Free-range rules in Maryland

Like many parents across Maryland, Melissa Solares is concerned about the way society is leaning on free-range parents or even those who just want to instill a little independence in their children.

Solares does not yet let her 7-year-old daughter walk unsupervised to the elementary school playground just down the street from her Bowie home. But when she feels her daughter is old enough to do so, she wants to be the one to make the decision — without worrying that someone will call the police and she'll be investigated by child welfare workers.

Free range kidW"It's not just me who's worried about this, so many parents are paranoid," she says. "They feel like if they leave the kids alone for a second, someone's going to call the police on them.

"And I think that's really sad. ... It doesn't allow parents to make decisions based on their families."

Solares, a stay-at-home mother of three, is one of many following the debate over "free-range parenting" that's raged over the past several months and made the term pretty much a household phrase here.

Silver Spring free-range parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv sparked the debate when they ran afoul of the law for allowing their two children, 10 and 6, to walk home from a local park unsupervised. Montgomery County police twice picked up the two children, the second time in April when a man called them after seeing the two youngsters walking home alone. Both incidents prompted investigations by Child Protective Services, although neither led to charges.

The free-range philosophy is based on the belief that children need more freedom than many parents now allow in order to grow into independent, self-reliant adults. The acknowledged leader of the movement is Lenore Skenazy, a New York City writer and mother.

In 2008, Skenazy wrote a column for the New York Sun on allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the city subway system alone, and the furor has yet to die. She has since written a book on the subject, launched a website, freerangekids.com, and has her own television show on the Discovery Life channel, "World's Worst Mom."

Rules over independence

While the term might be fairly new, the debate at its core — how much freedom parents should be allowed to give their children and at what age — is anything but.

"The issue has been going on forever — as long as we've had child protection laws in this country," says Gisele Ferretto, a clinical instructor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work with 33 years of experience in the social work field, most of it dealing with child welfare.

Two laws in Maryland address the question of leaving your child alone, said Ferretto, who wrote a handout on the subject used to train Child Protective Services workers. The first, prompted by a 1984 fire that claimed the lives of young children left home alone, makes it a crime to leave children under age 8 unattended.

But the law confused many parents, Ferretto says, as it seemed to suggest it was OK to leave any child 8 and older unattended. So the state bolstered its civil child protection law by defining child neglect as leaving any child under 18 alone if circumstances indicate the child's health or welfare could be harmed.

This law, Ferretto says, allows child welfare professionals some leeway in determining what constitutes neglect — for example, leaving a disabled 15-year-old home alone.

In the wake of the Meitiv case, the state is still tinkering with its child protection policies. In June, Child Protective Services issued a new policy directive, saying the state should not even investigate cases unless the unsupervised child is harmed or faces "substantial risk of harm."

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Loose laws

But an Annapolis attorney who practices family law and who recently gave a talk to fellow lawyers on the subject of free-range parenting, says the directive does little to clear up what is acceptable parenting and what is not. For example, the directive does not say whether allowing a child to walk a couple of blocks home from a park unsupervised is a no-no, explains Jonathan Gladstone, the attorney.

What confuses parents, Gladstone says, is one person's neglect and substantial risk of harm are another person's safe parenting style.

"Neglect is supposed to be the embodiment of society's consensus on what attention is necessary," he says. "But that consensus is a moving target." What was acceptable parenting a few decades ago, such as letting your child roam the neighborhood unsupervised, might now be considered neglect, Gladstone says.

And that's the rub for many parents.

Nicole Bartels, former president of the Bowie-North MOMS (Mothers Offering Mothers Support), said the group's Facebook page erupted with comments after the Silver Spring incidents.

