Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life.
(CNN) — A Maryland family — the subjects of national headlines when they were accused of neglect for letting their children, ages 6 and 10, walk home alone from a park — are under investigation again. This time, the children were taken into custody by police officers and held for hours by police and Child Protective Services, according to the family.
In this story
- Maryland family let their children, ages 6 and 10, play alone at a nearby park
- The children were held by authorities for hours without the parents' knowledge
- The family was found responsible for "unsubstantiated" child neglect in March
“I can’t believe we are going through this again,” said Danielle Meitiv of Silver Spring, Maryland, in a local television interview. “I can’t believe they kept the kids for hours. It’s 10:30 at night. They’ve been missing since six o’clock.”
Meitiv and her husband dropped their children off at a park at 4:00 p.m. ET Sunday and told them to return home two hours later. When the kids didn’t return by about 6:30 p.m., they started looking for them and grew concerned.
In a post on her Facebook page Monday, Meitiv wrote, “The police coerced our children into the back of a patrol car, telling them they would drive them home. They kept the kids trapped there for three hours, without notifying us, before dropping them at the Crisis Center, and holding them there without dinner for another two and a half hours.”
Meitiv said the family finally got home at 11 p.m. and the kids slept in her and her husband’s room because “we were all exhausted and terrified.”
“We were kind of scared,” said Rafi Meitiv, 10, in the local interview.
Meitiv said that when she called 911, the police called Child Protective Services and that CPS then called the family.
“When we asked them why did they not bring them home, they just said, ‘We decided that the safety of the children was more important,'” said Meitiv’s husband, Alexander.
The Meitiv family’s lawyer said the family would be issuing a statement, through their attorney, later Monday or early Tuesday.
“I will say it’s alarming and disturbing that their children could be literally a few blocks from home and the police pick them up under the guise of telling the children that they will take them home but then take them to a detention center and all the while never call the parents or let them know what’s going on,” said attorney Matthew Dowd.
Dowd said the children know their address and phone number.
“They know how to walk in the neighborhood. They’ve done this many times before,” said 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.”
Police: CPS said it would notify the parents
The police received a call at 4:58 p.m. ET Sunday to check on the welfare of two children in the area, Capt. Paul Starks of the Montgomery County Police public information office told CNN.
When an officer arrived on the scene, the person who had contacted police directed the officer to a parking garage where the officer found the children.
“The officer observed a homeless subject who he was familiar with, eyeing the children,” according to a statement by the Montgomery County Police.
The officer notified his supervisors and then contacted Child Protective Services, which is required under Maryland law when officers become aware of any possible case of child abuse or neglect.
About an hour later, the officer contacted another CPS officer for guidance, according to the statement.
It wasn’t until 7:18 p.m., more than two hours after the officer came upon the children, that they were transported to the CPS offices in Rockville, Maryland.
“The officer was also advised that CPS would notify the parents,” according to the statement. “The officer followed the direction of the CPS worker as procedures dictate — due to the serious nature of a Child Protective Services investigation and concern for the welfare of the children, they cannot be returned home until their safety can be assured.”
The officer shared his own water bottles with the children and started to give his own personal lunch to the children, who said they were hungry, but stopped when the older child advised he and his sister had food allergies.
Detectives from the Montgomery County Police and investigators from Child Protective Services are now investigating possible child neglect allegations in the case, the statement said.
Montgomery County Child Protective Services referred all questions to the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees the agency.
“We are required to follow up on all calls to Child Protective Services and will continue to work in the best interest of all children,” said the statement, which also said protecting children is the agency’s “number one priority.”
The statement went on to say that while it understands the public’s concern, it is prohibited by law from discussing any specific case.
The department will be reviewing the situation and talking to all of the parties involved as part of that review, the statement said.
Meitivs already under investigation
This is not the first time the Meitivs have come under fire for their “free-range” parenting style.
Earlier this year, they were found responsible for “unsubstantiated” child neglect, according to the Meitivs, for allowing their children to walk home by themselves from a park that was about a mile from their house on a Saturday afternoon in late December.
