By Aabru Madni
Debates over parenting styles are always a point of contention for courts. Typically, courts would rather avoid meddling in family affairs and parenting styles. Nonetheless, some of the more questionable parenting approaches find their way to court. Recently, debates regarding a parent’s choice to vaccinate their children have found the limelight, especially after a measles outbreak in California and with recent legislation in response to the outbreak mandating that public schools ensure a significant number of students are vaccinated upon attending. With states taking stronger stances, proponents of full-fledged parental autonomy seem to be fighting an uphill battle. Amidst all of the excitement generated from the vaccination issue, another parental approach is being challenged in court: free-ranged parenting.
The concept of free-range parenting has sparked a new debate about how much freedom parents should be allowed to give to their children and what the appropriate limits to parental autonomy are, if any. This particular issue is reminiscent of another hotly debated concept: helicopter-parenting – which refers to parents that hover over their children’s every move. These two parental approaches are in direct conflict with each other, and over the decades, both have put forth issues for courts to address. The debates boil down to what the appropriate balance is between the two approaches, and how involved courts should be in monitoring parents.
The free-range parenting issue became the media’s focus when a Maryland couple was forced to sign a safety plan with Montgomery County agreeing that they would not leave their children unsupervised. This came after the Meitiv’s 6 year old and 10 year old children were stopped by police on their walk home one from an area park one day after an onlooker reported seeing them walking alone. The Meitiv’s believe in free-range parenting, which is a style of parenting that encourages childhood independence and exploration. The couple says that they have gradually allowed their children to take longer walks together in areas that they know. The incident in question was the first time that their children were spotted walking alone. The second time their children were picked up by police was more recently, when again, the two children were walking home from an area park together and another onlooker called police. This time, the children were held in the back of the police car for over four hours before being transported to a children’s holding location and the police informing their parents that the children were in police custody.
Regardless of how people weigh-in on the free-range parenting issue, there are only rare instances in which police may use their discretion and refrain from contacting the parents of the children for a standard period of time. Such instances include occurrences of gross child abuse. Here however, it appears as though the Maryland police were attempting to teach the Meitiv couple and their free-range parent-counterparts a lesson in leaving their children free to explore unsupervised. With such a strong display of police discretion, the problem is no longer whether courts and the law should govern parents on what is appropriate child supervision; it is inevitable that courts must intervene in particular situations that demand their attention. The police involvement in the second instance of the Meitiv children’s unsupervised walk home indicates the law enforcement’s self-prescribed function of teaching citizens a lesson. In this instance, law enforcement has abused its discretion and overstepped its authority by taking on a parental role with its citizenry and implementing punishments as they see fit. Sadly, the Meitiv children bore the brunt of the police punishment when they were treated like criminals and held in the backseat of a police car for hours before their parents were informed of their whereabouts.
This particular case also raises the issue of how Maryland courts oversee child neglect cases. Child Protective Services claim that Maryland law defines child neglect as “failure to properly care for and supervise a child.” This broad definition leaves much to be decided by courts on a case-by-case basis. Despite this, the Meitiv’s had a child neglect case brought against them for the first incident of leaving their children unsupervised. The court decided to leave the status of the neglect as ‘unsubstantiated’. Unfortunately, this decision leaves much unresolved, both for the parents involved in this case with respect to their clash with law enforcement over their parenting style, and for the rest of the debating parents wondering what parental choices are appropriate within the law.
Finally, the issue of free-range parenting exposes the reality of the goodwill of community members. Instead of onlookers making a good faith effort to ask unsupervised children whether they are okay or if they knew where they were, the onlookers jumped to the hasty conclusion that the parents were criminally neglecting their children and decided on a whim to involve law enforcement. While onlookers do not have a duty to rescue, with the help of modern cellular technology, ‘good Samaritans’ are finding it easier and quicker to contact law enforcement when they see something that appears out of the ordinary.Unfortunately, this sort of anonymous and fast action perpetuates a “climate of judgment that seems to have permeated the national consciousness” and allows for differing parenting styles to become subjects of legal and public scrutiny. This climate of judgment lacks consideration of parental circumstances that typically lead to the decisions parents make when supervising their children.
