Unsubstantiated, huh? I’ve got your unsubstantiated right here, you jokers. Claims that children are more vulnerable now than they were 20 years ago? Unsubstantiated. Claims that children are in mortal peril when they aren’t under constant supervision? Unsubstantiated. Claims that a pedophile/ax murderer/kidnapper will harm any child left alone for longer than zero-point-five seconds? Unsubstantiated.
You know what’s NOT unsubstantiated? The thoughtful and hands-on parenting of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, the Maryland parents who let their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter walk home from a park, unattended by an adult, much to the terror of pearl-clutching officials and Internet know-it-alls everywhere.
I know this is a shocking assertion, so prepare yourself, but the truth of this entire matter is that when a state’s law depends on the parents’ discretion (Maryland law doesn’t cover children outside on their own, only children left at home or in the car), then, hold on to your hats—it is THE PARENTS’ FUCKING DISCRETION. It is not your discretion, person driving down the street. It is not your discretion, person on the Internet. You know who knows those children the best? THEIR PARENTS. You know who knows the family dynamic the best? THE FAMILY. You know what the law says? MIND YOUR OWN FUCKING BUSINESS. The only discretion you need to assert, stranger, is whether you feel comfortable approaching a child you don’t know and questioning her. If she asks you for help, by all means, provide help. If she seems safe and in control, how about not calling the police? Trust your gut. This is the discretion you can wield.
Now I take a breath. Deep gentle breathing. And I say … of course there are exceptions. Of course there are family dynamics out there that are flat-out unacceptable for the children mired in those dynamics. Of course there are parents who do not look out for their children. Of course there are instances of abuse and true neglect. And of course those instances need to be investigated. Police and Child Protective Services walk a fine line of protecting children versus terrorizing families. One would think the line of what is hurting a child and what is not hurting a child would be fairly distinct. But what we’re finding out with so many cases of “well-meaning” strangers instigating police and CPS investigations against everyday families is that the line is, in fact, murkier than it’s ever been.
In this particular case, the claims against the parents were investigated. The children were interviewed. The parents were interviewed. It has been made very clear that the children were not just thrown into the wilderness and instructed to find their way home. The personal and (formerly private and unobstructed) dynamic of this family is to teach the children independence, encourage freedom, and then to exercise these lessons. This is what the police were told. This is what Child Protective Services was told. The parents, to the letter of the law, used their own discretion to judge the maturity of their children. And then that discretion was usurped.
As a screaming scrum of bureaucrats and Internet whackadoos hones in on these situations of “neglect,” I would like to say simply: Sirs, Ma’ams, if you do not agree with the choices a family makes, that is okay. But you do not get to condemn them for having a differing parenting style than you would prefer. If they were breaking the law, if they were hurting their children, if they were truly neglecting their offspring? Then by all means, condemn away. Prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.
However, condemning an obviously thoughtful and loving family for “unsubstantiated” neglect is both cowardly and unconscionable. If you, Child Protective Services, believe that these children were neglected, then have the balls to say it. If you don’t, then leave this family alone. Smudging their record while protecting yourself with cover-your-ass nebulous paperwork is cruel. If, in Maryland, allowing children to take a walk unattended is going to be considered neglect of ANY kind, then change the law. Leaving a family in years of limbo because of nebulous interpretations of a law meant to protect them is, in the words of my 12-year-old (who was also recently questioned by CPS for bogus reasons), “not cool.”
The unattended children laws in many states are set up to give parents the benefit of the doubt. They were created to keep the long fingers of the law out of our private affairs. What we’re learning now, though, is that a law that was designed to give parents the benefit of the doubt actually gives strangers the benefit of the doubt first. And then the police. And then Child Protective Services.
In the case of the Meitivs, the only thing truly unsubstantiated about their case is the success of the Unattended Children’s Law of Maryland. And that’s a bummer because there are some kids who do need to be protected, just not necessarily from parenting styles that differ from the ideals of strangers on the street.