“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, saying the family plans to appeal. (That appeal is expected to be filed in a few days, the family’s lawyer said.)
Last month, Meitiv said she and her husband didn’t plan to change their approach when it comes to raising their children.
“We do worry, however, what will happen to them and us if CPS gets another call about them,” she wrote in early March.
After this latest incident, the family is rethinking letting their kids play or walk alone — but not by choice, they said.
Meitiv said Monday that CPS made them sign a “safety plan” that says they will not leave their kids unattended at all until CPS follows up.
“I’m not going to risk my kids being snatched again by CPS,” she said.
Story leads to passionate debate about modern parenting
This story touched a nerve when the Meitivs first came under investigation, and this latest incident was met with an equally powerful and passionate response online.
At issue, parents say, is not just whether the Meitivs did anything wrong and the response by CPS, but also that larger question of when is it OK to leave children unattended and that balance between empowering our children and putting them in harm’s way.
Amanda Rodriguez, a mom of three, said the case is “quite troubling” especially because she just let her sons, ages 7 and 10, go to the neighborhood park Sunday to play.
“They went with other kids from the neighborhood but I definitely wasn’t there,” said Rodriguez of Frederick, Maryland, founder of the blog Dude Mom. “I think they are old enough to go to the park without me!”
Abigail Rose Solomon, an actress and producer, said one of her fondest — and most empowering — memories growing up in New York City was when she and her friends were allowed to roller skate to school by themselves at the age of 12.
“It upsets me that most parents today are so overly protective of their kids, probably stunting their growth and confidence. And I am appalled that police are treating parents, who trust their kids and give them some room, like criminals,” said Solomon, a mom of one in New York City.
Most states don’t have laws on the books regarding how old a child must be to be left alone. Maryland is one of the few that does, stating that children under 8 years old may not be left unattended in a house or car.
There isn’t anything stipulated within the law about kids being alone outside, said Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a mom of two.
“It is puzzling to me as to why Maryland Child Protective Services continues to accuse these parents of being negligent under a law which seemingly applies to children being left alone in buildings or cars,” said Harley LeBon, a writer, strategist and former senior counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Now it appears they have stretched the law to apply to walking home from a school and to a playground? I guess the question to consider is, ‘Is it the state’s job to determine whether our children are independent enough to walk to and from the playground or is it the parent’s decision?’ ”
The only “real criminal behavior” here, said children’s television host Miss Lori was the behavior of the officials who took two children into custody and held them for hours without contacting their parents.
“That was real abuse,” said the mother of three.
Letting your kids play in the park, she added, is not ” ‘free range parenting.’ It’s just parenting, period. I did it as a kid. My parents did it.”
But, on the other side, some parents raised the question of why parents, who were already under investigation by Child Protective Services, would let their children do anything unattended right now.
“I am a little concerned that there is more to this story than the public knows,” said Louise Sattler, a mom of two, psychologist, educational consultant and owner of a business providing sign language instruction.
“So now I need to ask if the parents are aware they are under a microscope, did they set the kids out to play sans supervision to make some kind of point.”
Brian Gresko, a father of one in Brooklyn and a Babble.com contributor, said he likes the overall philosophy of the Meitivs, but thinks they might be taking it a bit far.
“Sending their children unattended to the park after receiving warnings that CPS was keeping a close eye on them? That doesn’t sound like common sense to me. that sounds more like they were testing the limits and perhaps courting controversy,” said Gresko, editor of an anthology about fatherhood called “When I First Held You.”
He added, “I ultimately feel badly for the kids and worry what kind of message this is sending to them, and what emotional impact this is having, being engaged in a kind of war with authorities.”
Jim Higley, a father of three, radio host, author and founder of Bobblehead Dad, said there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this issue. Independence depends on the child and should be doled out in baby steps, he said.
“A six-year-old playing unattended in a park for two hours is certainly outside of my comfort zone,” said Higley. “As is the authorities not contacting the parents immediately to let them know that their children are safe.
“It’s a sad situation, and the kids are the ones paying a price.”