Child welfare rarely gets covered by the news media unless there is a tragedy.

But the case of a Silver Spring family under investigation by Montgomery County’s Child Protective Services for allowing their 10- and 6-year-old children to walk home alone from a park has spurred a roiling debate that pits so-called free-range parents against those with a less permissive attitude.

It’s a debate over parenting styles, akin to talking about whether co-sleeping or giving kids juice will help or hurt them in the long run.

This debate misses the larger point. What we should be talking about is: What is child neglect? Who gets to decide? And how can we prevent children and families from getting to that point?

My organization, Children’s Law Center, is appointed by the D.C. Superior Court to represent children whose parents have been accused of neglect and abuse. Because of this, I’ve had a close look at thousands of abuse and neglect cases.

I find that parents are seldom accused of neglect because of a difference in opinion about their parenting style. Instead, the parents I see are making what they consider the best choice among some very bad options.

These are parents who are living on the brink of poverty and have little, if any, support to raise children safely. They may have left their young children alone at home under the watch of a next-door neighbor while they worked the night shift. Or in the company of someone at a homeless shelter while they went out for food. These aren’t parents who have the luxury to decide whether their kids get to be free-range.

While legal definitions of child abuse are pretty clear-cut, neglect is a little bit murky and requires a judgment call most of the time.

The federal government provides some guidance in the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which provides child welfare funding for states. The District’s code pretty closely follows the federal standards. One of the many definitions of neglect in the D.C. code is a child “who is without proper parental care or control, subsistence, education as required by law, or other care or control necessary for his or her physical, mental, or emotional health.”

One of the most hotly debated areas of the code is what constitutes “proper parental care and control.” That comes up every day in court as we fight for the best interests of the children we meet.

The question is about the impact on the child. It’s a question about whether a child suffered actual harm or was put in imminent danger because of a parent’s lack of supervision. Unlike in Maryland, in Virginia and the District, the law doesn’t specify an age under which a child must be supervised.

There are definitely clear cases of neglect. If a 2-year-old is left home alone, most people would agree that the child is being endangered. But what about leaving a 7-year-old home alone? What if it’s just for 30 minutes while her mom goes to the store? Or, what if that 7-year-old is left home alone every day after school for three hours? Or all night?

To be clear, far too many children are exposed to tragic neglect and abuse — these are the kids I have seen who have been burned, beaten and prostituted. In these cases, I am glad we have Child Protective Services and a functioning child welfare system.

Moving forward, my hope is that we can prevent most cases of neglect from happening by putting more support in place for the struggling families who are most likely to be swept up into the child welfare system.

Year after year, programs such as Head Start and nutrition programs have funding cut. We should instead invest in these programs and expand affordable housing, quality day care, home visiting programs, job training and more. These programs actually make it possible for all families to make safe choices and care for their children’s needs.

I agree with many whose reaction to the free-range parenting story is to seek to have Child Protective Services less involved in parental decisions. But to get there, we need to create a community where the agency truly no longer is needed because all children are safe.

The writer is executive director of the Children’s Law Center.