Maryland’s “free-range” parents have been cleared in the second of two neglect cases, closing a chapter in a public struggle with authorities that began after they allowed their two young children to walk home alone from a Silver Spring park.
Danielle Meitiv said she and her husband, Alexander, received the decision by letter from Child Protective Services on June 13 as they were about to leave for vacation.
“I’m just relieved to have these cases closed,” she said. “There’s more to do to make sure this doesn’t happen to other families, but for now we’re breathing easier.”
Attorneys for the Meitivs said Monday that the decision affirms what the family has maintained since the beginning: “They are responsible parents who have never neglected their children.”
The Meitivs’ experiences have fueled a national debate about parenting choices and the government’s role in enforcing laws designed to protect children.
During their most recent run-in with authorities, on April 12, police picked up the Meitivs’ children — ages 10 and 6 — as they made their way home alone from Silver Spring’s Ellsworth Park. The children were in the custody of police and CPS for more than five hours, and authorities opened a neglect investigation.
The CPS finding this month said the case will be closed with neglect “ruled out,” according to a copy of the letter provided by the family’s lawyer. The Meitivs were cleared on appeal in an earlier neglect case last month, dating to their children’s Dec. 20 walk from Woodside Park in Silver Spring.
Officials at the Maryland Department of Human Resources said Monday that they would not comment on individual cases because of confidentiality laws.
In general, a “ruled out” finding means an incident does not meet criteria for a neglect finding, DHR spokeswoman Paula Tolson said in an e-mail.
“A child playing outside or walking unsupervised does not meet the criteria for a CPS response absent specific information supporting the conclusion that the child has been harmed or is at substantial risk of harm if they continue to be unsupervised,” she wrote.
Danielle Meitiv said that although the family is pleased the neglect investigation is over, she and her husband still feel some uncertainty about the approach CPS will take in the future.
“I feel like we won’t know for sure if real progress has been made until our kids go for a walk and come home safely without being bothered,” she said.
The Meitivs support a “free-range” style of parenting, which encourages childhood independence and exploration. They have allowed their children to gradually take longer walks together, and they have gone alone to parks, a library and a nearby 7-Eleven.
The “free-range” movement was founded in 2008 by New York journalist Lenore Skenazy after she came under fire for allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the city’s subway alone.
Maryland’s DHR took steps earlier this month to clarify the state’s view on children walking and playing unsupervised outdoors, issuing a new policy directive that says CPS should not be involved unless children have been harmed or face a substantial risk of harm.
A DHR official said at the time that Maryland was not interested in “opining on parenting practices or child-rearing philosophies.” Instead, the official said the state’s role should be limited to responding when a child is harmed or at a significant risk of harm, with a focus on child safety.
Following the new finding, Matthew Dowd, the family’s attorney, said he hopes CPS’s investigations of the Meitivs have ended. “We would hope there wouldn’t be any further investigations in the future if someone called CPS under similar circumstances,” he said.
But Dowd also said the state’s recently released policy directive is “unnecessarily ambiguous” and remains a concern. Dowd said CPS did not give the Meitivs a detailed explanation about why it launched its investigation and noted that the new finding did not include information about why neglect was ruled out.
The policy directive lists factors that CPS considers, including the nature of any injury to a child, any parental actions taken to manage risks, a child’s age and the period of time and setting involved. How such factors will be considered is not clear, he said. For example, he said: “Is a mile too far to walk? Is a mile and a half too far?”
Katherine Morris, spokeswoman for the state DHR, said this month that each potential neglect scenario is unique, and she did not think the public would want “a one-size-fits-all approach to assess whether a situation requires CPS to respond.”
When the Meitiv case first came to light, CPS officials in Montgomery County said they could be guided during the investigation by a state law that says children younger than 8 who are in a building, enclosure or vehicle must be with a responsible person who is at least 13 years old.
The policy directive released this month says the law was originally written as part of a fire code. “The statute does not apply to children left unattended outdoors,” it says.
Dowd said attorneys still expect to file a lawsuit in the case.
After the latest CPS decision, Danielle Meitiv said she would like to be part of broader efforts to spur change in policy and practice. “I think there is more work to be done, and I plan to be involved in that,” she said.
She said she also wants to help shift the “fearful, anxious parenting culture” that leads to helicopter parenting.
Meitiv said the family has been heartened by the public outpouring they have received in letters, e-mails and on social media. “What kept us going was the support from all over the world,” she said.