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June 21, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

By being good parents and determined to stick to their guns, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv have forced Montgomery County, MD Child Protective Services to make sensible changes to how they handle allegations of neglect. Read about it here (Washington Post, 6/11/15). Or have they?

The Meitivs of course are parents who raise their kids according to the “free range” model. That is, they encourage the children toward greater independence by allowing them to do more and more as they get older. That’s only done after the children prove themselves capable. So the Meitivs allowed their children, who are 10 and six years old, to walk home alone from a park and later to play unattended at another park a few minutes’ walk from their home. The children were perfectly capable of both and were never harmed in any way.

But, in both cases, someone decided they were in danger and called the police and CPS. In the first case, the parents were threatened with having the kids taken into foster care and forced to sign a parenting plan suitable to CPS. In the second case, the kids were picked up by the police and not allowed to go home or phone or see their parents for about three hours. During all that time, Alexander and Danielle had no idea of where their children were and neither the police nor CPS employees managed to let them know. In short, both the police and CPS were guilty of abusing the children and their parents.

All of that has resulted in an astonishing amount of publicity for the Meitivs and free-range parenting. Just about all of that supports Alexander and Danielle and excoriates the arrogance and abusiveness of public authorities involved in the cases. Top that off with a good lawyer hired by the Meitivs to sue CPS for its rather flagrant violation of their parental rights and for terrorizing their children, and we have a child protective authority that’s ready to climb down from its position that any parental decision is subject to second-guessing by CPS.

They are now singing an altogether different tune.

Maryland officials have taken steps to clarify their views about children playing or walking alone outdoors in a new policy directive that says Child Protective Services should not be involved in such cases unless children have been harmed or face a substantial risk of harm…

State officials did not comment Thursday on the Meitivs’ experiences, saying such matters are confidential by law. But they stressed that they have no interest in trumping the individual choices parents make.

“We are not getting into the business of opining on parenting practices or child-rearing philosophies,” said Katherine Morris, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. “We don’t view that as our role. We see our role as responding when a child is harmed or at a significant risk of harm. It’s all about child safety.”

The statement echoes that thought, saying the state agency is “mindful that every family applies its members’ personal upbringing, life experiences and expectations to parenting, and it is not the department’s role to pick and choose among child-rearing philosophies and practices.”

But of course “trumping the individual choices parents make” is precisely what the police and CPS did in both cases involving the Meitiv children. As almost everyone to remark on those cases pointed out, the children were never harmed nor “at significant risk of harm,” and yet they were put through the CPS wringer anyway. Indeed, the second case is still pending before CPS.

To state the obvious, CPS wants the world to believe that this is really no change, that it’s been their policy all along, that the new statement is merely a “clarification.” Nonsense.

What’s happened is that CPS unsuspectingly came up against adversaries with the education and the money to stand up to the usual state hegemony over parenting decisions. Alexander and Danielle are both highly educated professionals and their parenting of their children is of the most careful and scrupulous kind. They have an idea of their rights as parents and are willing to assert them. As such, they’re not the usual sort of parents with whom CPS deals. CPS caseworkers mostly deal with the poor and uneducated, i.e. the type they can run roughshod over, the type who believe they have to allow caseworkers into their homes without a warrant, the type who can’t afford a lawyer even if they know they’re the victims of CPS injustice.

So, for CPS, the Meitivs are unexpected and unfamiliar opponents, the type who can stand up for themselves. Count on it; CPS will end up paying the Meitivs and their children significant sums of money. Plus, CPS thuggishness has been exposed nationally. Hence the public climb-down and the pretense that it’s all really just business as usual.

And maybe it is. The Meitivs and their lawyer rightly point out that the new directive is wide open to interpretation. After all, what exactly is “a substantial risk of harm?” Could a caseworker view a couple of children walking home from a park as facing “a substantial risk of harm” just as one apparently did with the Meitiv’s children? My guess is that’s at least possible and maybe predictable.

Danielle Meitiv said Thursday that the state’s move could be a positive development but that it does not go far enough.

“I’m glad they’re clarifying it, but it still doesn’t give reassurance to parents that their desire to give their children freedom will be respected,” she said.

Matthew Dowd, the family’s attorney, said the state’s updated policy “validates our position all along that there was never any neglect or potential neglect with the Meitiv children.”

Dowd said that although the directive could provide CPS workers with guidance, it remains short on detail. It lists factors that CPS would consider, for example, with “no insight as to how CPS will apply those factors,” he said.

“I think it’s written so broadly it will depend on how CPS implements this policy moving forward,” he said. “It doesn’t give you any guidance where they will draw the line in the future.”

Where they will draw the line, I predict, will have a lot to do with the nature of the parents involved. Any future Meitivs will likely receive the respect they’re due as fit parents. But let a poor or uneducated parent do the same with his/her children and my guess is the regulations will be applied differently.

I know that’s a cynical point of view, but the sad truth is that the enormous weight of child protective services, like that of the police, always falls most heavily on the poor and uneducated. Every bully since the dawn of time has preferred the weakest victims, those least able to stand up for themselves.

So the Montgomery County CPS, having been embarrassed by their own behavior in cases involving tougher opponents, has decided to say some of the right things. After all, they’ve got a lawsuit staring them in the face. But, as Danielle said and Matthew Dowd echoed, just how those words are applied to other people in other not-so-public cases remains to be seen.

I won’t put a lot of money on CPS keeping its word. CPS trumping parental decision-making occurs every day; I don’t see a couple of free-range parents stopping it.

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