Tag: Free Range Kids

State-Sanctioned Kidnapping

For a long time, I’ve been writing about the growing government obsession with helicopter parenting. We’ve seen parents get threatened and sanctioned for such things as letting kids play in the street in a safe neighborhood.

A few months ago, I started following the story of the Meitivs:

In December, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv let their 10-year-old son, Rafi, and his 6-year-old sister, Dvorah, walk 1 mile home through Silver Spring, Maryland, alone. The kids got picked up by the police, who then turned the case over to child protective services. The Meitivs, as it happens, are “free-range parents” who have a very coherent philosophy about giving children more independence. They had let their children walk home alone that day only after practicing and felt the kids were ready.

In the letter to the Meitivs, dated Feb. 20, CPS says that it has closed the investigation. But a charge of “unsubstantiated” is not quite as definitively closed as “ruled out.” (The third option is “indicated,” the equivalent of guilty.) Danielle told the Washington Post she felt numb when she first opened the letter and then told her husband, “Oh my God, they really believe we did something wrong.”

CPS officials did not say they would keep an eye on the Meitivs. But now they have a charge of child neglect in their file, which puts them in a precarious position. They believe strongly that children should be able to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. But they no doubt believe even more strongly that they don’t want to be at any risk of having their children taken away from them for a second charge of neglect. Why on earth should the state have any right to put them in that predicament?

Emphasis mine. And lying … theirs:

The children of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were taken into custody by county police at a park about 5 p.m. and turned over to the Child Protective Services agency, said Capt. Paul Starks, the county police spokesman. The children’s mother said they were released to the couple at 10:30 p.m. Sunday.

The parents said the children, who are 10 and 6 and have been described as “free-range children,” had been expected home at 6 p.m. Sunday. When that time passed, the parents said, they began looking for them.

“We have been searching for the kids for hours,’’ the mother said in a Facebook posting. They learned of the children’s whereabouts about 8 p.m. The mother said they later spent about a half-hour at the CPS offices in Rockville without being allowed to see them.

Starks said police were dispatched after a stranger saw the unaccompanied children in the park near Fenton and Easley streets. He said police took the children to the CPS office.

(Lenore Skenazy has often talked about these stranger reports. She makes a good point: it’s appalling that someone’s first instinct on seeing two kids walking home from the park is to call the cops. Not to ask the kids if they’re OK (which, to be fair, can be construed by the panic-minded as predatory); not to be familiar with their neighborhood so that they know the kids are fine. Their instinct is to call the police, a decision that by law starts a CPS investigation.)

You can follow more on Lenore’s awesome blog. There does seem to be a bit of vindictiveness here. CPS took their kids and didn’t tell them for three hours. That is, every parent’s fear was realized only it wasn’t strangers kidnapping the kids, it was the state. After keeping them for another two-and-a-half hours, the Meitivs had to sign a temporary safety plan where they agreed not to let the kids out of their sight.

This boggles the mind. CPS is claiming that they simply responded to the report of a stranger and followed standard procedure. Even if that’s true, even if they didn’t specifically target a family that made their overzealousness a national story, it’s still insane. CPS’s defense of their actions is that is standard procedure to take into custody a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old who are walking unaccompanied in a safe neighborhood during daylights hours, not notify the parents for three hours, holds the kids for five-and-a-half hours and only release them if the parents agree not to let the kids out of their sight.

To be fair to CPS, they claim Maryland law is on their side. The law says that no child under eight can be left in a building without someone over age 13 accompanying them, which sounds crazy to me and would have gotten my parents jailed. But it does not apply to kids walking home from school or a park, where the law asks the CPS to judge the situation. If the facts in this case are as the Meitivs allege, then I think the Silver Spring CPS has too much time and money on their hands and not enough abuse and neglect to keep them busy.

Parents Into the Machine

Lenore Skenazy recently put up this story out of DC. The basics are that two girls, ages 6 and 7, went into their backyard. Without the permission of their parents, they wandered away and ended up in a nearby mall. A stranger spotted them and called the police. If you’re familiar with how our legal system works, you know what happened next:

The police came with admirable speed. Somewhat less admirably, they chose to put the girls in the cruiser (with no car seats) rather than, again, resorting to the completely available option of calling their parents to come get them. They brought the girls back to us a total of twenty minutes after they first walked out of the door. They could have just told us what happened and admonished us to keep better tabs on our children. They could have just handed over their official-looking little card about age restrictions (which they incorrectly believed to be law, but which in fact were only county recommendations) and told us not to let it happen again. But you see, when you call the police, this creates pressure on the police to Do Something. So what they did was arrest us—one parent from each family, our choice, with no chance for private conference to decide. They tried to arrest us for felony neglect of a minor, but apparently even the magistrate thought that was ridiculous, so they went for misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a minor instead. They informed us that we would be reported to the Department of Social Services and probably contacted by Child Protective Services — which we have been.

