Maryland detains 'free-range' kids: how walk to playground became so fraught

Two Maryland parents' decision to allow their 10- and 6-year-old children to walk to the park without an adult has reignited a national debate over how much supervision children must – or should – have.

The Maryland family who made the news for allowing their children to walk to the park on their own last year – and who were investigated for child neglect as a result – had another run-in with police Sunday, when officers took their children into custody for several hours.

The family has found itself at the center of a growing debate about parenting, the law, and just how much supervision children must – or should – have.

The person who apparently called the police when he or she saw the two playing at a park on their own on Sunday apparently felt that such a lack of supervision was unreasonable, as did the police who responded to the call.

For the Meitivs, and other parents who are increasingly fighting against "helicopter" parenting and the encroachment of the law on what they see as parenting decisions, letting their children go to the park unsupervised is about giving their children independence and responsibility in an appropriate way. Their brand of parenting has been dubbed "free range," after a book by Lenore Skenazy, who became famous after she wrote about letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway on his own.

“At no other time in human history have people underestimated children’s competency as Americans do today,” Ms. Meitiv told the Monitor in an interview before the most recent run-in with the police. On Monday, the Meitivs wrote on social media that they're not doing any more media interviews until they consult with their lawyer and figure out next steps.

She emphasizes that she and her husband have prepared their children for all of the freedom they have. They've earned the right to walk a mile to a park on their own after repeated excursions of shorter distances, and by demonstrating that they're responsible.

Part of the issue, legal and parenting experts say, is that as community norms have shifted, police and child-welfare norms have shifted as well, and "neglect" is a very fluid and arbitrary notion to determine.

"Not only does it vary a lot from state to state, but it varies a lot from county to county," says Michael Wald, a professor emeritus at Stanford Law School and a leading expert on children's rights. "A lot depends on the community norms, and how the community structures itself for safety."

The Meitivs have gained national attention since their children were picked up by police in December while walking home from a park, and the parents investigated for child neglect (a case that was ultimately resolved with the confusing verdict that they were responsible for "unsubstantiated" neglect). And their case has sparked a flurry of comments, both supportive and condemning, on social media and comment boards.

On Sunday the Meitivs say they weren't initially contacted when their children were once again picked up by police, leading to a terrifying few hours when their kids didn't return home when they were supposed to.

"The police coerced our children into the back of a patrol car, telling them they would drive them home," Danielle Meitiv wrote Monday morning in a Facebook update. "They kept the kids trapped there for three hours, without notifying us, before dropping them at the Crisis Center, and holding them there without dinner for another two and a half hours. We finally got home at 11pm and the kids slept in our room because we were all exhausted and terrified."

A spokesperson for the Montgomery County Police Department simply said that the children are now with their parents, and the detectives are investigating whether to file any charges. Maryland law prohibits parents from leaving children under 8 alone in a house or a car without a caregiver who is at least 13.

The Meitivs are hardly alone as parents whose judgment about what their children are capable of and what constitutes appropriate parenting puts them at odds with child welfare services or other parents – even though it's in line with what was considered the norm a few decades ago. Some parents have found themselves investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) when they leave their child even for a minute in a car. A single mother in South Carolina was arrested last summer, and her daughter temporarily removed from her custody, when she let her 9-year-old daughter play at a park while she worked at a nearby McDonald's.

Professor Wald argues that many cases of neglect that get brought into the legal system shouldn't be there, though the majority of those cases are more about lack of support structure for poor and working parents than about parenting philosophy. Charging those families with criminal behavior, rather than finding ways to support them, ultimately harms both the children and the parents, he says.

"It’s a traumatic event for parents and kids. The kids know their parents are being blamed, they may be questioned, it’s not a good situation," Wald says. "The problem, beside the over-prosecuting, is that it takes away the attention of agencies from being able to focus on the serious cases that they really ought to be doing something about."

Meitiv and other free-range parents dismiss the common argument that "the world is more dangerous now" as media-fed hysteria that ignores the facts: By virtually all measures, crime is actually lower than it has been in decades. And the chances of a child being abducted by a stranger – the common scenario thrown out by those who think all children should be supervised – is incredibly low, exponentially lower than risks most parents take every day, like driving in a car.

Many of the commenters on the Meitiv case have pointed out that the area of Maryland where they live, in Silver Spring, is hardly a quiet suburb, and their kids need to walk down and cross some major streets to go to the park where they were in December. And when someone calls the police or CPS, they're obligated to respond.

But Meitiv says that learning such skills is not only possible for many kids, but vital. Meitiv's decision to allow her 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter some independence was about building up their confidence and capability and decisionmaking skills. She and her husband worked with their children to understand that a "walk" signal doesn't necessarily mean it's safe to cross a street, for instance; they need to make eye contact with drivers as well. On their own, her kids added the rule that they only cross a busy street when they're next to another adult – who is taller – since they feel safer that way.

"Freedom and responsibility go together," says Meitiv. "They get responsibility because we give them chances to stretch and grow. That's how you learn." Keeping her children always under the watchful eye of an adult would deny them that chance to learn how to make decisions on their own and act responsibly, she says. "It's harmful for kids and also fundamentally disrespectful to kids. We teach them that we think they’re incompetent."

"The only people trying to frighten or abduct my kids are the police and CPS," Meitiv added – speaking over a week before the most recent incident.

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