Par­ents lobby to give chil­dren more free­dom

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

Bran­don Lo­gan would like to be the kind of free-range par­ent who al­lows his chil­dren to bike down to the pond and fish near their home in Austin, Texas, but he doesn’t dare let them go without him.

It’s not that he thinks his chil­dren, ages 10, 8 and 7, would be in any dan­ger. In­stead, he wor­ries that per­mit­ting them to go fish­ing un­su­per­vised a half-mile from their home would trig­ger a call by a well-mean­ing neigh­bor to Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices.

“And I’m not alone in this,” Mr. Lo­gan said. “If you look at the num­ber of chil­dren who are out and about in my neigh­bor­hood, it’s very, very few. There are kids in houses and back­yards, but to get them to play out front or to go to the pond and fish, or to go to the store and get a Coke, it’s just not some­thing that hap­pens.”

Mr. Lo­gan plans to do some­thing about it. At the Texas Pub­lic Pol­icy Foun­da­tion, he is work­ing on a bill to pro­tect par­ents who al­low their chil­dren to walk home, play at a nearby park, or stay home for a few hours un­su­per­vised from be­ing slapped with a ne­glect ci­ta­tion.

“To me, the key is ne­glect­ful su­per­vi­sion should be about bla­tant dis­re­gard of parental re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” said Mr. Lo­gan, who heads the foun­da­tion’s Cen­ter for Fam­i­lies and Chil­dren. “That is not what hap­pens when a par­ent makes the con­scious de­ci­sion to let their chil­dren play out­side, or walk back and forth from school, or stay at home for a short pe­riod of time.”

Ten years af­ter New York City mom Lenore Ske­nazy made head­lines by let­ting her 9-year-old ride the sub­way by him­self, the grow­ing free-range par­ent­ing move­ment has run up against the long arm of the Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices sys­tem, which has sanc­tioned par­ents for of­fenses less heinous than giv­ing chil­dren ac­cess to mass tran­sit.

Hor­ror sto­ries about par­ents be­ing cited for let­ting their chil­dren en­gage in on­cecom­mon­place ac­tiv­i­ties are le­gion, but the ten­sion came to a head in 2015 with the pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing the Meitiv case in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land.

Free-range par­ents Alexander and Danielle Meitiv were charged with ne­glect and threat­ened with the loss of their chil­dren, ages 10 and 6, for al­low­ing them to walk home alone from a lo­cal park, al­though the charge was later dropped.

Ms. Ske­nazy, who now heads Let Grow, a non­profit aimed at pro­mot­ing child­hood self-suf­fi­ciency, be­moaned the fact that her push against “bub­ble-wrap­ping” chil­dren has now made some par­ents “ner­vous that they could get ar­rested.”

“The last thing I wanted to do was make peo­ple more fear­ful, and un­for­tu­nately the ones who weren’t afraid of preda­tors be­came afraid of good Sa­mar­i­tans,” Ms. Ske­nazy said. “So OK, my bad, let’s make sure par­ents know they can’t get ar­rested for trust­ing their kids and their com­mu­nity, un­less they’ve done some­thing that is de­lib­er­ately dan­ger­ous or sta­tis­ti­cally dan­ger­ous.”

Driv­ing the leg­isla­tive push is Diane Redleaf, le­gal di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Hous­ing and Child Wel­fare, who has worked on na­tional and state pro­pos­als to re­de­fine the “ne­glect­ful su­per­vi­sion” stan­dard used in child pro­tec­tion cases by rais­ing it to in­cor­po­rate “bla­tant dis­re­gard” for a child’s wel­fare.

“We have a huge sys­tem of sweep­ing peo­ple in for child pro­tec­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and we don’t have very clear stan­dards for de­ter­min­ing what is a se­ri­ous ne­glect case and what is rea­son­able par­ent­ing,” said Ms. Redleaf. “That’s the is­sue of why we need a clearer line in the law na­tion­ally and in the law in ev­ery state.”

The move­ment has al­ready notched one leg­isla­tive vic­tory: In April, Utah Gov. Gary Her­bert, a Re­pub­li­can, signed a bill spec­i­fy­ing that “ne­glect” does not in­clude al­low­ing a child to en­gage in “in­de­pen­dent ac­tiv­i­ties” such as play­ing out­side, walk­ing to school, or be­ing left at home or in a car unat­tended un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances.

