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EDITORIAL: Let them play

Two kids walking home from a Montgomery County, Md., park were abducted three blocks from their house Sunday. It was around 5 p.m., hours before sunset, and the children were following their parents’ instructions to be home by 6 p.m. When the children didn’t arrive home on time, the parents were rightly worried. They said they didn’t get a response from authorities until 8 p.m., three hours after the children were taken.

It was a textbook kidnapping. Only it was carried out by Montgomery County police and Child Protective Services, who responded with three squad cars to a resident tip that, horror of horrors, children had been seen walking outside without direct adult supervision.

It isn’t far-fetched to believe the two organizations were working in concert to send a message to parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, who already were under double-secret probation and accused of neglect for letting their kids, ages 10 and 6, do the same thing back in December. On Sunday, police coaxed the kids into a squad car on the promise that they’d be taken home, then detained the children in the car for three hours without food, without allowing them to call home. CPS finally took custody of the children and released them to their parents at 10:30 p.m.

Child abductions are exceptionally rare, but the few that happen increasingly are carried out by child welfare officials in their all-out war against old-school, free-range parenting — the bygone approach that gives kids the independence previous generations enjoyed. Parents, who know their children best, are seeing their rights stomped by alarmist bureaucrats and “helicopter parents” who believe any child not under constant watch by grown-ups is at great risk of being snatched by predators.

There is no evidence to support such irrational fear. In a 2013 Washington Post op-ed, David Finkelhor reported that less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of all missing children are abducted by strangers or slight acquaintances. Benjamin Radford, in a 2013 report for Discovery News, noted that, statistically, children are in much more danger in their own homes: “The vast majority of ‘missing’ children are taken by family members, often when one divorced parent absconds with a child during legally sanctioned visitation.”

If anything, data show that kids — and the population in general — are safer now than ever before. However, thanks to the proliferation of the Internet, social media, cable TV and a 24/7 news cycle, everyone quickly learns about the extraordinarily rare cases of child abduction and treat it as an epidemic.

Maryland’s child welfare laws are a big part of the problem. Children younger than 8 must be under the care of someone at least 13 years old. The Washington Post noted the law refers only to enclosed spaces such as buildings or cars, and makes no mention of children outside, in a park or on a walk.

Fortunately, Nevada laws are a bit saner. Assistant Clark County Manager Jeff Wells, speaking on behalf of Child Protective Services, said the state does not have age criteria for child supervision and bases it “strictly on abuse or neglect standards.” Signs of physical or psychological abuse, or neglect in the sense of children facing harm or the threat of harm, would trigger intervention. Mr. Wells noted that any law enforcement response to unsupervised children is handled on a case-by-case basis, considering factors such as time of day, area of town, traffic threats, etc. If a caller expressed significant concern, CPS likely would be sent out to talk to the kids, verify their age and maturity and their distance to home, and then travel that distance and perhaps visit the parents to make sure they’re aware of what’s going on and alert them to any perceived risks.

But charging those parents with criminal neglect? Not likely, Mr. Wells said. Especially since, as Mr. Wells noted, many young kids walk or bike a mile or more to school and back on their own. This happens five days a week from August to June, with little concern for the children’s welfare.

How is a walk to and from a park on a weekend any different?

Mr. Wells’ assurances aside, the state still has way too much leeway to grab kids from sidewalks and playgrounds. Other questions to ponder: Do parents who never leave their kids’ side have the authority to set standards for your kids? Do you have the right to decide whether your kids are safe to explore their neighborhoods, or must you defer to the values of adults who’ll call the cops if you do? How much actual abuse and neglect slips through the system because of our collective preoccupation with nearly nonexistent abduction threats? Further, considering the number of busybodies who are so concerned with child welfare, would this country have the juvenile obesity problem it has today if it were OK for kids to go out and play, outside the presence of an adult — like they could even 20 years ago? If they were allowed to play on school playgrounds, unsupervised, for more than 20 minutes before classes start? And might parents be less stressed out if they didn’t face criminal charges for failing to schedule supervision for every minute of their children’s lives?

The Meitivs have received a pro bono representation offer and will likely — and rightly — file a lawsuit against Montgomery County officials. The abuse carried out against the Meitiv family is an outrage, but it’s productive in one way: It is getting significant national media attention, and Americans are responding with fury.

Clearly, it’s time for a national conversation on parenting culture and a family’s ability to raise independent kids. The culture of fear that dominates child-rearing and child welfare in this country has consequences for children — often bad ones. Parents and lawmakers need to address these consequences. They can start by taking a cue from the classic movie “The Bad News Bears” — let them play.

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