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Is there a bureaucratic 'war on parents'?

Felix said she kept close tabs on the children – ages 11, 9 and 5 – that afternoon in July 2013, peering out the second-story window every 10 minutes to check on them; she called them in after half an hour. Unknown to Felix at the time, a passerby had spotted the children unaccompanied by an adult and called an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services hotline to report allegations of child neglect.

The state family services officials told Felix she would be placed on its register of neglectful and abusive parents for five years for “inadequate supervision” of her children. For Felix, being on the blacklist meant she couldn’t get a job again as a home health-care worker for the elderly, which she had held, or even volunteer at her children’s school. Today she works as a tax preparer.

“It left me blindsided,” Felix said. “I’ve been a good mom to my kids. The charge is ridiculous.”

Andrew Flach, a spokesman for the state family service agency, declined to comment specifically on Felix’s case but pointed to the state’s website when asked about policies on neglect findings: “Self-care can be a rewarding experience for children who are ready for it. It can help them develop independence and responsibility and can give them confidence in their own abilities. However, if your child is not ready, self-care can be a frightening and potentially dangerous situation.”

Felix’s troubles put her at the center of a national debate on “free-range parenting” over whether parents ought to be allowed to leave their children unaccompanied for short periods when the parents deem the situation safe.

A generation or more ago, parents would routinely leave their children unaccompanied by an adult when playing outside, walking to a park, waiting in a car for a few minutes or staying home alone and they could do so with little fear of sanction.

Today, though, governments respond in many cases in ways that parents see as heavy-handed, entangling unwitting parents in unpleasant encounters with the child protective service agencies and sometimes police when the children face little danger.

Felix said she let her children play outside the window of their three-bedroom apartment many times and fully trusted her 11-year-old son to watch her younger sons.

The Chicago-based, nonprofit Family Defense Center, which advocates for families in the child welfare system, pointed out that a state agency investigator had concluded Felix’s 11-year-old was mature enough to be trusted outside and was fully aware of the safety rules when watching his brothers. The state agency argued in court documents that the 11-year-old couldn’t supervise the younger ones.

In her quest to clear her name, Felix has been represented by a pro bono attorney and the Family Defense Center. She won her case in December when the Illinois Appellate Court ordered the Department of Children and Family Services to expunge her record.

Diane Redleaf, founder and executive director of the 10-year-old center, said Illinois children being left alone for short periods accounted for 23,566 “inadequate supervision” allegations. The state’s family services substantiated about 7,000 of these cases in fiscal year 2014, which began July 1, 2013. The children involved in such cases are rarely in danger, and spiteful spouses seeking custody in divorce cases often make false neglect claims, Redleaf said.

In a 42-page report released in August, the Family Defense Center said the state agency’s rule on “inadequate supervision” is unlawful because it does not comply with the Illinois Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act. In dozens of cases, the center found, the state agency has “failed to document any evidence that connects a particular parenting practice with a substantial risk of harm,” as required by the act. Now that Felix has been cleared, the Family Defense Center is negotiating with the state family service agency over policy changes the center says would ensure neglect findings in cases like Felix’s do not recur.

Illinois law defines a neglected minor as any child under 14 whose parent or guardian leaves the minor without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety or welfare of that minor. But in Illinois and elsewhere, parents say the definition of neglect is far too broad and too vague.

Among them are Danielle and Alexander Meitiv of Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. In October 2014, Child Protective Services (CPS) in Montgomery County investigated the parents for letting their children – Rafi, then 10, and his sister, Dvora, then 6 – play at a park a block away from their home. Danielle Meitiv recalled a state social worker showing up at the house and telling her it was illegal to let her children go to the park without an adult.

Two months later, in December 2014, Montgomery County police picked up the children when they were walking home from a park. A CPS worker and a police officer showed up at the family’s home in January 2015 after the CPS worker visited the children’s school and questioned each child individually, infuriating the parents.

Still they got some vindication from the state agency’s finding: “Unsubstantiated” child neglect.

Danielle Meitiv, who is a consultant with a master’s degree in oceanography and has worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the social worker who came to the house told her husband he would have to sign a “safety plan.” When he refused, the social worker said, “If you don’t sign it, I’m going to take your children away right now” and call the police.

Alexander Meitiv signed the document.