"A lot of people said it's a shame we live in a world where kids can't ride their bikes to the park," says the stay-at-home mother of a 5- and 3-year-old. She agreed, but adds: "I actually chimed in and said, 'I'm not sure we do live in a world where kids can't do that. I think we just created this world in our heads.' "

Bartels notes that crime has dropped over the past few decades, both locally and nationally. (Law enforcement statistics show the violent crime rate has dropped by about half in the past 20 years, both in Maryland and nationwide.) But due in part to social media and to extraordinary coverage of any child abductions, she says, "we are just more hyper-aware of the incidents. ... As parents we have a tight grip on our kids and we get very nervous that something's going to happen to them."

Despite her own nervousness on the issue, she hopes to begin letting go of her two children shortly.

"It's important for them to be able to be independent and to learn some things on their own, and not always have mommy holding their hand. I probably won't be able to completely let go," she adds with a laugh, "but probably around the age of 7 or 8, I'll give them a little more freedom."

Age of independence?

Social workers don't dispute the importance of fostering independence in children. They tell horror stories of their own about college-age students who don't know how to do their own laundry and of mothers who sob hysterically when they drop their children off at school, which prompts their children to do the same thing. They also agree there is no magical age for determining when children become independent.

However, they insist, some guidelines are needed to protect the children.

"The government does not want to intrude on families," Ferretto says. "The majority of parents are doing the best they can, and well-meaning parents are all the time making tough decisions about parenting. But sometimes their decisions or lack of a decision put the child in harm's way. And that's the role of protective services."

Patti Cummings, a social worker based in Annapolis who has worked with families for more than 30 years, understands where people are coming from with the free-range approach.

"The problem is, how does the system know what parents have done or haven't done to prepare their children to be able to accomplish things independently?" she says. Cummings believes there needs to be a set age for when children no longer need supervision. "You need guidelines."

Cummings likens child protection laws to traffic laws. "Everybody says, 'Who's the system to tell us how to parent?' " she says. "Well, who's the system to tell us how fast we can drive or that we have to wear a helmet while driving a motorcycle? You might be able to drive your Corvette safely at 85 miles per hour, but not everyone is."

Which side is winning?

Still, some wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far — whether the helicopter parents have won.

"There's a big gray area in parenting as to what falls into neglect versus what's just a difference in opinion in how to raise kids," Solares says. Her worry is that now the general consensus is falling more towards over parenting. "If you're not helicopter parents and with your kids until they're 12 years old, then you're somehow a bad parent."

Lena Temples, a mother of four in Pasadena, says the fear out there won't do kids any favors.

"...If we live our lives in complete fear, whoever the bogeyman is, is going to win," she says. "It teaches the child that they need to be uber-paranoid. And, it teaches them that if they fall down, mom's going to be there to pick them up, so they don't have to get back up on their own. They don't learn to trust their own instincts."

Temples said she often lets her 3-year-old daughter play in her front yard alone, and also lets her walk the half-mile or so to the local park with one of her teenage siblings.

"I know this is going to make me sound nasty, but I don't want to be there to hold her hand every minute of every day," Temples says. "Because I know that I'm not going to be able to ... So she has to have that independent streak. ... And she already does."

By Pete Pichaske

Click next below for tips for practicing free-range parenting safely.


Tips for practicing free-range parenting safely

The following tips, gathered from social workers, parents and parenting websites, offer advice for parents struggling with the balance of instilling independence and self-reliance in their children while protecting them from harm.

  • Know your child - When deciding how much independence to give, take into account maturity level as well as age.
  • Assign chores at an early age - Most 5-year-olds, for example, can help set the table with direction.
  • Direct your child at new tasks and challenges, but don't do them for her - Let her do it herself. And allow her to fail.
  • Prepare your child - Drill him on talking to strangers, on what to do when the doorbell rings, on how to do whatever task you are asking him to. Before free-range expert Lenore Skenazy let her son ride the New York City subway alone, she rode it with him many times, taught him how to read a map and gave him a fare card and money for emergencies.
  • When in doubt (or even when not) consult a professional: a school counselor, pediatrician, state social worker, books, parenting websites, or an organization such as the Family League of Baltimore.

By Pete Pichaske