The families are now in the hell of CPS, facing trial, racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees and facing the possibility of losing their children. Oh, yeah, the children. Remember them?

I find it difficult to imagine that you know what it’s like to be afraid that your own government will punish you for having done your best to be a good parent. To be arrested for absolutely nothing anyone is even claiming that you did, in the middle of a peaceful afternoon of sewing and childcare. To jump every time the phone rings, every time a car slows down. To forget for a few minutes or an hour, as the days go by, and then suddenly remember with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. To have to let a stranger into your house—a stranger with the virtually unchecked power to take your children away from you—so that she can poke around and interrogate your child and decide whether you are fit parents. To see your confident, strong-willed child afraid to play outside or let her little sister do so, because the lesson she has taken from this is to “never go outside.”

This is not an isolated incident, by the way. Parents are routinely being harassed or arrested for letting any kid on the fair side of puberty out of their sight. Our legal system is making a clear statement: kids must be manacled to their parents at all times.

The fundamental problem is that too many Americans think of the police as being like Andy Taylor. They think that if you call the police in this situation — in any situation — they’ll just give the people a good talking to. Some of them do. But the system is heavily canted against anything approaching common sense. In the initial phases, it is designed to treat everyone like a criminal. There are massive disincentives to just let something slide. And there no disincentives to going to the wall and wrecking someone’s life over something trivial.

Let’s say the judge decided this was a stupid case and threw it out. Would the cops be punished? Would CPS? No. They would be praised for “doing their job” and giving the last full measure to make sure kids are safe even if what they did traumatized kids who were doing perfectly fine. Our system sees CPS investigation as something that only does good — it is pure benefits without costs. It doesn’t care about the people whose lives it turns upside down.

The whole system is set up to make a literal federal case out of everything. And it can be even worse. Out in Texas, the cops responded to a noise complaint with a SWAT-style raid, tasering a grandmother five times and dousing kids with pepper spray. We have built a legal system that believes that you can never go too far in executing the law, only not far enough.

Frankly, if I were in charge of DC, I would see this — as I see all law enforcement excesses — as a clear indication that someone’s budget needs to be cut. If CPS has so much time on their hands that they can waste resources on a case like this, they clearly have too many people in their employ and too few cases of genuine abuse. If law enforcement has so much jail space that they can arrest some parents because their kids wandered out of the backyard, they clearly have too much time on their hands.

The only way to stop these abuses is for there to be consequences. There won’t be, of course. So you can expect the next abuse to be even worse.

The Captive Child

The Atlantic has a long but must-read article by Hannah Rosin on the overprotected child. In it, she documents how children today, despite increased safety and lower crime rates, have far less freedom to explore and be kids than previous generations did. We’ve harped on this before, but Rosin cites example after example of how little freedom we allow our children and how much of what makes childhood fun (and important) is being taken away.

There are too many good part to quote selectively. But here’s a key one:

I used to puzzle over a particular statistic that routinely comes up in articles about time use: even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to. This seemed impossible to me until recently, when I began to think about my own life. My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?

As an academic, I see the impact of this on young adults. We seem to be getting more and more “adults” who simply can’t function with mom and dad or some equivalent. They not only don’t object to parents calling professors about grades or coming to job interviews with them, they expect it. They expect their professors to hold their hands and cater to their every whim like their parents did.

But, ironically, given their first taste of even moderate freedom, many engage in dumb risky behavior. Only whereas previous generations’ risky behavior involved forts and creeks, these involve alcohol. That’s not a good tradeoff. Everyone has to take risks in life to realize where the boundaries are and when there fears are reasonable. Aren’t they better off taking those risks on the playground than the dorm room?

Not all college students are like this, of course. Not even a majority. But every professor or researcher I know has a recent tale of a kid who can’t cut the apron strings or who can’t function like an adult. Maybe they’ll grow up at some point. But wouldn’t it better for them to grow up a little as kids instead of trying to compress it all into four years of college?

I fear we’re fighting a losing battle on the Free Range Kids front. Our legal system massively favors over-parenting — in divorce fights, the kids are almost always given to the more overbearing parent. But there are still a few glimmers of hope that we can rescue childhood from the iron triangle of politicians, lawyers and media hysterics that have taken it away.