Will the New “Free Range Kids Law” Protect Parents Who Let Kids Walk?

Last spring, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv became public faces of the “Free Range Kids” movement when their children were picked up by police in Silver Spring, Maryland, while walking home from a local park.

Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, left, were investigated for child neglect after their children were picked up by police last spring while walking home from the park. Photo: Facebook via the Daily Mail.
Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, left, were investigated for child neglect after their children were picked up by police last spring while walking home from the park. Photo: Facebook via the Daily Mail

The sight of a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old unsupervised prompted police to open a child neglect case against the couple. The investigation was dropped in June — but not before the story made national headlines.

A provision inserted into the just-passed federal education bill seeks to put an end to incidents like this, writes Lenore Skenazy in the New York Post. Skenazy, the founder of the Free Range Kids movement and a writer at Reason.com, says cases like the Meitivs’ are more common than you’d think.

The provision from Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, says the law will not “prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot, or by car, bus, or bike when … the parents have given permission.”

We asked some attorneys if the new rule was likely to prevent local police departments from coming down on parents who allow their children to do things like walk to school and play unsupervised.

Ohio bike lawyer Steve Magas said he’s seen similar cases, but he’s not sure how often “free range parents” end up in the legal system. In 2011, a Tennessee mom faced neglect charges for letting her kid bike to school. Magas said he’s currently preparing to represent a woman who was threatened with child endangerment charges by the Ohio Highway Patrol for riding her bike with her toddler.

But both Magas and bike lawyer Bob Mionske said the law has some limitations. Magas said:

I think it certainly provides States with notice that the Helicopter Parent is NOT the norm, or the bar by which all parenting is to be judged … Given that states can pass their own laws which are not overridden by this law I suppose there is a risk of states, or particularly aggressive cops or Children’s Services personnel, continuing to pursue this ridiculous action despite the federal law …

Mionske agreed, saying the measure does not preempt local or state law. He said he thinks it is mostly a “symbolic effort.”

We asked Skenazy what she hopes the law will accomplish. She said Lee’s amendment wasn’t meant to preempt local laws. Lee is a Tea Party-Libertarian type and wouldn’t support a law that interferes with local government’s authority. But she thinks it will send a message.

“It’s just a way of sort of putting it out there: Since when did we decide that the government and not the parents decide at what age it’s okay for kids to walk to school?” she said in an email. “Doesn’t the parent know their neighborhood best and their kids best?”

Skenazy said she receives emails from parents almost every day who have been arrested or are being investigated for things that are ultimately not very risky — like letting their kids walk to school or wait in the car for a few minutes while they’re in a store.

“What I’m hoping my whole movement does is remind people of two facts: Our kids are not in constant danger so we don’t have to act or legislate as if they are,” she said. “Number two: Parents love their children more than the government does. Unless they are really putting their child in imminent and obvious and grave danger — giving them drugs, pimping them out — we should give parents the benefit of the doubt.”

  • Rascal_Face

    I’d love to let my kids walk to school but knowing the drivers in my neighborhood I’m too fearful they’d get run over.

  • bolwerk

    The security state is…kind of like a helicopter parent.

  • Mike

    I entered fourth grade in Manhattan in 1983 at the age of nine. That year, pretty much everybody in my class learned first how to cross the street by themselves and then how to get to and from school on their own. Have times really changed that much?

  • Joe R.

    It’s a sad state of affairs where children walking to school by themselves is seen as child abuse. My mom walked me to kindergarten. From first grade onwards I walked to school by myself. I started riding the subways by myself when I was 12 or 13. Many of my friends had been doing that from the time they were 9 or 10. I used to play outside by myself when I was 4 or 5. I forgot the exact age but it was roughly when I started school. Keeping children under constant adult supervision just results in 40-year olds living in their parent’s basement playing video games.

  • Southeasterner

    If the drivers are that bad what makes you think you are any safer in a car. 40,000 dead Americans in 2015 alone would question your judgement. Despite the dangers of walking you are still much more likely to die in your car.

