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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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