Long before the Meitivs of Silver Spring clashed with Montgomery County over their young children’s walk home alone from a park, other parents across the country were at odds with authorities over similar questions: How much supervision do children need, and when are they truly at risk?
In Austin, Kari Anne Roy, 38, a children’s author, was investigated for neglect after her children walked the dog one day in August and her 6-year-old lagged behind, playing on an outdoor bench a few houses down the street.
In Port St. Lucie, Fla., Nicole Gainey, 35, a mother of two, was arrested for letting her 7-year-old son walk alone to a park and play there, about half a mile away from their home in the town where she grew up.
One of most the most publicized recent cases involved Debra Harrell in North Augusta, S.C., who allegedly allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play at a park while she worked at a McDonald’s as a shift manager.
The particulars of such cases are different, cutting across lines of economics, geography and circumstances. But they point to a tension about how safe the world really is, what parents should do to protect their children and when the government should intercede.
In recent months, the focus has been Maryland, where the Meitiv family has had run-ins with Maryland Child Protective Services (CPS) for allowing Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6, to walk home from area parks. The Meitivs — believers in the “free-range” kids movement, which encourages childhood independence — say their children have gradually increased how far they walk, starting with outings around the block.
CPS officials say the priority is protecting children and that they are required to follow up on calls.
“How have we gotten so crazy that what was just a normal childhood a generation ago is considered radical?” Danielle Meitiv has asked.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s office said in a written statement Friday that state officials will conduct “a thorough investigation of the incident and of the policies involved to determine what changes might be needed.”
Exactly how often such conflicts arise nationally is unclear. Lenore Skenazy, founder of the free-range movement, tracks cases closely and says that, while infrequent, they are troubling because parents are criminalized.
“These are parents who are not negligent,” she said. “It all stems from the almost superstitious idea that the moment a parent’s eye is off the child, the child is in grave danger.”
Sociologists date an increasing perception of dangerousness to some highly publicized child abductions in the 1970s and ’80s, including 6-year-old Etan Patz, who was headed to a bus stop in New York City.
That terrifying disappearance, now the focus of a jury trial, led to the creation of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the faces of missing children showing up on milk cartons across the country.
But David Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said that crime rates are down in general, as are the number of missing children and stranger abductions. “Most of the worst things that happen to kids are at the hands of their own family members — murder, sexual assault, abuse,” Finkelhor said. “The data clearly show that.”
Finkelhor said a debate has been raging for some time about whether Child Protective Services has been “overreaching” and targeting parents for minor parenting problems.
“Most of what gets reported to CPS does not get substantiated” because the evidence is uncertain, Finkelhor said, noting that the substantiation rates are around 25 percent to 30 percent, depending on the kind of maltreatment. “So the question is, do these cases involve families where there is some need, or is this just an overreach on the part of the state?”
What troubles Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center in Washington, is that cases such as the Meitivs’ get so much media and stir so much buzz but direct attention away from the real problems of child abuse and neglect.
“The problem is, the children who are most often in danger, who actually most often get hurt, live in poverty,” she said. “And their stories don’t stay in the news.”
Around the country, some cases have hit a nerve.
In Texas, Kari Anne Roy, the children’s author, blogged about what happened in her family, describing her son playing on a bench perhaps 150 yards from her front door and how a neighbor, concerned for his safety, marched him home.
“You brought him home from playing outside?” she recalls asking. “It didn’t work in my brain what was happening.”
Soon a police officer showed up. A few days later, Roy got a call from CPS. Ultimately, her case was closed, and she wrote her blog post. She was deluged with media calls.
Looking back, Roy says that both police and CPS have jobs to do, but she thinks a culture of fear has taken hold, starting with those who call CPS in the first place. “They think, ‘Oh my God, there are kids outside. We have to call the police,’ ” she said.
Roy says she encourages her three children — ages 6, 8 and 12 — to be independent. “As a parent I obviously want to watch over my kids, but I don’t need to be on top of them every hour of every day,” she said.
Eight months later, her children still go outside, but not as far from home. The family is thinking of moving. “I don’t want CPS called on my kids again,” she said.
In Florida, Nicole Gainey says she had no idea that allowing her son, then 7, to walk to the park, with a cellphone to keep in touch, could be a problem. “I’d been letting him go all summer, and no one ever said anything to me,” she said.
In late July, the child was reported by lifeguards who saw him alone several times.
The day Gainey was arrested, three officers showed up at her house, asking whether she let her son go to the park without supervision. She said she did, and she was handcuffed. The case was later dropped by prosecutors, but not before she made national news.
“That one day caused a lot of unnecessary damage we’re still dealing with,” Gainey said. Her son, who was outgoing, now is timid, she said, and won’t play unattended in his fenced back yard. “He feels if he’s not in my eyesight, I could be arrested,” she said.
In rural Oregon, Erika Doring, who then owned a consignment store in Hood River, faced a neglect charge for dashing into her business to fetch a forgotten life jacket for her 2-year-old as they headed to a lake. She left the girl in her van, air-conditioning on, for two to three minutes, she said. Ironically, Doring also worked as a CPS on-call emergency social worker.
She said she did not believe for a moment she was placing her daughter in peril and was so stunned she e-mailed 800 customers and friends, explaining what happened. Two people told her she should be arrested, she said, but most who responded told their stories of briefly leaving a child in a car.
Her case went to an Oregon circuit court, and she was acquitted in January 2011.
Danette Tucker, a single mother who lives in Southeast Washington, offers a counterpoint to debate that has surrounded the Meitiv case. In her low- to moderate-income neighborhood, children of all ages walk alone, take buses and the Metro on their own, or stay home alone, not out of choice, but out of necessity.
“In our neighborhood, we have a lot of single mothers, or families where both parents are working. So for us, that’s normal,” she said. She was a latchkey kid growing up in the neighborhood. “We look after each other, because we have no choice. But we don’t snitch on each other to Social Services, because we’re all just trying to do the right thing.”
For a time, Tucker’s children, ages 6 and 10, took two buses and Metro rides a day to get from their school in Capitol Heights to Southeast Washington, where Tucker had moved after getting divorced. She wanted her kids to finish out the school year in their former school. She couldn’t afford after-care, and, working a temp job at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, she couldn’t bring them home herself.
“My neighbors would look out for my kids,” Tucker said. “No one was judging me, because they knew I was trying to get back on my feet.” One neighbor often sat on her front porch and made sure the kids got off the bus at 3:45 and home safely, Tucker said.
Kids walk to and from the park on their own all the time. “How else are they going to get around?” Tucker said. “Parents teach their kids to hold hands, to cross at the light and to be safe.”
As her kids later attended neighborhood schools, Tucker said she in turn looked out for other unattended children. “The family next door, the parents have to work late. So we all take care of that baby,” she said, using a term of endearment for the girl, who is now 14. “That’s how we do in Southeast. I have a lot of pride about how we stick together.”
With a daughter about to head to college and a son in the Navy, Tucker looks back: “They’re great. Being alone didn’t mess up their futures.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.