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'Free-range' parents' nightmare: When teaching independence is called child neglect

'Free-range' parents right to appeal neglect decision for letting kids walk home from the park alone.

A heads up to parents: Allowing your children to walk home from the park alone can trigger an investigation by Child Protective Services, a finding of neglect and an open file on your family for at least five years.

That’s what happened to one family in Maryland. In December Danielle and Alexander Meitiv allowed their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to make the one-mile walk home from the park alone – as part of a larger effort to instill independence and self-reliance in their children. The kids were halfway home when they were picked up by the police, after someone called to report the unsupervised kids.

Montgomery County Child Protective Services spent two months investigating the family and found the parents “responsible for unsubstantiated child neglect.” That has to be the most bizarre not-innocent, but not-quite-guilty non-resolution possible.

CPS didn’t dismiss the report of neglect, nor did the investigation prove neglect. Instead, the finding of unsubstantiated child neglect means CPS will keep a file on the family for at least five years. And it leaves unclear what will happen to the family if someone calls in another report if the children are out unsupervised,  according to the Washington Post.

“What will happen next time?” Danielle Meitiv told the newspaper. “We don’t know if we will get caught in this Kafkaesque loop again.”

The Meitivs plan to appeal the decision, and they don’t intend to change their “free-range” parenting style.

Good for them. As I wrote previously, we need to give parents the freedom to parent. That means allowing parents to make conscious decisions about how they want to raise their kids. It means recognizing that reasonable people can have different opinions on what is and isn’t safe and what is or isn’t an age-appropriate activity. And when reasonable people disagree, the parents gets the benefit of the doubt.

That’s why the CPS finding of unsubstantiated child neglect is so frustrating, and why the Meitiv family’s story has drawn so much concern. A government agency is imposing someone else’s parenting standards on the Meitivs when it appears their standards are just fine.

For more opinions, follow me @kerrycavan

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