  • AMH

    This is exactly why we need to keep up the fight for safe streets.

  • CalRobert

    I hate to say this but the risk of being killed on a given journey is higher for pedestrians than for drivers.

    Also, that 40,000 number you quote includes people who weren’t inside cars but were killed by cars. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists are all far more likely to be killed than vehicle occupants.

    While a different country, these data from Australia should prove interesting:
    Fatalities per billion km: Motorcycle = 25.38 / Bike = 4.24 / Car=
    1.05 / Pedestrian = 16.12

    https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.bicycles.misc/Vc014DBREus

  • Rascal_Face

    My neighborhood is in San Francisco. The Cars are going 20-40 mph through residential streets w/ lost of stop signs that are ignored by the cars. I walk my daughter to day care every other day and the main problem is crossing the intersections when cars aren’t paying attention or just don’t care if you’re in a crosswalk. I’m concerned that when she’s 8 years old she won’t be as cautious as me in waiting for cars to come to complete stops at the stop signs. (and that I won’t be there to helicopter parent or whatever) I’m not driving her 60mph down the freeway, so whatever statistics apply to the country aren’t really relevant to my specific commute.

  • dexter

    Driving is not inherently safer, nor is biking or walking inherently more dangerous. I think the stats you cite are a direct result of how we plan, behave, and build infrastructure. While I won’t cast doubt on those stats, I would suggest that is not an indictment of the danger associated with walking and biking, but walking and biking in particular environments with particular priorities that could be changed to arrive at a different result.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    rule in my SoCal elementary school in the mid-1960s was you walked to school ( with your buddies ) until 2nd grade.,In second grade, you were allowed to ride your bike to school. My mom walked me to kindergarten the first day, but the second day most of us walked solo. My walk to kindergarten was 0.7 mile.

    photo is of Mrs. Long’s Kindergarten Class of 1964.

  • davistrain

    “cars aren’t paying attention”. Remember, unless they are Google autonomous vehicles, cars can’t pay attention. It is the drivers who aren’t paying attention, although sometimes it seems like the driver and the vehicle are one entity, rather like a bio-mechanical centaur.

  • Joe R.

    Where are you in the picture? 🙂

  • Joe R.

    Fatalities per hour of exposure, or perhaps per trip, is a much better metric to use than fatalities per billion km. I’d say most people walk less than 1000 km per year. That puts their chances of dying as a pedestrian in a 100 year lifetime at 0.16%. In the US the average person travels about 20,000 km per year by car. This gives them an 0.21% chance of dying in a car over the same 100 year lifetime. In other words, the risk is roughly the same walking or driving because the distances traveled by walking are much shorter.

    Also note the car data is skewed because a lot of car travel is on very safe limited access highways. If you look at the data for local trips only cars end up being quite a bit more dangerous than walking.

    Finally, it’s worth a mention here that cars are the primary thing which makes walking or biking less safe than it would otherwise be. It would be interesting to see data for walking or biking in an environment free of motor vehicles. My guess would be that it’s at least an order of magnitude safer than driving, more likely two or three orders of magnitude safer. The bottom line is if walking or biking seems too dangerous, the solution isn’t to isolate yourself in a motorized metal box. Rather, it’s to implement the idea of removing and/or separating motor vehicles from places where it might otherwise make sense to walk or bike. Walking and biking are only *somewhat* dangerous because of policies which prioritize motor vehicle access. It doesn’t have to be that way.

  • Joe R.

    If you live in an area where lots of things are close enough to walk to, perhaps it makes more sense to just prohibit nonessential motor vehicles. Private cars really don’t belong in cities anyway, at least not in the numbers they exist today. Policies which discourage car use by heavily taxing parking and closing off streets in denser parts to cars make a lot more sense than being coerced to drive instead of walk simply because walking is perceived as too dangerous.

