Child abuse and child neglect are serious crimes. Some U.S. laws are designed to protect children from their very own parents.
Recently, two parents who live in the state of Maryland, near Washington, D.C., were found guilty of “unsubstantiated neglect.”
What was their crime? The parents let their two children walk home together unsupervised from a neighborhood park.
The children are a 10-year old boy named Rafi and his 6-year old sister Dvora.
The two siblings like to play at their neighborhood park. After playing, they walk home – by themselves.
And that is a problem says Maryland’s child protective services agency.
This incident has restarted a debate in the U.S. about the amount of independence parents should give their children.
Some people object to courts telling parents how to raise their children. They also think children benefit from exploring the outside world without a lot of supervision.
Opponents say this so called “free-range parenting” can put children in danger.
Rafi and Dvora’s parents, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, are both trained scientists. They defend "free-range parenting."
Free-range is usually a term used to describe farm animals that live uncaged. With parents, it means loosening control over your children. Danielle Meitiv explains.
"The idea of free-range parenting is really that your children need the freedom to explore. They need to be alone, without parents. They learn to take risks. They learn to be independent.”
But opponents say children may not be able to safely navigate the world alone. They may not be able to cross the street safely. They may get lost. They could get hurt or, a parent’s worst nightmare, kidnapped.
Supporters of free-range parenting argue that many more children die in car accidents than are kidnapped. But, they say, parents still put children in cars all the time.
The Meitiv parents say they slowly let their two children take walks by themselves. They first made sure Rafi and Dvora knew the area well.
But on December 20, 2014, the two young Meitivs went farther than usual. They walked home from a park that is a little more than a kilometer away.
Police officers stopped the children as they walked along a busy street. They drove the children home.
What happened next came as a shock, says Alexander Meitiv, their father.
"When they brought them home I thought they would release the kids -- it's my house, my kids -- but apparently they had some procedure to go through which required me to give them my ID.”
Mr. Meitiv says the police would not let him go to his children. They physically blocked him. Rafi, the older child, called his mother who was out of town. He said he felt afraid, or scared, that the police were going to arrest his father.
"At first I was just a bit annoyed because we know that they're not allowed to do this and what we're doing is allowed. And then I started to kinda (kind of) get scared because I thought that maybe they would like my arrest my dad or something."
The police did not arrest Mr. Meitiv. However, a few hours later, an investigator from Child Protective Services, or CPS, showed up at their house.
Mr. Meitiv says the CPS investigator came with, what she called, a “safety plan.” This “safety plan” called for Mr. Meitiv to have his children under supervision at all times. Mr. Meitiv refused to sign the paper. The CPS investigator threatened to take his children from him and call the police if he did not sign the “safety plan.”
How is neglect defined?
U.S. federal law defines neglect as “failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm.”
Many U.S. states do not have laws that say at what age a child can be left alone. Maryland does. Child Protective Services opened the Meitiv investigation based on a Maryland law that makes it illegal to leave a child younger than eight with anyone under the age of 13.
Danielle Meitiv says she and her husband did not violate this law.
"It says children may not be left unattended while confined or locked in a building, dwelling, enclosure or vehicle. They were not locked or confined anywhere. They were outdoors playing in a playground or walking home."
“Free-range parent” is just another name for “old school”
This is not the first time the U.S. has debated free-range parenting.
In 2008, a journalist in New York City named Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year old son ride the subway alone. Then Ms. Skenazy wrote about it, calling it “free-range parenting.” The name stuck.
Reason.tv interviews Lenore Skenazy, October 2012.
Some called Ms. Skenazy the “World’s Worst Mother” for putting her child in danger. She now has a television show called “World’s Worst Mother” where she helps parents who are too protective.
Free-range parents such as Danielle Meitiv say that letting your children be out in the world alone is how most American children played just a generation ago. This is the way children still do play in many parts of the world.
She remembers her own childhood when she was permitted to go almost everywhere alone.
"Up until this generation, it was perfectly normal for children to go to the park by themselves or down the block or run errands for their parents or walk home from school. It's only very recently that this has become unusual."
For now, the Meitivs say they feel as if they are living under a cloud of uncertainty. Child Protective Services will keep the case against the couple open for at least five years. The Meitivs still do not know what will happen if their children walk or play outside by themselves in the future.
I’m Anna Matteo.
Do you think the Meitivs pushed the limits of free-range parenting? Or do you think the courts have over stepped their bounds? At what age do children play unsupervised where you live? Thanks for sharing your viewpoints in the comments section.
Julie Taboh reported this story from Washington, D.C. for VOA news. Anna Matteo wrote it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
unsubstantiated – adj. having no basis in reason or fact
sibling – n. a brother or sister
scared – adj. afraid of something; nervous or frightened
free-range – adj. allowed to move around freely; not kept in cages
constant – adj. happening all the time or very often over a period of time
uncertainty – adj. something that is doubtful or unknown