The Meitiv case serves an interesting segue into conversations about police discretion, court involvement in parenting styles, and child abuse and neglect law, but it also begs the question: if these children were people of color, walking home from down the street in a low-income neighborhood, would anyone call the police to report parental criminal neglect? And if yes, would those low-income parents be imposed with a finding of ‘Unsubstantiated Neglect’ or would they face more burdensome criminal sanctions for exercising their parental autonomy? On its face, the free-range parenting debate raises questions about relatively well off parents making decisions to allow their children to roam their neighborhoods unsupervised, but only because those parents have the option to make such a decision. However, further analysis of this debate exposes the privileged position of higher income parents demanding parental autonomy and freedom from public scrutiny and demonstrates that the national debate on free-range parenting fails to consider the more nuanced discussion surrounding circumstances of the less-affluent, underprivileged parents, who have no choice sometimes but to reasonably leave children unsupervised in order to be able to provide basic life necessities for them.
 DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep’t Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189 (1989) (holding that the government has no obligation to protect children from the harm of which the state is acutely aware).
 Id. (ruling on child custody situation and granting custody to the father who was later responsible for gross child abuse which social workers were vaguely aware of).
 Brian Snyder, No More Vaccination Waivers – California Lawmakers,Reuters (Feb. 5, 2015), https://rt.com/usa/229715-california-vaccination-bill-mandatory/ (discussing SB 277, new legislation in California that requires all children to receive vaccinations prior to attending public school, only allowing for exemptions in cases where a preexisting medical condition would prevent a vaccination, and mandating schools to make vaccination rates public).
 Lizzie Widdicomb, Mother May I?, The New Yorker, (Feb. 23, 2015),https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/mother-may.
 Id. (describing helicopter-parenting as the belief that children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape and free range parenting as a response to this mode of parenting).
 John E. B. Myers, Legal Issues in Child Abuse and Neglect Practice, 82 (1998).
 Donna St. George, Montgomery Seeks Clarity Stemming from Free-Range Parenting Debate, Wash. Post, (Apr. 22, 2015),https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/montgomery-council-seeks-clarity-stemming-from-free-range-debate/2015/04/22/a74fd086-e82e-11e4-9767-6276fc9b0ada_story.html (hereinafter “Free-Range Parenting Debate”).
 Donna St. George, Investigation into Md. ‘Free-Range Parenting’ Case Unresolved After Meeting, Wash. Post, (Jan. 26, 2015),https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/inquiry-into-parents-who-allowed-their-children-to-walk-home-alone-unresolved-after-meeting/2015/01/26/f9a870bc-a1c6-11e4-9f89-561284a573f8_story.html(hereinafter “Investigation”).
 Free-Range Parenting Debate.
 Free-Range Parenting Debate.
 WTOP Staff, ‘Free-Range’ Parenting vs. ‘Helicopter Parenting’, WTOP, (Jan. 15, 2015), https://wtop.com/parenting/2015/01/free-range-parenting-vs-helicopter-parenting/.
 Donna St. George, Unsubstantiated Child Neglect Finding for Free-Range Parents, Wash. Post, (Mar. 2, 2015),https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/decision-in-free-range-case-does-not-end-debate-about-parenting-and-safety/2015/03/02/5a919454-c04d-11e4-ad5c-3b8ce89f1b89_story.html.
 Id. (meaning that CPS will keep a file on the family for at least five years and leaves open the question of what would happen if the Meitiv children get reported again for walking without adult supervision).
 Free-Range Parenting Debate.
 Thane Rosenbaum, The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What’s Right (2004) (describing the that in common law, generally there is no duty to rescue another).
 Kim Brooks, “What a Horrible Mother:” How a Call From A “Good Samaritan” Derailed These Mothers’ Lives, Salon, (Apr. 19, 2015),https://www.salon.com/2015/04/19/what_a_horrible_mother_moms_arrested_for_leaving_their_kids_in_the_car/.