The public has rallied in support of Maryland’s widely known “free-range” parents on a Facebook page, on news sites and in at least two online petitions calling for changes in how government agencies get involved in decisions by parents about what is best for their children.
But in the days after the two young children of Alexander and Danielle Meitiv were picked up by police as they walked home alone from a Silver Spring park, critics have weighed in sharply, too. Some have accused the Meitivs of being publicity minded or reckless for risking another run-in with police and Child Protective Services.
With passions high, the national conversation about responsible parenting, children’s safety and government intrusion appears unlikely to stop anytime soon.
“People are really interested because they want to know if they can raise their own kids in the way they choose,” said Lenore Skenazy, founder of the “free-range” movement that encourages childhood independence. “Our children have the right to some unsupervised time, and we have the right to give it to them without being arrested.”
The Meitiv family came to national attention in January as they faced a Child Protective Services neglect investigation for letting their two children — Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6 — walk home together unsupervised from a Silver Spring park about a mile away.
That case ended in February, with a finding of “unsubstantiated” neglect, often made when CPS lacks complete information or when seemingly credible reports are at odds.
On Sunday, the issue exploded anew when police picked up the children on a walk home from a different Silver Spring park and authorities kept them in custody 51/2 hours. The parents expected their children home by 6 p.m. and frantically searched until they got a call at 8 p.m. from Montgomery County’s Child Protective Services. A 911 recording revealed that the pair were reported by a man walking a dog.
The Facebook page — I Stand with the Meitivs against CPS — was created Sunday night by a Utah parent and businessman who said he has been following the Maryland case since January and believes it touches on national concerns. “I think it’s a dangerous trend when the state tries to tell families what’s best for their children,” he said.
Russell Max Simon, a Silver Spring resident who started the group Empower Kids Maryland after the Meitivs’ first run-in with CPS, launched a petition Monday that urges changing Maryland laws so that state agencies focus on “real instances of child neglect” and allow parents to raise independent children “without fear of a CPS investigation.”
More than 350 names had been added by Wednesday. “It’s something I want every Maryland state legislator to be able to look at and know there is support for change,” he said.
Another petition, with a couple dozen names, was created by Richard Fox, a Silver Spring father of two who called for stopping Maryland Child Protective Services from interfering with parenting. He addressed his petition to Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County).
“It’s sort of beyond the pale and flies in the face of the freedom we enjoy in this country,” he said of the Meitiv case. “I felt like it was really a level of government intrusion into normal parenting decisions. And the fact that CPS would not let it go, and now they have a black mark with unsubstantiated child neglect, is very frightening.”
In other, less formal channels, parents continued to react strongly to the case.
Dalal Musa, a family therapist in Falls Church, said that she doesn’t disagree with the Meitivs’ parenting philosophy and that children need time and space to roam. But she said she’s concerned that by being so public in their fight, the Meitivs are violating their children’s privacy and potentially putting their safety at risk.
“She’s outraged. But there are ways to change laws without exposing your kids and putting them in the position of having to defend you at school, none of which is developmentally appropriate,” she said.
Susan Gerson, a Kensington mother of two, said the Meitivs have sought to frame the issue as a matter of an irrational fear about “stranger danger,” but she argued: “The real dangers for a 6- and 10-year-old who wander on their own are things like crossing the street and knowing what to do in case of emergency.” She questioned whether the Meitiv children had cellphones.
Others focused on the way that police and CPS — and the man who reported the children — handled the pair’s walk home from a park about eight-tenths of a mile away.
Parents expressed concern not only that what happened to the Meitivs could happen to them, but that neighbors would turn to the police before helping one another.
“My 9-year-old grandson walked to the Beatley Library on Sunday by himself. He used a well-traveled bike route,” said Bonnie Keightley of Alexandria. “I am glad he doesn’t live in Montgomery County or we may not have seen him for several hours.”
Jennifer Henel, the parent of preschool-age kids, worried what it bodes for her as a parent. “We live two blocks from our school. Can I no longer dream of my kids walking to school on their own?” she said. “Or worse: What if I run in my house to grab something I forgot and someone sees my three children in the car alone? Will they report me for negligence?”
When Casey Kennedy lived in Seattle, her 7-year-old walked a half-mile to and from school on his own — rain or shine.
“He’s now 14 and very confident,” she said. “We as a society are taking away a child’s right to do things on their own. People complain about our government being/becoming a ‘nanny state.’ This overparenting by the police will ensure the next generation needs it!”
Simon, the founder of Empower Kids Maryland, said one parent has suggested that a group of families drop their children at Ellsworth Park, where the Meitiv children played Sunday, to “drive home the point that we should be a community, a village raising our children.”
Plans in the works for a day when parents would take their children to the park and leave them there are drawing more interest. “The goal is to make it more normal to see kids walking alone, rather than just seeing one or two kids and thinking you have to call the police,” he said.
Simon and other parents said they were disturbed by the 911 caller’s actions, noting that he was well intentioned but did not first ask the children if there was a problem.
“I just can’t believe we’ve come to the moment where a responsible adult would think it’s in everybody’s best interest to call 911 instead of asking whether the kids are okay,” he said. “That culture needs to change.”