured to crime. When Castillo was a child, his mother taught him to burglarize homes by entering through the dog door.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/scottherhold.