When 'Stranger Danger' Is Actually Child Protective Services And A Nosy Neighbor

by Maria Guido
Originally Published: 

In November of last year, Danielle Meitiv was contacted by Montgomery Country Child Welfare Services after a “helpful neighbor” reported that her children — a six-year-old and a ten-year-old — were playing alone at a park a couple of blocks from her home. She and her husband Alexander are believers in “free-range parenting,” a parenting style that allows children to mature by gradually testing limits to see what they are prepared for. Both parents fully believed that their children were ready to play at the park alone together.

The Montgomery Child Welfare worker did not agree.

The law in Maryland states, “A person who is charged with the care of a child under the age of 8 years may not allow the child to be locked or confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle while the person charged is absent and the dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle is out of the sight of the person charged unless the person charged provides a reliable person at least 13 years old to remain with the child to protect the child.” The law doesn’t mention how old a child can be to be left alone to play outside, thus CPS is often left to interpret the law and decide when and if children are in danger.

The CPS worker decided that the “confined in a dwelling” part of the law was the same thing as “outside in a park,” but child services higher ups ultimately did not agree, and the case was closed.

Then in December of last year, police stopped the children again, this time while walking home from the park together. The six-year-old and ten-year-old were about halfway through a mile walk home. The police picked them up and drove them home after someone reported seeing them walking alone. The case was reopened, and Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were investigated for neglect. They were found responsible for “unsubstantiated child neglect.” In an email to Nightline after the case, the parents said, “We are shocked and outraged that we have been deemed negligent for granting our children the simple freedom to play outdoors. We fully intend to appeal. We also have no intention of changing our parenting approach.”

They meant it. According to NBC Washington, their children were picked up again this weekend, after a “concerned citizen” called to report that they were playing in a park alone in Silver Spring, Maryland at 5 p.m. on Sunday. The parents allege that they were frantically looking for their children because they were not contacted for three hours after they were picked up by police. And they weren’t frantic because they thought their children had been abducted; they told, “Our first fear was, ‘Holy cow. Could the police have stopped them?’ I actually had a nightmare about this a month ago, but I didn’t think it would actually happen.”

Here are Meitiv’s Facebook updates about the situation:

Danielle Meitiv says she still plans to let her kids walk home alone from the park. And why shouldn’t she? They are six and ten years old, and she obviously believes that they are ready.

What drives “well-meaning” onlookers to make assumptions about parenting and the safety of children? Journalist Glenn Fleischmen outlined some very interesting research in his article, Stranger-Danger to children is vastly overstated. It’s worth reading, because it points out that the scenario the “collective we” is most scared of when we express concern for children playing alone outside — that of a stranger snatching up a child — actually happens in less than 3% of kidnapping cases. Yet the idea that our children are in constant danger seems to be crippling parents in some situations and causing well-meaning onlookers to overreact and cause more harm than good.

If what her Facebook posts allege are true, this family is being terrorized by neighbors and CPS. On the one hand, it’s understandable that she would want to stand her ground. On the other, will this keep happening to her children?

Would you call CPS on a neighbor for something like this? If your answer is “yes,” can you also answer the question, “Why?”

Related post: I Ignore The News To Stay Sane As A Mom

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