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Raising our children on fear

We all want what is best for our children. We want them to be happy and successful, and we want to protect them from harm. But what if we are protecting them from extremely remote threats while ignoring the things that most endanger their well-being?

One recent Saturday afternoon, six police officers and five patrol cars came to my home in Silver Spring, Md. They demanded identification from my husband and entered our home despite not having a warrant. The reason? We had allowed our children to walk home from a neighborhood park by themselves.

A few hours later, a Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS) social worker coerced my husband into signing a “temporary safety plan” for our children by threatening to take the children “right now” — a threat she backed up with a call to the police. In the weeks that followed, another worker from the agency appeared at our door with the police and insisted that he did not need a warrant to enter our home. He also interviewed our children at school without our knowledge or permission.

When did Americans decide that allowing our kids to be out of sight was a crime?

Although our fears may tell us one thing about the world, the facts say something quite different. Crime rates across the United States are as low as they’ve been in my lifetime. Stranger abduction has always been exceedingly rare. Far more hazardous are the obesity risks and idleness we subject children to if we do not allow them to run outside and play.

Fear, too, takes a toll. I wasn’t there when the police brought my children home in a patrol car, but my 10-year-old called me, sobbing that “Daddy is getting arrested.” The incident gave my daughter nightmares. My son told us that the social worker who questioned him suggested that he tell us that he doesn’t want to go off on his own anymore because it’s dangerous and that there are “bad guys waiting to grab you.” This is how adults teach children to be afraid even when they are not in danger.

The problem with our case was not that police stopped to check on the children; that’s what we want officers to do if they have concerns about a child’s welfare. The problem is that, once it was determined the parents had already judged the children to be safe, the authorities didn’t move along. Instead they turned to heavy-handed legal and bureaucratic remedies that did far more harm than good.

Nationwide, providers of social services are burdened with overflowing workloads and backlogs of hundreds of cases. So why are they wasting time with us? Even if CPS is mandated to follow up on every call, why aren’t there objective, rational criteria to determine which situations warrant attention?

The pendulum has swung too far. We need to take back the streets and parks for our children. We need to refuse to allow ourselves to be ruled by fear or allow our government to overrule decisions that parents make about what is best for their children.

And neglect laws need to be redefined to safeguard parents’ discretion to make reasonable risk-management judgments for their children, including the decision to allow them the freedom and independence that was the norm a generation ago and is still essential to their development and well-being.

Danielle Meitiv lives in Silver Spring, Md.


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