Montgomery County police do not have to send unattended children to Child Protective Services if they do not believe neglect is involved in the case and can instead notify the parents and drive the children home, according to a newly released memo from county officials that makes it clear that police have discretion when they find children walking alone in the county.
The statement from county police and human-services officials came in answer to questions that County Council members posed about policies and procedures after a Silver Spring couple, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, twice were investigated for neglect when police found their two young children walking home alone from a community park.
The clash between the Meitivs and Child Protective Services has intensified a national discussion about what constitutes responsible parenting and when the government should step in when children are unaccompanied. “Free range” parents such as the Meitivs encourage outdoor play and independence.
In the family’s recent run-in with authorities April 12, police picked up the Meitiv children and did not take them home or call their parents. Instead they called CPS, and the children — Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6 — remained in custody for more than five hours. Since then, many parents have asked about procedures and policies that guide such cases.
County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) drew up a list of 16 general questions about such cases that formed the basis for the new memorandum. None of the questions or answers specifically referred to the Meitivs.
Elrich said the new information did not clarify what he sees as a core question: Under what circumstances may unsupervised young children play outside, walk to school, head to a friend’s house or go to parks? State law only addresses children in buildings, vehicles or other enclosed spaces.
“That question is not answered,” he said.
Elrich, who is chair of the council’s public safety committee, said it was helpful to hear that police can make judgment calls, but it left him with the sense that “there was no automatic need for this to go where they went with it.”
Leventhal said in an interview that he was pleased the two county departments had responded to the questions promptly, but he said the answers did not provide a new level of understanding. “I think we did not learn very much new,” he said.
The six-page memorandum said police have discretion when encountering unattended children and that they consider ages and cognitive abilities as factors.
“If the officer does not believe the circumstances constitute neglect, the officer can notify a parent or guardian about the situation,” the memo says. “Again, the facts and circumstances of each case would drive the decision-making process and, simply, age is a consideration. A police officer may drive unattended children home or wait for a parent or caretaker to pick the child up.”
But in another section of the document, officials cited a county police directive requiring officers responding to neglect calls to notify CPS, remain at the scene, cooperate with CPS in an attempt to locate parents and take children into protective custody if requested.
The memorandum did not say whether a citizen reporting unattended children on a walk would amount to a neglect call.
In the Meitiv case, police released a timeline immediately following the April 12 incident saying they responded at 5 p.m. on a Sunday to a citizen report that the children were walking unattended. Police said that an officer identified the children, and, following protocol for cases involving possible neglect, notified his supervisors and called CPS at 5:16 p.m. Police took the children to CPS at 7:18 p.m.
The Meitivs have said that CPS called them at 8 p.m., three hours after police picked up the children. They say they immediately went to CPS offices and were reunited with their son and daughter at 10:30 p.m.
In answering a question about who is in charge if a review of CPS actions is requested, the new memorandum said such examinations are done jointly by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services and the Maryland Department of Human Resources.