The bill’s spon­sor, Re­pub­li­can state Sen. Lin­coln Fill­more, de­scribed the mea­sure as a push­back against the “he­li­copter par­ent­ing” trend, which has been ex­ac­er­bated by me­dia at­ten­tion on stranger kid­nap­pings and other alarm­ing but sta­tis­ti­cally rare haz­ards.

“I think so­ci­ety has just be­come so afraid of the vol­ume of im­ages that we see on so­cial me­dia or in tra­di­tional me­dia that we have this sense that the world is a lot less safe than it used to be, even though the op­po­site is true — that a child is safer be­ing raised to­day than at al­most any point in recorded his­tory,” Mr. Fill­more told NPR.

Bet­ter safe than sorry?

Each year, about 3.4 mil­lion cases in­volv­ing 7.4 mil­lion chil­dren — roughly 10 per­cent of the U.S. child pop­u­la­tion — are screened by Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices. Of those, 650,000 cases re­ceive a ne­glect de­ter­mi­na­tion.

“If kids play out­side, if they’re left in cars, if they’re al­lowed to walk home from schools, CPS will very of­ten in some places — not ev­ery­where, but in many places in the United States — ac­cept hot­line calls and call that ne­glect,” said Ms. Redleaf, a Chicago lawyer who founded the Fam­ily De­fense Cen­ter.

She said those found guilty of ne­glect may find their names on a child abuse regis­ter, which could dis­qual­ify them from jobs in health care, ed­u­ca­tion and other fields.

What’s more, such a find­ing “hap­pens very of­ten on the say-so of just a case­worker and their su­per­vi­sor. They just de­clare you to be a ne­glecter. And some states don’t even have an ef­fec­tive sys­tem to al­low you to chal­lenge that,” said Ms. Redleaf.

For case­work­ers, of course, the pres­sure to be safe rather than sorry when de­cid­ing whether to in­ves­ti­gate re­ports of ne­glect can be in­tense.

An As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion in 2014 found 786 chil­dren had died of abuse or ne­glect in a six-year span “in plain view of child pro­tec­tion au­thor­i­ties.”

In a 2017 re­port, the Chil­dren’s Ad­vo­cacy In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of San Diego School of Law ac­cused the fed­eral gov­ern­ment of “al­low­ing states to fall be­low min­i­mum stan­dards with re­gard to ap­pro­pri­ately de­tect­ing and pro­tect­ing chil­dren from child abuse and ne­glect.”

Not ev­ery­one is on board with the leg­isla­tive push. Last year, Ar­kan­sas law­mak­ers de­feated a mea­sure sim­i­lar to the Utah bill af­ter House Speaker Jeremy Gil­lam ar­gued on the floor that it takes only 37 sec­onds to car­jack a ve­hi­cle with a child in­side.

While no­body wants au­thor­i­ties to ig­nore ac­tual cases of abuse, Ms. Ske­nazy ar­gued that there are also costs as­so­ci­ated with in­ves­ti­gat­ing par­ents for of­fenses such as leav­ing chil­dren in the car for a few min­utes while pick­ing up dry clean­ing.

“Once CPS kicks in, they go through the list: Did your par­ents give you drugs? Did your par­ents show you movies with naked peo­ple?” said Ms. Ske­nazy.

She pointed to a 2016 case in which au­thor­i­ties or­dered three chil­dren to un­dergo phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions for signs of child abuse af­ter their mother left them briefly in their mini­van watch­ing videos while she popped into a Star­bucks in Evanston, Illi­nois.

“The No. 1 way kids drive is as car pas­sen­gers, and no­body gets in­ves­ti­gated for driv­ing their kid to the den­tist,” said Ms. Ske­nazy. “Some­how we’ve de­cided that when a par­ent is with a child do­ing any­thing that could be once-in-a-blue-moon dan­ger­ous, that’s OK. But if a par­ent isn’t with a child, some­how that’s neg­li­gent.”

There are dan­gers as­so­ci­ated with even pre­sum­ably safe child­hood ac­tiv­i­ties, said Mr. Lo­gan, not­ing that chil­dren who stay home play­ing video games in­stead of bik­ing to the park run the risk of obe­sity.

“The myth is that there’s some risk-free par­ent­ing de­ci­sion,” he said. “Child­hood is risky.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dvora Meitiv (rear) and her brother, Rafi, made their own way home un­til their Mary­land par­ents were in­ves­ti­gated for child ne­glect.

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