US police detained two kids, aged 10 and 6, for playing alone in a park, sparking a national fight over parenting

Photo: Simon Thomsen

There’s a crazy storm about parenting brewing in the US right now after police picked up two kids walking home from a park in a outlying suburb of Washington DC and detained them for several hours on Sunday night.

At the heart of the argument is a clash over child safety and how much freedom kids should be allowed in an era of what’s known as “helicopter parenting”.

The Washington Post details what happened to Rafi Meitiv, 10, and his sister, Dvora, 6, when police in Montgomery County, 50km from the national capital, picked up the kids three blocks from home at about 5pm on Sunday.

It’s not the first time it’s happened and America is going into meltdown in a debate over parenting. But the story also has resonance for Australians left aghast every time a child dies, demanding to know how authorities let such cases slip through the cracks.

Reading the police report, it looks like a bit of overkill and you can’t help wondering why common sense didn’t just kick in, with the coppers dropping the kids home.

It started with an emergency call about “possible child neglect”, police spotting a homeless man “eyeing the children”, notifying child protection service (CPS) “per established protocol”, waiting an hour for a response, trying again, then waiting another hour – it’s now nearly 7.20pm – before the CPS says bring the kids to them, because “they cannot be returned home until their safety can be assured”.

Apparently three squad cars responded, which suggests it was perhaps a slow night in Silver Spring, Maryland.

And on the report goes, a strange mix of officialese and protocols. A policeman offers his lunch to the now-hungry kids. They don’t eat it because they have allergies. The parents eventually got their children back a little around 10.30pm. They didn’t know where their kids were until 8pm. In the preceeding three hours, the children were not allowed to contact their parents and its seems the protocols don’t have police or the CPS calling them immediately either.

Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, believe in “free-range kids”, a movement that wants to make children self-reliant and independent. They are outspoken advocates for letting their children roam around the neighbourhood unaccompanied and it seems the blowback from that is that people who disagree with them dob the kids in to the cops every time they see them out on the street.

It’s not their first brush with authorities over this issue. On December 20 last year, the kids were picked up in similar circumstances and CPS decided the parents were responsible for “unsubstantiated” child neglect.

A debate about parenting and child safety has been raging ever since and now it’s set to escalate.

The Meitivs have launched legal action against the County over the incident.

Their pro bono lawyer, Matthew Dowd, says “The Meitivs are rightfully outraged by the irresponsible actions of Maryland CPS and Montgomery County Police. We must ask ourselves how we reached the point where a parent’s biggest fear is that government officials will literally seize our children off the streets as they walk in our neighborhoods.

“The Meitivs intend to fully vindicate their rights as parents and their children’s rights, and to prevent this from happening to their children again. The CPS investigations and actions here are premised on a fundamental misapplication of the law and are contrary to the constitutional rights of these parents to raise their children as they see best.”

The family have become a lightning rod for parenting in the 21st century. And it’s an argument that’s going to be heated and messy amid cries of “nanny state” and “police state”.

We’ll keep you posted on what happens next.

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