Danielle Meitiv and her daughter, Dvora, 6, walk home from school in Silver Spring on Jan. 16. (Sammy Dallal for The Washington Post)

A familiar debate over how much freedom parents should give their children ignited Monday with the news that a Montgomery County couple had, once again, tangled with Child Protective Services for allowing their youngsters to take a walk on their own.

A couple of months after Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were found responsible for “unsubstantiated neglect” for letting Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6, walk home from a park close to where they live in downtown Silver Spring, they gave the children permission to do it again.

Responding to a call from a citizen, police collected the children and took them to CPS in Montgomery where, 5 1/2 anxious hours later, they were reunited with their parents.

The chain of events has again electrified parents, parent educators and lawmakers, but the debate has shifted from overwhelming support for the Meitivs and outrage at county officials to support mixed with some wariness over which side went too far this time.

Danielle and Alexander Meitiv let their children, 10 and six, walk home alone from a park a mile away from their house. Now, Montgomery County is investigating the couple for child neglect. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

The police and CPS for turning the children’s walk home from a park into an hours-long ordeal? Or the Meitivs, who knew CPS would be watching them closely for at least the next five years and chose to let their children walk alone again?

“I feel [county officials] are just going to the extreme with this,” said Patti Cancellier, education director of the Parenting Encouragement Program in Kensington, Md. “The law is not 100 percent clear here. Perhaps they’re trying to make an example of this family. It seems to me they could have gotten better results without scaring the parents and the children half to death.”

But some parents thought it was the Meitivs who went too far.

“What they did was terrible,” said Elizabeth Hernandez, a stay-at-home mother in Alexandria, Va. “They received an alert. That means don’t do it again. And they did it again? Unbelievable.”

In Montgomery, CPS officials have said they are guided in part by a state law that says children younger than 8 must be left with a reliable person who is at least 13. But the law refers only to enclosed spaces such as buildings or cars, and makes no mention of children outside, in a park or on a walk.

Count officials question whether police and CPS had handled the case correctly in failing to notify the Meitivs for two hours that their children were in custody.

“This is a ‘What were they thinking?’ moment,” Marc Elrich (D-At Large), chairman of the Montgomery County Council’s Public Safety Committee, said of the police failure to notify the parents. He also questioned whether this was the best use of police time. As a child, Elrich walked more than a mile on his own to school and farther to a ballfield. “All of our parents would have been in jail,” he said.

Legal age restrictions for children left at home alone. Some are guidelines and some states may have more definitive laws than others.

Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) noted that he was concerned about the “timeline of events.”

“As the father of two sons, I can relate to the feeling of concern you get when your child doesn’t check in as expected,” he said.

Danielle Meitiv said they were panicked when they didn’t hear anything from the children, who were expected home at 6 p.m., until CPS called at 8. The children were released to their parents at 10:30 pm after the parents signed papers agreeing not to leave the children unattended.

“They were both scared they would never see us again. They were scared they were being taken away from us. I was scared of that, too,” Danielle said in an interview with a Washington Post reporter. “This is surreal. I can’t believe that anyone who claims to care about children would put children through this.”

On Sunday evening, the Meitivs were on their way home from visiting relatives in Ithaca, N.Y., Danielle Meitiv said. The children were getting restless and the weather was beautiful, so the parents decided to drop them off at Ellsworth Park..

The children were familiar with the area, Danielle Meitiv said. The park is next to a library they frequent, she said, and the children have played there many times.

Danielle said the children decided to leave the park shortly before 5 p.m. and were within a few blocks of their Woodside home when they were stopped by police. Rafi told the police they were not lost, she said, but the officer insisted on taking the children home.

According to the Montgomery police report, police received an anonymous call about unattended children and found them in a parking garage on Fenton Street where a “homeless subject” was “eyeing the children.”

The police officer notified CPS at 5:16 pm. At 6:10, he called another CPS employee. At 6:41, the officer was told a CPS decision had yet to be made. So at 7:18, the officer decided to take the children to the CPS offices in Rockville.

One child had to use the bathroom, the report noted, and had to wait through the 20-minute drive to CPS before being allowed to go. The children also were hungry, and the report notes that the officer brought out his personal lunch to share, but took it away after the children said they had food allergies.

CPS and the police’s Special Victims Investigation Division are continuing to investigate, police officials said.

CPS officials would not answer direct questions, but issued a statement Monday afternoon: “Protecting children is the agency’s number one priority. We are required to follow up on all calls to Child Protective Services and will continue to work in the best interest of all children.”

In December, the Meitivs allowed their children to walk home from Woodside Park, another park about a mile from their home. After a two-month investigation, CPS found the Meitivs responsible for “unsubstantiated neglect,” when insufficient or contradictory information keeps investigators from either making a report that neglect is “indicated” or finding it is “ruled out.”

The Meitivs said they are appealing the finding. Currently, CPS said it would keep a file open on the Meitivs for five years.

That event, called by some “The Walk Heard Around the World,” sparked heated debate about child safety, parenting standards and independence that reverberated on social media and in communities around the globe.

Danielle is a climate-science consultant and Alexander is a physicist at the National Institutes of Health. They support “free-range” parenting, with its ideas that children learn to be self-reliant by progressively testing limits, making choices and exploring their surroundings without hovering adults. They’ve said they feel that they are being “bullied” by the government, and those who’ve anonymously called police and CPS on them, to accept a style of parenting they “strongly disagree with.”

Russell Max Simon, who also lives in the Woodside neighborhood, started Empower Kids Maryland to support childhood independence and freedom to roam after the Meitivs’ December run-in with the law. He said that he and other free-range parents started a petition on Change.org to address Maryland’s unattended-children laws, and that people have been contacting his organization and asking to donate to a defense fund for the Meitivs.

“I commend the bravery of the Meitivs for continuing to parent the way they think they should parent,” he said. “Anyone who stands up and says that we’ve gone too far on this issue risks becoming a target. And that’s what’s happened to them.”

On the day they received word of the unsubstantiated-neglect finding, Danielle Meitiv said she would continue to allow her children to play on their own. She appeared to change her mind after the incident Sunday.

“The only people who have threatened or abducted my children were the people in CPS and the police, so I do not believe random people are a threat,” Meitiv told NBC’s Today.com. “But I signed the safety plan and I’m not going to violate it. I’m certainly not going to risk them taking my kids again. We’re going to have to fight this in a different way.”

Bill Turque contributed to this report.