Is “free-range” parenting a crime?

Family/Kids, NakedLaw, Opinion

Over the millennia, human beings have chosen to raise their children as they see fit, and according to a massive variety of societal norms and customs. But a relative newcomer has entered the scene of late: the neighborhood scold.

As the notion of “helicopter” parenting continues to proliferate—along with ever more sensationalist reporting in the media on child abductions and lurking pedophiles—the concept of “free-range” parenting has evolved alongside it. While the term refers to the idea that kids should be granted some level of freedom and personal space, as a precursor to learning self-reliance, some believe a more appropriate word for it is “neglect.”

Raising kids may take a village, as Hillary Clinton observed, but increasingly, it also involves calls to Child Protective Services.

There’s an argument for erring on the side of caution—some kids truly do need help, and CPS exists for a reason. Still, some see a pattern developing, and a problem for those who think raising kids is about more than absolute safety at all times.

“I’m concerned that in the average neighborhood today—where the crime rate is far lower than it was in the 1960s—adults are not looking out for neighborhood kids,” writes CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Mark O’Mara. “Instead of helping a youngster who may be in trouble, they’re calling the cops. And the police, instead of bringing children home, they’re handing them over to child services and arresting the parents.”

“I don’t believe kids need a security detail every time they leave the house,” adds Lenore Skenanzy, the host of Discovery Life Channel’s “World’s Worst Mom,” and blogger for “When society thinks they do—and turns that fear into law—loving, rational parents get arrested.”

See below for five recent examples in which ostensibly admirable intentions merged with debatable judgement, resulting in the arrest of parents who are primarily guilty of trusting their kids to make good decisions. And while getting arrested for child endangerment isn’t funny, this Daily Show segment on free-range parenting (starring Skenanzy) definitely is:

Kid locked out, parents locked up

In April of 2015, an 11-year-old boy in Florida came home from school to find himself accidentally locked out. He went behind the house to shoot baskets at the family hoop and wait for his parents to come home. Ninety minutes later, his parents arrived and were greeted by local police, who arrested them for child negligence. A neighbor had become concerned by the absence of adults, and as result, the two parents found themselves dealing with felony charges for the crime of letting their kid play basketball in the backyard.

Gated community still deemed unsafe

Last November, Sacramento mom Sonya Hendren found herself under legal fire after letting her 4-year-old son Tomahawk play alone at a playground 120 feet from her home. Both the home and the playground were within a gated community, but after a neighbor called CPS, she was hit with felony child endangerment and neglect. Hendren is currently fighting the charges and recently rejected a plea deal that would have put her in jail for 30 days. “We have a (CPS) case now,” Hendren said while speaking to the media, “and every time he’s not in my visual sight we’re in violation.”

Camping trip goes south

While vacationing in Massachusetts last summer, Charles Smith and Lindsay Pembleton, along with their boys, aged 7 and 9, were staying in a campground that featured a pedestrian path leading to a public beach. After a day spent playing in the water, Smith and Pembleton were ready to pack it in, but the kids wanted to stay a bit longer, despite the lightly falling rain.

After telling them to stay out of the water, the couple retreated to camp, telling the boys they could linger for another hour. That was long enough for a lifeguard to become concerned and call the police. Smith and Pembleton now face a charge of reckless endangerment for, as Sergeant Carrie DeAngelo put it, “leaving two boys ages 7 and 9 alone, without anyone knowing, without proper shelter from the elements and without any way of contacting them.”

Public park paranoia?

Florida mother Nicole Gainey, 34, faces charges for child neglect after allowing her 7-year-old son to walk alone over to a park—one he passes every day riding his bike to school—half-a-mile from his house. The child had a cell phone around his neck (his mom fashioned a case for him), and had just called to say he was about to come home for dinner when police arrived. “This is a small town and a safe area,” Gainey’s attorney John Whitehead, founder of the civil liberties group the Rutherford Institute, said. “Nicole knows she’s not guilty of anything, and she’ll plead that way if it comes to it.” If convicted on all charges, Gainey faces up to 5 years in jail.

CPS regulars in Maryland

The grand prize for abundant caution, however, goes to authorities in the town of Silver Spring, Maryland. The trouble started in December of 2014, when Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were investigated for neglect after letting their 10-year-old son and 6-1/2-year-old daughter walk home from a playground a mile from their house. Police stopped the kids on their way home from the playground, and the Meitivs found themselves under investigation by the CPS—again. CPS had been called a few months earlier as well, after someone noticed the children playing alone at a park around the block from their house (that investigation was eventually dropped).

More recently, the Meitivs find themselves in trouble yet again: After leaving their kids to play in a nearby park, a call came into the Montgomery County police department from a neighbor, and the familiar cycle played out again.

For their part, the police department claims the kids were in some level of danger. According to a statement, after finding the children at the scene, “the officer observed a homeless subject who he was familiar with, eyeing the children.” He then contacted CPS, which Maryland law requires when officers become aware of any possible case of child abuse or neglect.

But that explanation didn’t hold water for the parents, or their lawyer. “They know how to walk in the neighborhood. They’ve done this many times before,” said attorney Matthew Dowd. “And the police knew that the children knew where they lived. The police knew their phone number yet for whatever reason the parents were not called.”

The Meitivs are now working out how to keep their kids from getting picked up again, which means they won’t be allowed to play or walk alone again anytime soon. “We are shocked and outraged that we have been deemed negligent for granting our children the simple freedom to play outdoors,” Meitiv wrote in an email to CNN last month. “I’m not going to risk my kids being snatched again by CPS.”