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Play Date Protest Held In Support Of 'Free Range' Parents


Earlier this year, a couple in Silver Spring, Md., left their 6- and 10-year-old kids walk one mile by themselves from a nearby park back to their house. Someone called police, and the Child Protective Services agency has spent months investigating the couple for possible neglect. Yesterday, parents in the neighborhood decided to push back by leaving their kids to play in a park alone. Although, NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, it didn't quite work out that way.


JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: There seemed to be as many reporters as parents. Organizers said some had soccer games. Others didn't want to expose their kids to the press. And the dozen or more who came to support so-called free range parenting actually hovered close to share their message with the media.

COREY GREENELTCH: The anxiety level of our kids today is off the charts.

LUDDEN: Corey Greeneltch has four boys ages 4 to 10.

GREENELTCH: Trying to combat that with a little bit of self-confidence, get your knees dirty and guess what, things will turn out all right.

LUDDEN: But Greeneltch says he was really thrown last month. That's when the children of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv had a second run-in with authorities. Someone again called as they were walking home. This time first police, then county Child Protective Services held the kids for five hours before calling the parents. Greeneltch says that's prompted some awkward conversations. His oldest rides his bike to violin practice.

GREENELTCH: As a parent, the question is there. Like, do I tell him to go tell the police that he's lost because he could either be brought home, or he could be taken away?

SARA KERR: I think CPS has bigger fish to fry.

LUDDEN: Sara Kerr didn't know about this protest. She just came to the park with her toddler. But she's heard the hoopla and is bothered by the strangers who called police.

KERR: It makes me wish that the first instinct would be to just talk to the kids and find out what's going on. Are you all OK? Do your parents know where you are? Is there anything I can do? Rather than the instinct to be I'm going to call the authorities.

Do want to go down the small slide? Is that one too bumpy?

LUDDEN: One dad thinks the culture of helicopter parenting has pushed Child Protective Services to be more aggressive, assuming this is what people want. That cultural shift apparently isn't confined to the U.S. Among those reporting on the play-date protest, Arjen van der Horst of Netherlands Public Broadcasting.

ARJEN VAN DER HORST: This is a story that says a lot about America, I think, cultural fear. At the same time, slowly, we see a similar phenomenon coming up in the Netherlands and other countries, where I lived in Europe, like in England.

LUDDEN: The difference, he says, those places don't have actual laws on when children must be supervised. The law is what some here are focused on changing.

RICHARD FOX: I've written to Governor Hogan. I'm going to write to our Maryland legislators on the state level.

LUDDEN: Richard Fox says authorities need to clarify things. They've pointed to a law that says children under 8 must be watched by someone at least 13. But it only refers to homes and cars, not outdoor spaces like parks. County officials who oversee CPS referred NPR to Maryland's Department of Human Resources. In a statement, that agency says it has a duty to investigate reports that a child has been left unattended under unsafe circumstances. Meanwhile, the issue came up at a recent Board of Education meeting. Members wondered whether they should warn parents whose young kids walk to school on their own. An official with the state's attorney's office said no, she thought that should still be just fine. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.