Free Range Parents: Why Maryland CPS Probably Did the Right Thing

Current Trends by Natasha Sapp

It is one of the most hotly debated topics in the current era, parenting; ever since there were doctors, experts and parents with a knack for the task willing to write books on child rearing there have been endless discussions on the subject. The famous doctor Spock and his book decrying spanking, his equally controversial quasi-reversal saying sometimes it’s ok; we’ve  now gone past the popular pregnancy manual staple What to Expect When You’re Expecting and can get books on Christian parenting, authoritarian parenting, passive parenting, aware parenting, raising emotionally healthy boys, confident girls, co-parenting after a divorce, single parenting, parenting every age of child from infant, toddler, school age, teenage, even the college years, parenting a spirited child, parenting a strong willed child, right down to recently popular books on raising children Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Bringing Up Bébé staking up other cultures to ours. So much so foreign studiers of parenting trends often accuse American parents of turning their child into an independent research project, life goal, implying at least, to the exclusion of all else. Creating the dreaded, much despised and talked about helicopter parent, obsessed with germs, fretting over their child’s feelings and self-esteem, afraid to let them go anywhere unattended leading to pictures on book covers, accompanying magazine, internet articles showing kids incased in either bubble wrap, duct or caution tape symbolizing this parenting type’s overprotectiveness; hints the pushback penned in the titles mentioned directly above. Also movements going back to how today’s parents were raised allowed to, expected to do things like walk to the park alone, go to the local mall, library alone or with siblings, friends, given responsibility to pick up an item at the store, other simple errands when adults are stuck at work, snarled in traffic to the horror of some parents; so called free range kids harkening back to the 1950’s 60’s 70’s and 80’s, parenting that was acceptable, the primary spokesperson for the movement says, just one generation ago. But when does our time warp become more than simple nostalgia, crossing the line not only to potentially dangerous, screaming probably dangerous, even at odds with the law crafted for situations in the 21st century, taking into account both perils and advancements in knowledge and technology?  One family found out when they were shockingly, to them at least, turned in to local child protective services after letting their 10 and 6 year old children walk home alone from a nearby park; CPS’s final ruling touching off still more debate and discussion finding the parents guilty of unsubstantiated neglect and leaving their case active for the next 5 years. Most siding with the parents citing it as another example of a nanny state run amuck, including ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams weighing in for Good Morning America’s Heat Index segment discussing, viral, tending topics.

Perhaps contrary to “old school” common sense, no Mr. Abrams what CPS did in this case isn’t nuts, it isn’t attaching legal finding to something that should remain the discretion of the parent, person whose legally responsible for the welfare of a child; this bares no similarity to schools banning popcorn, string cheese, nuts and canned fruit from children’s lunches brought from home, worse without giving an explanation leaving news anchors to their own speculations on allergies, choking hazards and the sharp edges of can lids. It is nothing like the laundry list of things parents of kindergarten children are told not to let their child do or bring to school, they must then sign upon admittance, the middle school principal who practically demanded parents keep their tweens off social media stating they were too immature to handle it or the thousand and one over reactions by schools making headlines; because, those really are infringements into parents’ rights to decide benign things about their specific, individual child, children in their household. This is not on par with one high school making prom on a school night and mandating attendees then show up for class the next day to curb prom after party drinking, driving, potential alcohol poisoning, vehicular death, isn’t akin to the curfews enacted by cities nationwide to curb youth crime. Primarily because the high school truly had surpassed its jurisdiction, not in trying to regulate the safe, school sponsored prom venue, rather in trying to dictate what they do after, what their parents allow them to do after, what they do post the safe environment given unbeknownst to parents. Because, suddenly making it against city ordinance for a teen to see a midnight showing of the latest Hunger Games, Insurgent or the upcoming Star Wars flick sans a parent, be in trouble for going to the 9:00 showing that gets out at or after midnight, needing proof from a boss, community program they worked, were present at an established activity 5 pm to close, to completion to avoid getting their parents in legal trouble only creates more work for adults, not necessarily limited to parents, provides