OP-ED: Who decides when it's safe for our kids to be on their own?


One of the more pressing concerns these days is what constitutes parental neglect of minor children — just how much freedom is unsafe when, as we are reminded almost daily, it appears that predators lurk almost everywhere.

For those of us who grew up when (at least in the summer) we were outside on our own from dawn to dusk, often without shoes or shirts, pausing only for a hurried lunch, it is difficult to understand a world in which it is necessary to have such things as Amber Alerts and sex offender lists; where mothers even in suburbia feel the necessity to walk their primary youngsters to a school bus a mere block away.

A recent case in Maryland has elevated to a national level the issue of "free range" children — those whose parents have given their youngsters the latitude of walking to and from recreation sites, as well as school without supervision. In this case parents were charged with neglect twice by police and state child protective services although there was no sign of poor treatment otherwise. The parents have argued they merely were trying to give their children a sense of freedom.

The parents of the children were cleared on appeal in a first case and are awaiting a decision on the second. On Friday, the state's protective services posted a report "clarifying" its views on children walking alone. It issued a new policy directive that the CPS should not be involved unless the children have been harmed or face a substantial risk.

The Washington Post quoted a spokesperson for the Maryland's Department of Human Services as saying "we are not getting into the business of opining on parenting practices or child rearing philosophies."

While the mother of the children said the clarification was a step in the right direction, it doesn't go far enough. "It still doesn't give reassurance to parents that their desire to give their children freedom will be respected," she was quoted by the Post.

It seems to me there is a fine line separating overprotection and common sense here. What may seem like oppressiveness to children may actually be parental due diligence. In some instances walking alone may pose the substantial risk the state sets as a standard for its interference. But how does one determine when that is? Should the state wait until there is a missing child before acting?

All the hours of warnings about strangers and alleged lost puppy dogs and offers of rides and false claims of being a friend of their parents may not be enough to protect the child from the unthinkable. How many times have children come to harm from even a neighbor who was friendly and whose approaches seem innocent enough?

The state should not be faulted nor embarrassed about being concerned over the welfare of a 6-year-old girl walking home alone with her 10-year-old brother. And I'm not certain a policy saying otherwise is a good idea.

Whether that should result in charges against the parents with no other evidence of neglect is another matter. Would a stern warning of what might happen be enough? No one wants to raise children in a Skinner Box. But the parents should not treat the dangers cavalierly, leaving it to chance that nothing will go wrong. At the puppy age children have the wanderlust of Beagles.

A little prudence in giving them room to grow is beneficial but that space should be granted with care. There are too many lost children on too many milk cartons to ignore that fact.

As a young cop reporter, I vividly recall a missing child from the car of an otherwise "responsible" parent who was away in a convenience store for only three minutes. Fortunately, the culprit who took the youngster was caught within an hour because of an alert passerby.

At what age should one be extended the privilege of walking alone? Who knows? But I'm fairly certain that age 6 isn't it nor for that matter is age 10. Obviously, safety rests in minimizing one's risks through good judgment at every age. Unfortunately, children don't often possess that judgment.

In a perfect world the Maryland couple's philosophy of child rearing would be appropriate. But it is not a perfect world and in this instance they just might have gotten lucky that it was the police who picked up the children.

— Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: : .