Danielle Meitiv lives in Silver Spring.
We all want what is best for our children. We want them to be happy and successful, and we want to protect them from harm. But what if we are protecting them from extremely remote threats while ignoring the things that most endanger their well-being? What if police and child welfare officials, the experts whom we empower to protect our children, are pursuing phantom problems while neglecting those who are truly at risk?
One recent Saturday afternoon, six police officers and five patrol cars came to my home in Silver Spring. They demanded identification from my husband and entered our home despite not having a warrant to do so. The reason for this show of force? We had allowed our children to walk home from a neighborhood park by themselves.
A few hours later, a Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS) social worker coerced my husband into signing a “temporary safety plan” for our children by threatening to take the children “right now” — a threat she backed up with a call to the police. In the weeks that followed, another worker from the agency appeared at our door with the police and insisted that he did not need a warrant to enter our home. He also interviewed our children at school without our knowledge or permission.
When did Americans decide that allowing our kids to be out of sight was a crime?
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of young children being outside without adult supervision. We’re not always comfortable with it, either. We think, however, that giving them an opportunity to learn to make their way in the world independently is the best way to prepare them for adulthood — and that it is safe for them to do so.
Although our fears may tell us one thing about the world, the facts say something quite different. Crime rates across the United States are as low as they’ve been in my lifetime. Stranger abduction, the bogeyman of most parental fears, has always been exceedingly rare. Far more hazardous are the obesity risks and idleness we subject children to if we do not allow them to run outside and play.
Fear, too, takes a toll. I wasn’t there when the police brought my children home in a patrol car, but my 10-year-old called me, sobbing that “Daddy is getting arrested.” The incident gave my daughter nightmares. My son told us that the social worker who questioned him asked, “What would you do if someone grabbed you?,” and suggested that he tell us that he doesn’t want to go off on his own anymore because it’s dangerous and that there are “bad guys waiting to grab you.” This is how adults teach children to be afraid even when they are not in danger.
We are not the only parents in this position. Last summer, Debra Harrell of North Augusta, S.C., spent 17 days in jail because she let her 9-year-old daughter play at a park while she was working. In Port St. Lucie, Fla., Nicole Gainey was arrested and charged with neglect because her 7-year-old was playing unsupervised at a nearby playground, and Ashley Richardson of Winter Haven, Fla., was jailed when she left her four kids, ages 6 to 8, to play at a park while she shopped at the local food bank.
The problem with these cases, and ours, was not that police stopped to check on the children involved; that’s what we want officers to do if they have concerns about a child’s welfare. The problem is that, once it was determined that involved parents had already judged their children to be safe, the authorities didn’t move along. Instead they turned to heavyhanded legal and bureaucratic remedies that did far more harm than good.
Nationwide, providers of social services are burdened with overflowing workloads and backlogs of hundreds of cases. So why are they wasting time with us? Even if CPS is mandated to follow up on every call, why aren’t there objective, rational criteria to determine which situations warrant attention? As long as the trigger for an investigation is “child left unsupervised,” these workers will run themselves ragged and waste precious resources investigating families like ours while neglecting children who really need their help.
CPS’s work is vital and necessary, but the pendulum has swung too far. We need to take back the streets and parks for our children. We need to refuse to allow ourselves to be ruled by fear or allow our government to overrule decisions that parents make about what is best for their children. Overpolicing parents in this way does not make children safer; it disrupts families and makes our kids fearful, anxious and unhealthy. We also need to support groups such as the National Association of Parents, which fights for the constitutional rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, as long as the children are not harmed.
And whether through the legislatures or the courts, neglect laws need to be redefined to safeguard parents’ discretion to make reasonable risk-management judgments for their children, including the decision to allow them the freedom and independence that was the norm a generation ago and is still essential to their development and well-being.
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