By Donna St. George
June 11, 2015
|Supporters of free range parenting gather in Ellsworth Park on|
May 9, 2015, in Silver Spring, Md. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)
Maryland officials have taken steps to clarify their views about children playing or walking alone outdoors in a new policy directive that says Child Protective Services should not be involved in such cases unless children have been harmed or face a substantial risk of harm.
The directive, part of a public statement to be issued Friday, follows a nationally debated case involving “free range” parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, who let their young children walk home alone from parks in Montgomery County.
The Meitivs say they have gradually allowed their son, Rafi, 10, and daughter, Dvora, 6, more freedom to walk on their own in areas they know. But police twice picked up the siblings as they made their way home in Silver Spring, and CPS neglect investigations ensued.
The Meitivs were cleared on appeal last month in one neglect case. They are awaiting a decision in the other, they say.
State officials did not comment Thursday on the Meitivs’ experiences, saying such matters are confidential by law. But they stressed that they have no interest in trumping the individual choices parents make.
“We are not getting into the business of opining on parenting practices or child-rearing philosophies,” said Katherine Morris, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. “We don’t view that as our role. We see our role as responding when a child is harmed or at a significant risk of harm. It’s all about child safety.”
The statement echoes that thought, saying the state agency is “mindful that every family applies its members’ 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.”
Morris said the updated directive, which focuses on CPS screening practices, does not reflect a new position. It instead comes from a regular agency review process as “additional clarification” to the public and local departments of social services, she said. It aims to ensure consistency and alignment with laws and regulations.
The document replaces a similar one issued last year and includes new sections on unattended and unsupervised children.
Touching on an issue central to the Meitiv case, it says: “Children playing outside or walking unsupervised does not meet the criteria for a CPS response absent specific information supporting the conclusion that the child has been harmed or is at substantial risk of harm if they continue to be unsupervised.”
The document lists factors that CPS considers, including the nature of any injury, any parental actions taken to manage risks, a child’s age, and the period of time and setting involved.
Danielle Meitiv said Thursday that the state’s move could be a positive development but that it does not go far enough.
“I’m glad they’re clarifying it, but it still doesn’t give reassurance to parents that their desire to give their children freedom will be respected,” she said.
The state directive comes two months after the Meitivs’ last involvement with CPS, on April 12, when CPS and police held the Meitiv children for more than five hours. The family has said it intends to file a lawsuit.
Matthew Dowd, the family’s attorney, said the state’s updated policy “validates our position all along that there was never any neglect or potential neglect with the Meitiv children.”
Dowd said that although the directive could provide CPS workers with guidance, it remains short on detail. It lists factors that CPS would consider, for example, with “no insight as to how CPS will apply those factors,” he said.
“I think it’s written so broadly it will depend on how CPS implements this policy moving forward,” he said. “It doesn’t give you any guidance where they will draw the line in the future.”
Morris, the state DHR spokeswoman, said each potential neglect scenario is unique and CPS staff are trained to go through an extensive interview process. “I don’t think communities would want us to do a one-size-fits-all approach to assess whether a situation requires CPS to respond,” she said.
The new directive also addresses a state law on unattended children that says children younger than 8 in a building, enclosure or vehicle must be with a responsible person who is at least 13.
When the Meitiv case came to light, county CPS officials said they could look to that state law for guidance during investigations. But many who have followed the case have questioned whether the law applies because it does not mention children outdoors.
The new policy directive says the law was originally written as part of a fire code.
“The statute does not apply to children left unattended outdoors,” it says.
Dowd said CPS told the Meitivs the law did apply to their circumstances. The position that it does not apply is “long overdue,” he said, and “doesn’t undo the harm already caused by CPS’s improper investigations and detainments.”
Morris said she could not say whether such an assertion was made and declined to comment.