one more reason not to arranged activities involving teens, hire teens for jobs, and neither scenario solved, solves the underlying problem. Particularly when police in the latter area should concentrate their time, resources, efforts on actually stopping all crime, youth crime not ferretting teens home who haven’t done anything wrong, dangerous or illegal apart from be out late, usually with a parent’s permission. Here, what likely got the attention of the well-meaning caller isn’t simply a 10 year old at the park alone, walking to/from alone but the reality he was also responsible for his six year old sister; the understanding this wasn’t, as Abrams stated, a neighborhood, that park being approximately a mile away, video showing major thoroughfares, wide, busy streets, despite crosswalks, ripe for small children to get run over alone independent of if they have been taught to cross the street, cross such congested streets. Nor were the authorities, the government brought in to dictate, decide if a 10 and 6 year old should be walking alone, drawing legal lines based on retracing their steps, asking how many crosswalks there are; CPS responded to a call about possible abuse/neglect and conducted a, mandated by federal law, investigation. What they found was in fact, according to Maryland penal code, they had the parents dead to rights for breaking a law regarding child supervision that states; children under age 8 must be in the company of someone 13 or older. A statute put into place, by the way, to establish, more than a guideline for citizens, but likewise for child services, social workers, judges in charge of truly deciding cases. Now almost no one is going to go out and research their city, state, county CPS statutes before choosing to allow their child a privilege, yet these parents are wholly unrepentant, numerous times speaking to press, cameras detailing they have no intention of changing their ways, will continue to let their children walk alone to the park, elsewhere. Instead of upon hearing this is the law, waiting, changing tactic in that small way to comply with said law, perhaps going through legislative, activist campaign channels to attempt changing the law, they are hiring attorneys to fight back, go after CPS. Lessening the “nuts” perception surrounding the ruling, people believing unsubstantiated neglect sounds like a trumped up term giving social workers, state entities manufactured reason to pry into your personal business, tell you too much about how to raise your children, believing the ruling should read either there is evidence of neglect, legal process and/or  assistance services to the family moving forward, or there is no evidence to support a neglect claim, case is closed, it seems Maryland child services took the middle ground. Unlike similar parents across the country, they were not arrested, they face no charges under the current, just concluded investigation, no jail time is pending, their children are not being taken away; what the ruling did say, they are going to keep the case open and watch. If they receive no further calls, get no further complaints regarding these parents, find those complaints baseless, the file will close after 5 years. Should a complaint be housed, something is found process will go forward appropriately. Whether Abrams is correct in inferring they found it but didn’t think they could prove it, or are exercising discretion, easily seeing the evidence, parent behavior as inconclusive, they chose to ere on the side of caution for the benefit of the child. Don’t we wish all CPS cases did so?

Arguers for the free range movement, for raising your kids free range, for returning to the formula of yesteryear declare it gives kids more confidence, independence, improves social skills, gives them practical tools for growing up, forming them into the adults we want them to become; or so says the John Stossel report below. An admirable sentiment to be sure, yet most agree putting a 10 year old in charge of a 6 year old, the crux of the Maryland case, is fraught with problems; sidestepping the horrible what if’s involving predators, kidnappers, molesters, even fellow motorists in their cars, crossing crowded streets and what could go wrong, there are practical concerns. Let’s say there is a disagreement about when parents said to be home, one wants to go home the other does not, is the 10 year old supposed to leave his 6 year old sister at the park, walk home to get his parents to deal with the problem, parents having to go to the park to retrieve their child obliterating spare time for them?  