SILVER SPRING – A month after Alexander Meitiv let his children, 10-year-old Rafi and 6-year-old Dvora, walk home from the park unsupervised, he and his wife Danielle are in a fight with the county’s Children’s Protective Services (CPS).
The situation has prompted a wide-ranging debate over “free-range parenting” and the role of the government in protecting children’s safety.
As the children walked to their home less than a mile away on Dec. 20, police stopped them. Although the children said they were not lost, police took them home. Shortly after CPS came to the home and had Alexander sign something that he would not leave the children unattended for the next week because, as Alexander remembers, CPS threatened to take the kids away and call the police.
Earlier this month, a CPS worker with a policeman showed up at the Meitiv house asking to come inside. Danielle refused because they did not have a warrant. She saw the CPS worker with a visitor’s sticker from her children’s school and confirmed with the principal they had been taken out of class and questioned.
“It’s been exactly one month and I cannot believe my life has been turned upside because I let my children walk (from) the park,” Danielle said.
Although CPS spokesperson Mary Anderson could not comment on the specifics of the case, she said CPS follows state laws about unattended children and neglect. Maryland Family Law 5-701 defines neglect as “the leaving of a child unattended or other failure to give proper care and attention…under circumstances that indicate that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm…or mental injury.”
According to statewide CPS procedures, part of the definition of an unattended child is “a child less than 8 years old left in the care of either an unreliable person or someone less than 13 years old,” which would apply to the Meitiv children.
Danielle said the law often applies to someone left alone in a home or other indoor space rather than the situation with her children. But she said she feels CPS assumes any unattended child is automatically in danger regardless of circumstances.
“To them an unattended child is at risk of substantial harm. They have never actually sat down and said this is what you’re being charged with, this is why and this is our position,” Danielle said. “But to them, being unsupervised is a substantial risk of harm and we just fundamentally disagree.”
For any case the police think might need CPS involvement, they can call the tip line. CPS has three days to respond to a claim of a neglect and start investigating, during which time Anderson said “parents are often asked to sign a safety plan related to the allegations while we are assessing the case.”
Danielle said she understands not all parents will bring up their children the same way, but the issue for her comes back to CPS respecting her rights as a parent.
“Parents are way too paranoid and dramatically overestimate the danger and underestimate our children and I personally feel that’s harmful. At the same time I respect the right of parents to make their own decisions for their children and I expect CPS to respect my decision,” she said.
The incident inspired resident Russell Simon to found the Maryland Coalition to Empower Kids earlier this month, although he does not personally know the Meitiv family. Simon’s kids are 10, 8 and 4 and are sometimes allowed to roam on their own.
Simon said he organized the coalition to advocate for changing the wording of the law to include provisions that allow parents to consciously decide when to leave their children unsupervised. For instance, he said the law could have exceptions if the children know their parents’ names and phone numbers and officials can reach the parents.
In the Meitivs’ case, the children usually carry cards that say “I am not lost. I’m a free range kid!” with a phone number and signature of the parent and child. Danielle said they were not carrying the cards that day because going to the park was a spontaneous decision on the way home from synagogue.
“This doesn’t come near to being a case of neglect or abuse. This is two very aware, very conscious parents trying to give their kids tools to exercise risk assessment and exercise independent judgment within a fairly safe environment,” Simon said.
Parenting experts said independence for children is undoubtedly important, but the ways of accomplishing that depend on the comfort levels of the child and the parents.
“We too believe that children have to take on responsibilities and kids have to fail. They have to make mistakes, but we want them to make mistakes so there is not harm done to them if they fail,” said Pat Cronin, executive director of The Family Tree, an organization to prevent child abuse. “Families have their own norms and values and we are very respectful of that and listening to what people believe and not trying to cast our values or our judgments on families.”
When The Family Tree works with parents, they also teach them about the applications of the law. Cronin said she understands where Danielle is coming from, but CPS has to be able to act in a broad swath of circumstances.
“The laws are written in the broadest sense to understand harm can come to a child if they’re not supervised,” Cronin said. “I can understand the parents’ point of view, but I think that CPS has to look out for all children.”
For parent educators, that means helping parents understand what their children might be ready for, as there is no one age or grade level to determine it.
Patti Cancellier, education director of the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), gave the example of a 12-year-old who wanted to ride his bike unsupervised. PEP staff worked with the parent and child to come up with using walkie-talkies, so the parent could still communicate with the child.
“Although people’s family situations are…unique, the vast majority of parents want to be good parents and their situations just sometimes work against them, so we come at it from that point of view,” she said.
Danielle said they began giving their son Rafi more freedom when he asked for it. It started with playing out in the yard unsupervised when Rafi was four or five, and then expanded to wanting to walk around the neighborhood – first the part of the street visible from the house, then around the block on the same side of the street, then places across the street. Now the children can go places together when they feel comfortable.
Danielle said the children were walking home along Georgia Avenue, which some view as more dangerous because of all the cars. But she said she prefers the children walk there because there are more people, longer lights and wider crosswalks for them to use than on a side street.
As someone who would walk around New York City alone while growing up, Danielle said the world now is even safer than it was then.
“I grew up in the ’70s. Cops would have spent all day long escorting children home,” she said.
Danielle said the next step is a meeting with CPS, but in the meantime the family is talking with attorneys about the best course of action.