After 'free-range' case, Maryland clarifies solo-kids policy

AP News
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Posted: Jun 12, 2015 3:40 PM

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — After an outcry over one family's "free-range" parenting case, Maryland officials on Friday clarified the state's policy on how authorities handle cases of children walking or playing alone outdoors, saying the state shouldn't investigate unless kids are harmed or face substantial risk of harm.

The mother in that case, which garnered international attention, called the clarification an important first step in reinforcing the rights of parents to choose how they wish to raise their children.

The updated policy directive about the involvement of Child Protective Services, first reported by The Washington Post, comes after the state agency ruled out neglect in the first of two cases against Danielle and Alexander Meitiv.

The Meitivs had allowed their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to walk home from a park in December. Police stopped the children and drove them home after someone reported seeing them, a case that prompted wide debate about so-called "free-range" parenting.

In the updated document, the agency specifically addresses when children are playing or walking unsupervised. It says children will not be considered neglected without evidence that while unsupervised the child has been harmed or placed at substantial risk of being harmed.

Danielle Meitiv said she welcomed the clarification, saying it highlights an issue of growing importance even though she still thinks it doesn't go far enough.

"I think what it reflects is that people really want to have these conversations," Meitiv said. "They want to have the conversations about justice and equity toward parents and also about over-parenting and how fear has so dramatically impacted how we treat children and how we treat families — and that needs to change."

The Meitivs, who live 6 miles from Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland, have said they have gradually allowed their children more freedom to walk on their own in familiar areas. The couple are "free-range" parenting advocates who encourage independence and exploration for their children.

A 60-day investigation window recently closed relating to a second case when their children walked home from another park in April, Meitiv said. The children were held by police and Child Protective Services, or CPS, for more than five hours that day.

Meitiv said the state's new policy clarification falls short because it doesn't specifically direct CPS to first contact parents before children are taken into custody. She also said CPS should respect decisions by parents to let their children walk unattended.

"Obviously CPS has an important role to play into protecting children. That role should not supercede the parents' rights and responsibilities to take care of their kids, because frankly I think the overwhelming majority of parents have their children's best interests in mind," Meitiv said. "I think CPS should start from that position."

At the time, CPS — which is part of the state's Department of Human Resources — pointed to Maryland law defining child neglect as failure to properly care for and supervise a child. The law covers dwellings, enclosures and vehicles.

The department said in its news release Friday that it was "mindful that every family applies its members own personal upbringing, life experiences and expectations to parenting, and it is not the Department's role to pick and choose among child-rearing philosophies and practices."

Matthew Dowd, a family attorney, said the policy clarification is a vindication of what the family has been advocating.

"Hopefully the momentum will continue and will move more in the right direction, both in Maryland and in other states, because this is not the lone instance of overreach by state CPS agencies," Dowd said.

Meitiv said her son still feels an urge to hide when he sees a police car, and her daughter was afraid to walk to the bus a couple of weeks ago, because she feared CPS would take her into custody. Still, Meitiv said she hopes her children have learned the value of rights and how people can change government policies.

"If they take that away, then that'll be the silver lining to everything we've gone through," Meitiv said.