Now you have a 6 year old playing in the park alone generally deemed unacceptable as the child is too young; letting them go together projects an idea they will play together too, but what happens if or when 10 year old is playing with other children at the park doesn’t see his sister approached by suspicious adult, doesn’t see sister wonder off chasing a ball, a butterfly, she gets lost, is lured into trouble by older children? Similarly the cop who arrested a Florida mother for letting her son go to the park, a half mile from home, alone may have an erroneous reason, the large number of sex offenders near the area, who should not be allowed that close to a park to begin with, age still matters and 7 is too young. Contrast that to the mom who let her 9 year old play in the park all day while she worked; A- this child is 2-3 years older than the youngest children detailed, had money to walk to a McDonald’s for lunch and B- was only left to play, asked to play in the park while mommy worked when the i-pad she was using to entertain herself at mommy’s work, during summer vacation was stolen. Looking closely at the Stossel report such occurrences are daily, run of the mill parenting for them, their children; including a 9 year old who took the subway to a strange place and survived, his parents proclaim, regardless of news frightening parents, another 7 year old allowed to walk home from a local mall’s car show stopped by a cop because he was alone, without food/water prompting the following viewer comment: The police charged the father with a crime because his 7 year old child didn’t have “nourishment” for a 1 mile walk home!? This pathetic cop seriously doesn’t think a human being can walk for 15-20 minutes without needing to take a break and drink water and eat a meal!? At least claim it was because the child was unsupervised. This cop should be kicked off the force and criminally charged with harassment and false imprisonment. What a terrible human being.”[Sic] Next a girl  who prided herself on being able to run adult like errands, occasionally picking up the family dry cleaning, one who could make better  pancakes than her mother, routinely has the run of the home’s kitchen. However the family therapist interviewed  has point about why do we have to rush kids into being mini adults  7,8, 9 10; a question that goes for everything from school uniforms to what is seen in report footage. Outrage perhaps rooted in our approximately 12 year old, unless she goes to a posh private school, plans to attend a relatives wedding doesn’t have anything to dry clean, so maybe her parents should handle a parent activity letting their child be a child. Secondly too much responsibility for boys too soon has been shown leads to the negative effect of perpetual immaturity requiring psychological counseling to combat. Stossel’s own reaction to subway mom almost illustrates it better than our vehemently opposed therapist does confronting the “it was his idea defense,” because they want to and because they learn is not a good enough answer either. Forget smoking, drinking, driving your car in the 7-10 age range exaggeration accompanying  her perspective and think about why supervision laws have become so prevalent; beyond drunk driving, drugs, vandalism teens get up to even the beating, killing of disabled, homeless people by teens, it isn’t how they learn good decision making, not in these presented scenarios anyway. Family therapist is also right about child decision making in a situation they cannot predict, they don’t make better choices under these parents’ definition of free range; I, my friend see this in our neighborhood over and over, a maximum 8 year old kid put in charge of younger kids approximately 4, 6, 2. 2 year old playing in the street, oblivious to passing cars, imminent danger; one child was reprimanded by my friend for treating her 9-12 month old sibling like a doll pushing it in a  stroller, other apparatus feet dangling almost to the ground on the realistic fear the smaller child’s feet could be permanently damaged, parent nowhere to be seen. Children in our area routinely destroying the community garden, climbing on our areas postal boxes grouped together in one place, using the clothes lines for a jungle gym, getting into fights; the on-site laundry mat recently instituted new rules, no child under 18 allowed unsupervised, based on legitimate complaints kids were making mess, being loud, tearing up equipment, disturbing people trying to wash and/or dry clothes. My friend pulled her child from the school bus in first grade to avoid the bullying, fighting and chaos, perpetuated by significantly older children, at the bus stop where no parents were. Going against the common parenting grain, parents interviewed by Stossel believe there is greater risk if you do not raise children to be independent, problem solve, make decisions on their own, teach them about predators, what to do, distilling it to, if they make a bad decision, get hurt they know not to do it again; example free range kids climb trees extolling the value of kid putting foot on branch, unsure it will support weight, pulling foot back versus parent saying branch can’t support foot. Mentality exemplified by one man who said; “what’s a broken leg, it’s only 6 weeks?” Unfortunately, broken legs, arms are not only possibility, and it’s not always only 6  weeks, even 8; children can while climbing trees fall, literally smash head and die, suffer life along, life altering spinal injury, suffer so much damage to limb they become an amputee. Yes these are the extreme cases, but will you call it extreme when it’s your child? Family therapist addressed that too saying she wouldn’t want to play Russian roulette with her child; Dr. Phil said it better: “you want them to scape knee, not amputate a leg. Proving it isn’t simply that you free range parent, that you have gone back to the old ways of doing things, it’s how you parent, free range or something else.

