- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2015

Maryland parents who left their two children unsupervised in park have pushed the issue of parental rights into the national spotlight and sparked a firestorm of a debate over the degree to which the government should intervene in child-rearing practices.

Practitioners of the “free range” philosophy of parenting, which emphasizes teaching children independence, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv felt they were well within their rights to allow their 6- and 10-year-old children to play alone in a neighborhood park on Sunday not far from their Silver Spring home. Police picked up the children and turned them over to Child Protective Services for a short time.

The Meitivs, who in the days since have been the subject of both praise and criticism for their decision, are filing suit to fight the “unlawful seizure of their children” and to stand up for the belief that they, not the state, knows what is best for their children.

But more often than not, parents who find themselves in similar situations — sometimes after leaving a child in a car while they run into a store or allowing a child to supervise younger siblings — buckle under the threat of losing custody of their children even for a short time and plead to neglect or other charges.

“What usually happens is parents are so frightened at having their children taken away from them that they apologize and pay the fines even if they did nothing wrong because they are so afraid,” said David Pimentel, a law professor at Ohio Northern University who has studied free range parenting. “The parents who get caught up in these things are often not exemplary parents. They might make a bad decision, but is that a crime?”

Courts across the country have come to different conclusions in a variety of cases regarding alleged child neglect.

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A D.C. couple accepted a plea deal last month after they were charged with second-degree cruelty to children for leaving their 2- and 3-year-olds in their car in 35-degree weather to attend a wine tasting. Under the terms of the agreement, they must attend parenting classes and maintain good behavior for nine months and the case will be dropped.

A Florida mother was arrested on child neglect charges after letting her 7-year-old son walk to a neighborhood park by himself last year. The charges ultimately were dropped.

And there is the 2007 case of Bridget Kevane, who gained notoriety when she wrote about the child neglect charges she faced for letting her 12-year-old daughter oversee care of three younger siblings when she dropped them all off at a mall in Bozeman, Montana. In a 2009 article in Brain, Child magazine, Ms. Kevane said the prosecutor who handled her case seemed hellbent on getting her to plead guilty. She fought them, and eventually agreed to deferred prosecution arrangement instead.

Lenore Skenazy, founder of the “free range” movement and author of “Free Range Kids,” said the bevy of neglect cases filed against parents for what she considers lifestyle choices cements the need for better protection of parental rights, as well as open dialogue about child-rearing techniques.

“We have this idea that if a child is supervised, they are magically safe, and if they are not, like the Meitivs, they are on death’s door,” Ms. Skenazy said. “Children have the right to have unsupervised time, and parents have a right to give it to them without being arrested.”

While some parents who face neglect charges due to a split-second decision, such as leaving a child unattended in a car for a short period, Mr. Pimentel said the Meitivs’ case has the potential to help define better protections for parental rights because their action was planned.

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“The Meitivs are a great test case because they are in a position to stand up and argue the legal merits, because I don’t think they are at risk of having their children taken away from them,” Mr. Pimentel said. “They did it because they believed it was the best thing for their children. It’s very conscience. There is nothing neglectful about it.”

The Meitivs first landed in the spotlight in January, when they came under investigation by Montgomery County Child Protective Services for allowing their 10-year-old son, Rafi, and 6-year-old daughter, Dvora, to walk home alone from a park about a mile from their Silver Spring home. The investigation resulted in a finding of “unsubstantiated” child neglect, meaning the family would remain on the agency’s radar if any further incidents were brought to its attention.

Fast forward to Sunday, when the Meitiv children again were playing unsupervised in a park near their home. A passerby called police to report the unattended children, and an officer picked them up around 5 p.m. and took them to a crises facility rather than their home, about three blocks from where they were found.

An attorney representing the family says the children were detained by police and CPS for nearly six hours, with the parents were contacted at 8 p.m. to inform them of the children’s whereabouts. The Meitivs had expected their children home at 6 p.m. for dinner and became frantic when they could not locate them. The children were reunited with their parents at 10:30 p.m.

CPS continues to investigate the case, but no criminal charges have been filed at this time.

“We must ask ourselves how we reached the point where a parent’s biggest fear is that government officials will literally seize our children off the streets as they walk in our neighborhoods,” said the Meitivs’ attorney, Matthew Dowd. “The Meitivs intend to fully vindicate their rights as parents and their children’s rights, and to prevent this from happening to their children again.”

Child welfare experts say laws vary widely when it comes to detailing under what circumstances it’s legal to leave children unsupervised.

Many states provide recommendations on how old a child should be before being left alone or in charge of a younger sibling, but only three states currently have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone. Illinois requires children to be 14; in Maryland, the minimum age is 8; and in Oregon, children must be at least 10, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

When agencies intervene to investigate reports of neglect, several factors such as the children’s maturity and their physical and developmental ability, as well as the parents’ history of substance abuse or mental health issues, also play a big role, said Cheryl Turner, a training specialist with the Center on Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

“It’s going to come down to their cognitive ability to know right from wrong and safe from unsafe,” Ms. Turner said. “There are many kids out there that absolutely have those cognitive abilities and there are others who don’t.”

While the recommended age for leaving a child alone in Nebraska is 12, Ms. Turner said she has worked with children as young as 8 who were left alone and their parents faced no legal repercussions.

Maryland defines child abuse and neglect in part as “the failure to give proper care and attention to a child including the leaving a child unattended where the child’s health or welfare is harmed or a child is placed in substantial risk of harm.”

Authorities conducted nearly 3.9 million investigations into child neglect or abuse nationwide in 2013, according to the Child Maltreatment report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 57 percent of the cases were unsubstantiated, as was the finding in the Meitivs’ first case, meaning an investigation found there was not sufficient evidence under state law to conclude or suspect that a child was maltreated or at-risk of being maltreated.

Across the country, fewer child protective service agencies are removing children from their parents’ custody after investigations, according to Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center in the District.

“There’s a change nationwide, and the District is part of this, which is to remove fewer child to foster care,” Ms. Sandalow said during an appearance on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Last year, the District’s Child Protective Services handled 2,000 substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect with children taken into foster care in only 350 cases, she said.

“In those other cases, the city tried to put services in place to keep those children safe at the home,” Ms. Sandalow said.

Supporters of the “free range” philosophy said they don’t want to come off as critical of the impulse to protect children. But they want vague legal definitions to be rewritten in order to afford stronger protections to parents who may make alternative or controversial child-rearing decisions.

Otherwise the fate of a family may end up in the hands of fellow parents, who Mr. Pimentel noted seem to relish in judging how others raise their children.

“In our legal system, when we have vague standards we often take comfort in having a jury there to protect us. But if your jurors are all people who have been watching Nancy Grace on TV then it’s not an even check,” Mr. Pimentel said. “What usually happens is the determination is made based on the sense that ‘I would never do that.’”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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