The total time her children were outside was 30 to 40 minutes. Natasha Felix allowed her sons — ages 11, 9 and 5 — to play on their own one July day at a park beside her second-floor apartment, a place close enough that she could peer out her open window to check on them.
She says she checked every 10 minutes. But two years later, Felix is still fighting a finding of child neglect related to that day, which led a stranger to make a report to authorities. “It’s been very stressful,” she said. “It changes our lives.”
Her case, in Chicago, is one of more than 20 reviewed as part of a new report that comes amid a growing national conversation about parenting choices and how far the government should go in enforcing laws designed to protect children.
The report — from the Family Defense Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization in Chicago — details a range of little-known neglect cases in Illinois. It asserts that the child-welfare system “too often oversteps its authority and intervenes inappropriately in families’ lives, with devastating consequences.”
The broader debate about parenting approaches heated up early this year, when a Maryland couple tangled with authorities after allowing their children — ages 10 and 6 — to play and walk on their own. Twice since December, the family faced neglect investigations by Child Protective Services after their children walked home alone from Silver Spring parks.
Parents Alexander and Danielle Meitiv went public with their difficulties, saying they embrace a “free range” parenting philosophy that encourages childhood independence. They have said their children were gradually allowed to take longer walks in an area they know well. The family was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, their most recent CPS decision handed down in June.
The new report touches on the national attention that surrounded the Meitiv case and takes issue with neglect findings against parents “for common, everyday parental decisions such as allowing their children to independently walk to parks, play outside, or remain inside a car while a parent runs an errand.”
Two-thirds of the Illinois cases involved parents living below the federal poverty line, and many are minorities or immigrants, said Diane Redleaf, executive director of the Family Defense Center. The parents don’t see themselves as part of the “free range” movement, but the cases similarly focus on a clash over basic parenting decisions, she said. All of the cases involve what Redleaf sees as an ill-defined category of neglect called “inadequate supervision.”
“We feel there needs to be clearer standards throughout the country, in terms of the line between reasonable parenting and neglect,” she said.
The cases show a range of situations that led to involvement by child-welfare officials:
●A couple let their 9-year-old daughter walk with their 18-month-old to a nearby park in their close-knit Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The couple had prepared their older child for the responsibility, and the girl knew neighbors along the way, the report says. But a stranger stopped the 9-year-old, insisted that she be with her parents and reported the matter to a child-protection hotline.
That family appealed neglect findings and ultimately prevailed in Circuit Court, the report says.
●A mother of three young children left two of them — an 8-year-old and a 16-month-old — at home watching television while she dashed her middle child to school after he missed a school bus. She was gone 20 minutes. The case went to court, taking several years before the mother was cleared, Redleaf said.
●A woman seeking refuge in an apartment provided by a program for domestic-violence victims was found responsible for neglect after she left her sleeping baby to take out the trash. She had a baby monitor with her, but an investigator told her that the device was only to be used inside a house when a parent and child were on different floors, the report says.
“It was devastating,” said the Zion, Ill., woman, who asked not to be identified to protect her family’s privacy. She was away from her child for less than 10 minutes, she said. “It was absolutely the most horrible feeling that any parent can imagine.”
The report — “When Can Parents Let Children Be Alone?” — said such findings take a toll on families in many ways, citing one mother’s account of missed opportunities to volunteer in her son’s classroom or go on field trips.
In Felix’s case, the children were within view, and she checked on them regularly while she was cleaning and then talking to two friends who stopped by. But a stranger reported the situation because of concerns about the children being unattended and using a scooter or skateboard. The family is still involved in legal proceedings, and Felix said she has been listed on a state abuse and neglect registry and has struggled to get a job in health care.
Andrew Flach, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, said the agency could not comment on the pending litigation or the report.
But Flach said that the department considers “all allegations of inadequate supervision on a case-by-case basis, because what may be appropriate under certain circumstances may be considered child neglect in others.”
Illinois law defines a neglected minor, in part, as a child under age 14 “whose parent or other person responsible for the minor’s welfare leaves the minor without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety or welfare of that minor,” he said.
The department encourages parents and caregivers to consider all the risks involved when thinking about leaving children alone and to recognize signs, such as maturity, that indicate a child is ready to be unsupervised, Flach said.
Danielle Meitiv, in Maryland, lauded the report, saying she is glad for the spotlight on other families. “There are a lot of cases that didn’t get attention with families who suffered more than ours,” she said.
She said that although the report focuses on Illinois, she hopes it will inspire investigation and change in other states. “The report highlights the terrible irony that the very people who are charged with protecting children end up traumatizing them and their families far too often,” she said.
Among the report’s recommendations is that child-welfare officials establish a clearer age when children left alone are presumed not to be neglected by their parents, except under special circumstances. The report suggests age 10, which it says public health organizations have cited as a point at which children may be left alone for short periods.
Below the age of 10, it says, individual factors should be examined closely, since some children as young as 7 or 8 are mature enough to be left alone.
The report notes that the American Red Cross offers a babysitting-certification program for children 11 and older.
“If the parent had reasons for thinking the child was capable of being alone, then the parent’s judgment should govern the situation,” Redleaf said.