Playing Chicken with Your Children
Category : Family Law
Parents Test the Limits of Maryland Family Law
In recent days, parents in Montgomery County, Maryland have been engaged in a heated debate over the rights and wrongs of “free range” parenting. Two children aged 10 and 6 were allowed by their parents to walk on their own from a local park to the family home. The walk of one mile took them through downtown Silver Spring, a busy metropolitan area. A bystander saw the unaccompanied children and called the police. The police arrived at the scene, picked up the children and contacted Montgomery County Child Protective Services. It was a Sunday afternoon and it took over five hours before the children were eventually reunited with the parents, who signed an agreement not to leave their children unattended again.
Under Maryland Family Law Section 5-801, it is a criminal offence for a parent to allow a child under the age of 8 to be left alone in a house or vehicle unless accompanied by a reliable person at least 13 years old. But the Family Law statute does not contain any rules for unaccompanied minor children outside a home or vehicle. Child Protective Services is a specialized social service for children believed to be neglected or abused. They face a difficult task in cases like this, which involve basic questions concerning different philosophies of parenting.
As soon as details of the case hit the press, sides were taken and attitudes have quickly become polarized. One side is outraged at the actions of so-called “free range” parents who believe that children should be encouraged to become independent and self-reliant at a young age in spite of the risks. The other side is outraged at the actions of the police and Child Protective Services for their “bullying” tactics and for usurping the rights of parents.
There is no easy answer, but one thing is clear: no six year old girl should be thrown into such an impossibly stressful situation. In the end, the neglect or abuse is not so much the act of allowing young children to walk home from the park, but rather the use of the children as pawns in an ideological dispute between parents and local authorities. Until the matter is taken up by the politicians in Annapolis or the Maryland Courts, parents will have to stop playing chicken with their children and accompany them to the park.