Free range parents often refute helicopter parenting and guilt, blasting society for naming parents who don’t have the time and resources for micro supervision bad parents, emphatically announcing that isn’t the case; simultaneously they seem utterly oblivious to recent trends in the last 5-10-15 years prompting laws, business/public area policies to change regarding child supervision, forging safety for the time being, why library security was so watchful of the free range kids. She didn’t think it strange they were there looking at, checking out books; she was cautiously aware because they came to the library in a pack, at minimum 5 or 6, no adults, assuring they didn’t begin making too much noise, knocking over displays, throwing books off selves, tearing them up, disturbing other visitors patronage of the library, because that was her job and there have been numerous kids who have gone into businesses at the mall, establishments like the library and run around making ungodly noise, torn up, broken things. Many were outraged the car show 7-year-old’s dad was criminalized for letting his child walk home, found it ludicrous the cop thought the child should have nourishment for the mile walk home; except in dealing with kids here’s how that happens, cop approaches child, asks where are his parents, child admitted to being scared at this point, thus clams up, doesn’t say anything, answer questions understandably enough. Meaning cop has no idea how long child has been out wandering without food/water, on a hot day at 7. Neither is it helicopter parenting to adequately supervise your child based on age and maturity level, to comply with basic local laws akin to the ones highlighted in Maryland; that says, opposite of some obtuse interpretations, not you must supervise your child until 18 as if they were 2 or 5, just no child under 8 in the care of anyone under 13. My local school district, where my friend’s children all attend, has a policy; children are not allowed to walk to school alone until 5th grade. My friend’s oldest child was 9 before she let him walk to the local Granny’s House after school program, no more than 3 streets from his house, by himself. Going back to the tree climbing example, one huge difference is a parent telling a child to get off of a tree that may be dead, is wholly unsafe because it is too small to climb at the child’s weight, telling a child to only go so high to prevent having to call the fire department because they can’t get down, and never letting them climb, telling them where to, not to, put their feet. Key ingredient missing from the free range model as previously described, evident in the parents profiled thus far, demonstration of any comprehension of child development, age appropriate expectations for children, understanding of general consensus on when it might be ok to let a child walk a mile someplace alone, when to cook minimally supervised, go to the mall unattended. There is a different way for nearly every situation free range parents put their children into than what they chose or the helicopter method, incasing them in bubble wrap; most, myself included, had they been subway mom would have said ok for the next 6 months show us you can go places you have been before, return safely, are not frightened, don’t get lost, then we’ll try what you want for a short distance. You can still let kids walk to parks and so forth giving them exercise, but if Florida mom was available to tell her 7 year old he could go to the park, why couldn’t she walk with him, pick him up at lunch time, bring lunch, you both eat and agree on a time you will be back to pick him up? If they are too young, shy, timid to speak up to authority figures about where their parents are, where they live, how long they have been out somewhere; they are not ready, information that would have saved car  show dad a lot of grief. Kids firstly learn “team skills, cooperation, working together skills” in kindergarten, on school playgrounds when supervised, yet they can build on, enhance those skills still, organize their social lives, look out for each other if they are supervised as opposed to micromanaged. Take them to the park, let them play and just watch unless there is a serious fight, real physical danger; I myself have spoken out about the importance of children learning life skills, handling money, ordering food at a counter, purchasing an item, items at a store. The way you do it remains of paramount importance; take a group of children on an outing with money let them go to the counter independently order their choice and come back to the table, identically do the same thing at the mall, fast food place only interviewing if adult cashiers have a problem. Then when the child is 10, 11, 12, let them go to the mall for the day; incidentally only one or 2 looked old enough for the plethora of things their parents more than allowed but expected. Absent too, more than veiled mention of any prep work done throughout the child’s life before letting them do what was reported to Stossel, things chronicled in related stories; how many times did the child turned loose in the kitchen cook with mom or dad, how many times does the child cook at home alone, if at all, rather it’s likely she cooks with adults at home in case of major problem. Did subway mom (and dad)  ask their son while on the subway together to read the map, where the next stop was for the store they were going to, the stops going from where they were to home, was he already proficient at it when he asked them to let him go somewhere new by himself? Certainly some instances were silly the mother who wouldn’t let her 10 year old child cut meat on his own plate, the mother arrested for letting her children ride scooters in the street directly in front of their house with her watching, caller to police not seeing her; certainly none of the parents should have been arrested, handcuffed, charged, have to bond out of jail for thousands of dollars be facing years in jail. They should be placed on notice what the laws are and given guides to age appropriate freedoms commiserate with those area specific municipal codes, child protection statutes.

