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Free-range parenting report says child welfare system often oversteps, diverting resources from real
A Chicago nonprofit legal advocacy organization says too many child welfare investigations of "free-range" parenting put families at risk, take resources away from real instances of neglect. - photo by Lois M Collins
A Chicago nonprofit legal advocacy organization says too many child welfare investigations of "free-range" parenting put families at risk and take resources away from real instances of neglect.

The new report by the Family Defense Center, "When Can Parents Let Children Be Alone?" focused on Illinois cases, but referenced instances nationally where parents have been investigated and sometimes sanctioned for actions intended to help their kids become independent and build skills.

The Family Defense Center said it sometimes provides legal defense to families that have been accused by the child welfare system of inadequate supervision and neglect.

"Parents are swept into the system and labeled at fault when they have made reasonable parenting decisions," said the report. Child welfare system resources are currently being devoted to the investigations of neglect allegations, such as inadequate supervision, where children are not at risk. This means fewer resources to investigate and indicate the serious cases of neglect or abuse.

It also noted that "being wrongfully investigated and indicated for inadequate supervision is more harmful to families than it may seem to the general public, which has historically clamored for the expansion of child abuse reporting laws. Investigations cause an enormous amount of distress in a familys life, and can have the unfortunate impact of making parenting even more difficult and costly for already busy and stressed parents. This is due to a potential loss of employment, added stress with scheduling and responding, and potential legal fees incurred by parents who have to respond to (Division of Child and Family Services) hotline calls, investigations and indicated findings."

An article by Time said "the report, which covered high-profile battles over 'free-range parenting,' as well as lesser-known reports of child neglect, found that allegations of 'inadequate supervision' can push responsible parents into the child welfare system, endangering their custody of their children and wasting valuable state resources.

The Deseret News recently covered the challenge that parents face trying to figure out what's acceptable when it comes to giving children some freedom and responsibility. Some families, it noted, are scared: "They've heard the story of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv in Silver Spring, Maryland, who after practice runs let their kids, 10 and 6, walk home a mile from a park and became mired in a child protective services investigation on allegations of neglect. Or author Kari Anne Roy of Austin, Texas, who was investigated for a month after she let her son, 6, play alone on a bench visible from her porch but 150 yards away. Or that of Lenore Skenazy, a New York journalist who a few years ago wrote about letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone. She was dubbed 'World's Worst Mom' by folks who didn't approve," the article said.

The Meitiv case made national headlines as it unfolded, from the parents' decision to let the kids walk home together through legal wrangling and the final decision that it did not, in fact, constitute neglect.

The report highlights the terrible irony that the very people who are charged with protecting children end up traumatizing them and their families far too often, Danielle Meitiv told the Washington Post.

The Post article quoted Diane Redleaf, executive director of the Family Defense Center, who said that "two-thirds of the Illinois cases involved parents living below the federal poverty line, and many are minorities or immigrants." She added that parents are not trying to be part of a free-range movement, but they are similar to those who do and "the cases similarly focus on a clash over basic parenting."

Redleaf said that "inadequate supervision" is not well defined. We feel there needs to be clearer standards throughout the country, in terms of the line between reasonable parenting and neglect, she told the Washington Post.

The question of how much freedom and when a child is old enough or mature enough for certain tasks has been controversial. But some people say that the world is actually safer now than in the past. People say the world has changed. Ironically, its changed for the better. Theres less crime, there are fewer assaults. Its proven that the majority of child abductions are someone who is part of the family or known to the family," Richard Greenberg, author of Raising Children That Other People Like to Be Around, said.

He acknowledged that bad things sometimes happen to children, but said parents have to learn to manage risk. "I would rather teach my children how to be safe and how to navigate the world than make it my full-time job to hover and be their protector all the time," he said, adding children's boundaries need to grow along with them.
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