Katherine Morris, CPS’s communications director, said state law forbids the agency from commenting on specific cases: “CPS supports parents in raising healthy, well- adjusted children. It is not the department’s role to pick and choose among child-rearing philosophies and practices.”

Then, in April 2015, when the children were just 2 ½ blocks from home, the county police picked them up again – and held them in a patrol car for 2 ½ hours, even though the children protested, “We’re late. Our parents are going to be worried.”

Cpl. Rebecca Lynn Innocenti, a Montgomery County police spokeswoman, said the department could not comment on the case because the Meitiv family plans to sue county agencies.

Police released a statement last April that detectives from the Special Victims Investigations Division and investigators from Child Protective Services were investigating “possible child neglect allegations” in the April 12 incident.

Police responded to a call to the county emergency call center to check on the welfare of two children at about 5 p.m. and an officer contacted CPS. At about 7:30, authorities decided to transport the children to CPS offices in Rockville and an officer was told CPS would notify the children’s parents, according to police.

The state agency ultimately cleared the Meitivs, sparing them from being branded on a registry of parents accused of neglect for five years dating from their first encounter with the agency.

“CPS has threatened us,” Danielle Meitiv said. “They’ve terrified my children. They’ve held our kids without letting them talk to us. Even now, after going through all this, I’m still in shock that this can happen.”

For many parents the fears of being accused of neglect have led many to restrict their children’s free playtime unaccompanied by adults, said Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College and the author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.”

Gray said since the 1960s, children have had steadily less time to play among themselves, without parents watching over them or orchestrating their play, as in organized team sports. As a result, he said children have become less capable of handling risks and setbacks later in life, which in turn has led to significant increases in anxiety and depression.

“It’s in play away from adults that children learn they can control their behavior, solve their own problems and develop the internal sense of control that prevents depression and anxiety,” Gray said.

And what of hovering, overprotective “helicopter” parents?

“We have reached the point where what used to be regarded as normal parenting – sending your kids out to play – is now regarded as abusive and negligent,” Gray said.

But some are fighting for childrens’ right to go out without their parents monitoring their every move. Take Lenore Skenazy, a New York City journalist who has taken on the moniker “World’s Worst Mom” and now has a Discovery Life channel show by that name. It’s among many unflattering things Skenazy had been called after letting her then-9-year-old son ride the New York subway with no adult accompanying him in 2008.

Skenazy, the author of “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” has become an outspoken critic of what she sees as government overstepping its bounds in trying to tell parents what to do in situations where their children face no danger.

As Skenazy points out, FBI statistics show the nationwide rate for violent crime – murder, rape, robbery and assault – is as low as it’s been since the 1960s. “So, if you make a rational decision that you want your kids to have the childhood you had, especially considering that the crime rate is probably lower than when you were growing up, why should you be forbidden to give that gift to your child?”

Skenazy keeps tabs on the harassment of free-range parents. There’s the New Jersey mom who was arrested after leaving her sleeping 19-month-old girl in a car seat for five to 10 minutes, and found guilty of neglect – a ruling overturned last year by a higher court. In Hood River, Ore., a mother who left her 2-year-old daughter in a car for two to three minutes when she ran to get the girl’s life jacket – they were heading to the lake – was arrested and charged with child endangerment in 2010; the charges were dropped when she went to court. In Attleboro, Mass., police and a paramedic converged on a mother who left her twin 4-year-old daughters in a car while she went into a shop to pick up a dress. Paramedics checked the children while the police grilled the mother and wrote a report on the incident.

Even leaving your baby sleeping in a crib while you take out the trash to an apartment building dumpster – while wearing a baby monitor – can lead to a child welfare investigation, as Jennifer Bodi learned.

Bodi was staying at an apartment complex for domestic abuse victims in Zion, Illinois, in November 2013 when an employee at the complex reported that she had left her then-18-month-old son, Andrew, unattended while she took the trash to the dumpster, about 100 yards from the apartment.

She was branded a neglectful parent on the Illinois state agency’s blacklist, but she had her name removed and record expunged after six months with the help of pro bono attorneys.

Bodi, who has four children, learned from her attorneys the state could have taken Andrew from her and she could have been charged criminally with neglecting her child.

“It was horrifying,” Bodi said. “My children have never been harmed in my care. My faith is what got me through the terrible situation daily. I was scared. I was hurt. I was angry. I was in disbelief.”