Another assertion by free range parents, companies have figured out they can get a lot of money from parent’s fear selling, one parent showcased dental impression kits for kids, GPS monitors attached to the child, their backpack, their shoes were also featured as part of the protection industry despite a 50 year low in crime, according to one mother, across all demographics, women to pets; citing the abductions, abuse, even unthinkable murder of children as extreme fed up with the news scaring parents. But it’s not unsubstantiated fear, an “all messed up perception of risk” facing children today when it comes to safety; there are real predators, sickos and psychos out there, real cases where children have had the unthinkable happen and you don’t have to go all the way back to the Lindbergh baby to find it. The one thing our parents, grandparents and great grandparents can be forgiven is they didn’t know any better, not having the in depth news coverage of today, circa the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, early 80’s, the understanding of psychology that has partially unraveled the why behind such heinous crime or the historical precedent illuminating such unfathomable cruelty was possible. Conversely these people, who are also parents, drastically downplay safety risk, outright ignore repeated known cases displaying exactly why our views have changed in the last 60 years. Leaving the 50’s 60’s and 70’s the bygone era they should be, avoiding the identical nostalgia trap free rangers have fallen into, the decade (s) everyone wants to go back to, let’s look at solely the last 25-35 years of merely one generation ago; a single year prior to that established bracket 1979 saw the case of Etan Patz, a New York 6 year old who disappeared after his parents let him walk a measly 2 blocks to school alone, recently resurfacing in headlines when new evidence lead to his alleged killer and again earlier this year when a man stood up in court during the suspects trial saying he could be Etan. 2 years later came the horrible story of Adam Walsh, son of famous crime show host john Walsh, who disappeared from a Florida department story playing with a video game display while his parents shopped; his severed head and nothing else was found a little less than a month later. Those home dental impression kits don’t seem so farfetched up against that do they? By the mid to late 80’s our nation had finally come to realize this was no longer the iconic world of before, Patz’s disappearance sparking a national missing child campaign i.e. faces on milk cartons, Walsh’s murder eventually leading to the foundation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, while schools began teaching concepts like stranger danger and other safe kid measures directly to the children themselves. Sadly to present day it hasn’t stopped the flood of missing children not embroiled in parental custody fights, not run-a-ways fleeing broken, dysfunctional homes but who simply fail to return home after school, never come home from sleepovers, playing at friends’ houses, birthday parties, trips to the local park, Polly Klaas 12, the impetus behind California’s tough 3 strikes law, abducted/murdered in 1993. Just being alive, coming back alive is hardly enough when victims may not wish to be; Jaycee Dugard vanished in 1991 at age 11 walking to her school bus stop; we now know she spent a grueling 18 years held captive by convicted, repeated sex offender Phillip Garrido, kept in a back yard shed like building, subjected to regular sexual assault resulting in 2 children by her abuser. Like Dugard deemed well pasted old enough to catch a school bus unsupervised, Shawn Hornbeck was perfectly capable of riding his bike to a friend’s house and home or so his parents thought, though nothing, no training, self-protection can compete with being dragged off at gun point, not found until 4 plus years later when his abductor and abuser kidnapped another boy from his rural bus stop; Ben Ownby 13, wasn’t spared the sexual abuse and other tortures endured by Hornbeck held only 4 days before rescue. The Cleveland kidnap victims missing for as long as 11years, the last befriending the perpetrators own daughter; Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michele Knight, reappearing in 2013 when Berry was finally able to escape call police and give her name. For the record all happy to be back at home, attempting to rebuild their lives reconnect with family, never giving up hope, determined not to let their abuse, their abusers rule them; giving the false day dream to parents that even if the worst happens and my child is taken, is abused together we can get through anything. However too quickly forgotten are the ones who, though they return, are more than never the same but unable to cope, function, forget, never mind make peace with what happened to them, who live lives of drugs, drinking, suicide, chronic mental health issues, incarceration directly linked to what happened to them. And there is a long history winding through our favored decades indicating these things always happened with alarming frequency, and while crime may indeed be currently down, it doesn’t appear child abduction, attempted abduction is. In fact it appears to be getting steadily worse regardless of prevention efforts, awareness, child safety classes, tutorials done through school, available for parents to enroll their kids in via communities nationwide, making the free range parents’ attitude all the more reckless and unconscionable especially at the ages they allow their kids to do select activities alone, solely with friends, siblings.

