Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, the Silver Spring parents under investigation for allowing their children, ages 6 and 10, to walk around town without adult supervision, believe they are raising their children to become responsible adults, but their free-range parenting style, which has resulted in two recent run-ins with police, is sparking controversy.
“Free-range is for chickens and cattle, not for children,” said Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children.
“Free range parenting is not parenting at all,” he said. “We are awfully tired of hearing about naïve adults who put their child in harm’s way to learn at the child’s expense.”
But a hands-off approach to raising children has its supporters. A petition to the Maryland General Assembly on the website change.org urges legislators to “focus on real instances of child neglect” and let parents “responsibly raise” their own children had 923 signatures as of Tuesday morning.
Several people who know the Meitivs described them as caring parents who don’t buy into the stranger-danger theory that encourages children to shy away from anyone they don’t know. Nor are they helicopters parents, who hover closely, scrutinizing every move their children make.
“No question about it. They take care of their kids very well,” said Manuel Lopes, who lives across the street and has known the family more than five years.
“In a nutshell, [their parenting is] coming from a very good and thoughtful place,” said someone close to the family who did not want his name used as he was not authorized to speak for them.
According to him, Danielle Meitiv feels so strongly about free-range parenting that she wants to make a statement. There is a “justice component” to their free-range parenting, he said.
“They see poor people, people of color” who have their children taken from them by the state because they may have left them alone to go to a job interview that could raise the family out of poverty. These families don’t necessarily have the same societal standing or financial means to fight any charges against them.
“They are fighting on behalf of so many others,” he said. “They are fighting for a cause.”
Also, he said, both parents are scientists and live in a data-driven world. The Meitivs talk about how the risks of anything happening is less than in years past. People talk of what a dangerous world it is — pointing anecdotally to the latest crime they heard on television news — but “in fact, the data suggests otherwise,” he said.
Attorney George Heym, a former child abuse prosecutor in Pennsylvania, agreed. “I can tell you from my experience dealing with child abuse cases on a daily basis for a number of years, abduction is far and away the least frequent crime that you see against children. And of those abductions, stranger abductions are the most minor percentage of that,” he said. “The vast majority of child abductions involved custody disputes.”
Fear of abduction may have been on the mind of the caller who was walking his dog when he phoned Montgomery County police at 5 p.m., Sunday, April 12, and said he saw two children in the area of Fenton and Easley streets. He told police the children seemed OK and even petted his dog but that he decided to follow them.
Throughout the emergency call, he alerted police where the children were walking and what they were passing, according to the audio of the call that was released to the public.
An officer answering the call found the children by the Fenton Street parking garage, according to a news release from county police. “The officer observed a homeless subject, who he was familiar with, eyeing the children,” it said.
The officer contacted Child Protective Services “per established protocol. Under Maryland law, police officers who become aware of circumstances involving possible child abuse or neglect are mandated to contact representatives of Child Protective Services,” according to the statement.
The children were taken to CPS offices in Rockville, and an investigation begun by CPS and detectives from the county police’s Special Victims Investigations Division. That investigation is ongoing. The children were picked up by police Dec. 20 in a similar incident.
According to the Meitivs’ attorney, Matthew Dowd, a partner with the law firm of Wiley Rein, Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6, were playing outdoors and were only “three short blocks from their home” when they were stopped by police.
“The police demanded that the children get into one of the police cars, under the misleading ‘assurance’ that the police would bring them home,” according to a written statement from Dowd. Instead, according to Dowd, the children were detained in a police car for almost three hours and kept from their parents for more than six hours.”
“The police never called Danielle or Alexander,” the statement continued. “Nor did they allow Rafi and Dvora to call their parents.”
The family is considering filing a lawsuit, claiming that their rights as parents were violated.
Following advice from their attorney, the Meitivs declined to be interviewed.
Under Maryland law, children must be at least 8 years old before they can be left alone in a house or car. However, there is no law specifying how old children must be to walk alone outdoors. Neither Virginia nor the District of Columbia has set a specific age when a child can be left alone legally.
The parents “are thoughtful, outgoing, personable. They seem to have their stuff together,” said a neighbor.
He called the matter “totally overblown,” and called free-range parenting a real issue. “I think what’s blown out of proportion is that stranger-danger thing,” he said.
Theirs is a safe neighborhood, said another neighbor. The children “seem real prepared.” A life where kids can go to the park and have fun on their own, “that’s the kind of world I want to live in,” said Sandy, who didn’t want her last name used.
The homes surrounding the Meitivs’ are well-tended. Brightly colored tulips bloomed in front of many front yards. The Meitivs have a garden with bright green lettuce leaves already emerging. Yet their home, which sports a mezuzah on the door, is in clear sight of Fenton Street. A laundromat, 7-11 and Greyhound bus station are within a very short walk.
Within a 15-minute-walk is the home of the new Silver Spring library and downtown Silver Spring. It’s the kind of neighborhood that Silver Spring civic associations boast about — suburbia with an urban touch.
Lenore Skenazy, founder of the book, blog and movement known as Free Range Kids, believes allowing children to play outside not only isn’t negligent or abusive, it’s even common in other countries.
“I think that we’ve become so convinced that any time a child is not directly supervised, they are in incredible danger,” she said.
Free-range children are not automatically neglected. Rather, Skenazy said, they learn “that their parents believe in them.” Free play and free time “is really good for developing a lot of characteristics that we like to see in our children like problem solving, confidence, focus. All those things happen when they have to figure out things for themselves.”
Skenazy said Jewish parents are required to do three things for their children. “One is have them study Torah. Two is teach them a trade. And three is teach them how to swim.” Learning a trade and how to swim “recognizes that our job as parents is to create self-sufficient adults. The Torah doesn’t say our job is to give our children water wings,” she said.
Raffi Bilek, director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, said parenting should be a combination of doing and stepping aside: “There’s a happy medium. Parents should not be watching their kids every step. Parents should not be buying helmets for when [their children] learn to walk. Parents should not be letting their kids wander around whenever, wherever.”
Good parents “assess what is a reasonable level of responsibility,” he said. Most kids can walk around their neighborhood but are they prepared should something arise, he questioned.
“Kids are individuals. Parents are individuals. And you need to figure out what’s right for your family as well as their safety,” Bilek said.