As Maryland’s “free-range” parents face a neglect investigation for allowing their young children to walk home alone from a Silver Spring park, county officials have pressed for more answers about general police and child-welfare practices that the widely debated case has brought to the surface.
Montgomery County Council President George Leventhal (D-At Large) and County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) posed 16 questions in a letter to county police and human-services officials, asking about 911 calls involving unattended children, custody procedures and parental notification.
They also requested information about which agency is responsible for investigating whether Child Protective Services has followed laws and procedures, what the timeline would be for such an examination and whether results become public.
Such issues increasingly have become flash points since police picked up the two young children of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv on April 12 as they made their way home from a Silver Spring park. Authorities held the siblings — Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6 — for more than five hours before releasing them to their parents.
The Meitivs are believers in “free-range” parenting, which encourages childhood independence and exploration. They say they have gradually let their son and daughter take longer walks together in areas they know.
“We’re getting a ton of questions from the public,” said Leventhal, head of the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, noting that the case has touched on residents’ emotions.
The council members’ letter does not specifically refer to the Silver Spring case, instead requesting general information about policies and procedures by Friday.
Elrich said Wednesday that he was writing to Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh to ask for a legal opinion on whether government agencies are correctly interpreting Maryland’s law on unattended children. The law says that children under 8 years old must be with a reliable person who is at least 13, but it mentions buildings, vehicles and enclosed spaces; it does not mention children playing outdoors or on a walk.
Child Protective Services officials in Montgomery have said that neglect investigations typically focus on a failure to provide proper care and supervision and that CPS could look for guidance to the state law.
Elrich, who is chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said his interpretation is that the law does not really apply to the Meitiv case or other instances of children outside: “If they meant outdoors, they would have added eight more letters and said ‘outdoors.’ ”
Russell Max Simon, founder of Empower Kids Maryland, a group that supports free-range parenting, said the county’s inquiry is a good first step. “I think it’s a hopeful sign to see our council members taking an active interest in it instead of saying it’s the state’s problem,” he said.
On Friday, the office of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he has directed Sam Malhotra, secretary of the state’s Department of Human Resources, to conduct “a thorough investigation of the incident and of the policies involved to determine what changes might be needed,” according to a written statement.
In Montgomery’s school community, the Meitivs’ tangles with CPS also have spurred discussion about the implications for children who walk to school. In Montgomery, elementary students typically do not ride buses if they live within a mile of their school.
At a committee meeting this week, Board of Education members wondered whether school employees would feel responsible for telling authorities about young children walking to school.
“There have been a lot of concerns with, ‘Do teachers have an obligation to report if a child walks to school by themselves, considering MCPS policy provides that they are expected to walk to school up to a mile in elementary school?’ ” said school board member Rebecca Smondrowski.
Debbie Feinstein, chief of the family violence division of the Montgomery State’s Attorney’s Office, told the committee that she could not speak for CPS but said she believes that CPS does not expect school policies to change.
“The media attention around the issues that have gone on are totally separate and apart from children walking back and forth to school,” she said.
Dana Tofig, spokesman for Montgomery schools, said the district is not changing policies or regulations relating to students walking to school.
Asked about any CPS concerns with children as young as 5 walking to school alone or with other young children, Maryland Department of Human Resources officials said in an e-mail that they support the county’s policies and procedures. They noted that there are adult crossing guards and student safety patrols along routes to schools.
School systems in the Washington area, including Prince George’s, Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, said there have been no new discussions about young students walking to school since the Meitivs’ story emerged. In Arlington and Fairfax, bus service is generally provided for elementary school students who live more than a mile away from their school. In Prince George’s, elementary school students take buses when they live more than 1.5 miles from school.