Yes there are only roughly 115 stranger abductions of children per year; unfortunately hundreds of thousands run away, are caught up in parental, relative custody battles or we have no idea what really happened to them, in the United States alone; undoubtedly it is better to prepare children, give them tools, information, secure them in the knowledge they know what to do if confronted by a bad guy, someone trying to molest them, kidnap them, god forbid, kill them. But when a child’s own home, own bedroom isn’t safe, who could forget Elizabeth Smart snatched by pedophile religious fanatics, and what the hell happened to JonBenet Ramsey, her parents cleared years after of any involvement, Klaas was taken at knife point from her own bedroom during a slumber party where her eventual killer tied up 2 other children, Kyron Horman went to the school science fair and was never seen again, stepmother strongly suspected in his disappearance. Fast forward to today, stories within the last year, 2, 3; a Utah 5 year old snatched from her bedroom asleep. Dad confronting would be kidnaper when awoken by unfamiliar noises, abductor then dropping her. Adding an element of horror regarding the sheer brazenness accompanying these crimes, usually caught on surveillance tape inside stores, outside businesses; a 7 year old seen on video fighting off a man trying to take her, her mother in the next aisle. True she credits the stranger danger class for knowing what to do, others obviously credit it with saving her life; the far greater point, the stranger danger class had to save her life, with her parent feet away. Viewing the next video above, children 10 and 2 alone, stalked, then the predator tries to take the older child; what saved her, her 2 year old brother’s relentless screaming. Below children 10, 8, almost 2 left alone for a few minutes by a babysitter at the local playground in a town of less than 500 people; suddenly man snatches the youngest from his stroller, sister and brother chase after him, screaming the whole way alerting adults who called police, suspect dropping the child in a nearby alley unharmed. Evidence apparently notwithstanding, the resounding refrain, not just from free range parents but from people watching the Stossel report, related stories, following the Maryland couple’s battle with local CPS proclaiming whose child is it? Interesting question, immediately we say the parents; accurate up and until you do something constituting abuse/neglect, break the law regarding same, do something so far out of the mainstream it poses a danger to more than nosey neighbors’ sensibilities. Further whose child is it indeed when tax payer dollars are going for those amber alerts, police manpower to find missing, exploited, abducted, lost children; of course nearly everyone is willing to foot the bill in the interest of the child being brought home safe and well, question is would that change seeing reckless parents continuously putting child in unhealthy situations? We all remember balloon boy, most importantly the parents ordered to pay restitution, repay a portion of the cost for search efforts after authorities determined it was a trick to get on a reality show. Whose child is it when taxpayers fund state recourses, interventions, therapies medical aid to children maimed, mutilated, burned, sexually abused, who survived but begin an entirely different horrific journey to something resembling recovery, because parents valued giving children independence too young over safer avenues to the same goals? Whose child is it when citizens are asked to fork over part of their heard earned paychecks to nonprofits filling in the gaps of exhausted government resources, continued counseling beyond what’s provided? Whose child is it when we are paying for the eventual incarceration of an adult wrecked by their kidnapping and torture as a child, adolescent, when we don’t want to become the victims of some poor child, grown into an adult’s ravaged mind? Whose child should it be when no one should have to live with that kind of probability not to be confused with possibility hanging over their head and definitely not for the love of reckless, willful ignorance?

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About Natasha Sapp

Proclaiming an edgy voice of reason to America,while bringing back the common sense to social issues.

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