Danielle Meitiv and her son, Rafi. (Sammy Dallal/For the Washington Post)

THE DEBATE over “free-range parenting” has reignited in Montgomery County. A couple determined to let their young children wander unsupervised in Silver Spring has come into conflict a second time with child welfare authorities. No matter what one thinks of the wisdom of their parenting — and we have qualms — there surely should be better ways of looking out for the interests of these children than the bungled events of Sunday evening. Mistakes were made, as they say — but a lot of people being vilified were acting in what they saw as the children’s best interests.

For the second time in four months, Montgomery police picked up the children of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv — Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6 — as they walked home from a park near their house. The Silver Spring couple want their children to become self-reliant the old-fashioned way: In a Post op-ed in February, Ms. Meitiv argued that giving children “an opportunity to learn to make their way in the world independently is the best way to prepare them for adulthood — and . . . it is safe for them to do so.”

Sunday’s events were triggered by a good citizen who saw two unsupervised children and, worried for their safety on a deserted urban street, called police. Likewise, police should not be chastised for checking on these children and, in an abundance of caution, putting them in a patrol car and contacting Child Protective Services.

That, though, is when things started to fall apart. The children were held for 5½ hours, including two hours in the police cruiser, before Child Protective Services returned them to their parents. Why did the agency take so long to decide what steps to take? Why did its officials tell police not to contact the parents, and why did they wait two hours before telling the Meitivs the whereabouts of their children? Child Protective Services doesn’t comment on cases, so we are left to wonder whether incompetence or a desire to teach the parents a lesson was responsible for the delay.

The Meitivs bear some responsibility, too. Not only did they thumb their nose at the county’s cautions — they previously had been found responsible for “unsubstantiated neglect” — but they may have contributed to the delay in connecting with their children by not contacting authorities when their children didn’t come home on time. The Meitivs have stopped talking to the news media and have retained a lawyer for a possible lawsuit.

We think that’s unlikely to end up helping these children. Maryland law says no child under the age of 8 should be left in the care of another child younger than 13. It applies to closed spaces, apparently, which the Meitivs say frees them to let their children navigate their way around Silver Spring. But the law reflects what has become a community standard, at least in the big city, as do the calls from concerned citizens who see the Meitiv children unchaperoned. If the Meitivs think the standard is unreasonable, maybe they should take their case to Annapolis and see if the elected legislature agrees.

Meanwhile, police and Child Protective Services are continuing their investigation of possible child neglect. We don’t think that’s likely to help, either. But the agency has an unenviable job. If it takes no action, and harm comes to the children, its agents will be blamed for that, too.