  • djx

    “If you live in an area where lots of things are close enough to walk to, perhaps it makes more sense to just prohibit nonessential motor vehicles.”

    Yes, that makes sense. Because some or even most of drivers don’t obey laws, are not careful, and the streets are not well designed, ban it for everyone. Thanks bro. Thanks.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    time for Obama to announce ‘Car Control’ to end car-nage on our streets

  • Joe R.

    Operating motor vehicles in close proximity to unprotected people is inherently dangerous no matter how skilled the driver. Moreover, the areas where I’m talking about banning them are places where other modes are perfectly feasible, or would be if we stopped prioritizing cars when we design transportation systems. Nobody is saying ban cars in a place like rural Nebraska where no other mode could possibly work. Rather, I’m saying ban them from much of NYC, SF, LA, etc. And at the same time enhance public transit and biking so people aren’t grossly inconvenienced by the ban.

    Of course, we could and should greatly increase licensing standards but you do realize the practical end result of that will be pretty much the same. Some rather large percentage of the population would no longer be able to drive. The idea of everybody being able to drive is fundamentally flawed. The price we’re paying for that is tens of thousands of annual deaths, plus a few million injuries.

  • Sine Metu

    If you add the extremely deleterious effects that cars have on your health via stress and the prolonged seated position, it’s not even close. Driving a car in the city is stressful. Always. The car commercials are lying to you. Driving does not matter.

    After I sold my cars and began full time bike commuting 7 years ago my health dramatically improved. And I was already in relatively good shape, a lifelong athlete, going to the gym 3 times a week and running on my treadmill at home. But the driving in LA was literally killing me. Blood pressure sky high, could not lose the gut (I’m in my my mid 40s).

    1.5 hours to go 12 miles to my office in Santa Monica.

    Now it takes 45 mins on my bikes. Yesterday in the rain, it did take me closer to an hour though.

    You can believe that driving is safer but if you really look at it from a holistic standpoint, driving is far more dangerous.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Your second paragraph is the proper approach. I am all for people having to educate/train/earn their drivers’ licenses. But do not advocate to take away my privilege to drive to the local grocery store and load the trunk with a week’s worth of food. Or to allow me the ability to run all my morning errands in a single trip (loop) in a short period of time.

  • Jake Wegmann

    What’s changed is that New York City and the nation as a whole, but especially New York City, are far safer than they were. But we seem to act as though the opposite is true.

  • Joe R.

    The thing is if we increased licensing standards enough so motor vehicle collisions were rare enough to make the national news (as is now the case with train or plane incidents) my guess is upwards of 90% of the population would in fact lose their driving privileges. We’re at the point where we have to make a choice. We can continue “universal” driving and just accept the massive carnage as the cost of doing business, or we’ll have to come to terms with the idea that most people will no longer be able to drive. The latter is preferable for many reasons, but it’s a harder sell politically. It will also mean adjusting the built environment to reflect the fact that you will no longer be able to assume most people drive. You’ll need to provide public transit, bike parking, plus in general end sprawling development.

    Note that in a city bike is often as fast or faster than car. And with a cargo bike you can easily carry a week’s worth of groceries. In a world where you couldn’t drive, you could probably run your errands just as efficiently on two wheels as four. If there were fewer motor vehicles on the road, the things which slow bikes down, like traffic signals and general congestion, would mostly disappear.

  • Joe R.

    This is mostly because 9/11 and the aftermath put the nation into a state of perpetual paranoia. Add in well-meaning but over protective parents seeking to provide some unattainable “perfect” environment for their children, and you have a recipe for disaster. This article gives me some hope we’re finally taking baby steps in the other direction.

  • Joe R.

    I neglected to mention that but you’re right. You can’t ignore the horrible effects daily driving in heavy urban traffic has on your health. Despite what the car makers show in their commercials, this type of driving constitutes the majority of driving most people do. The commercials mislead people into thinking they’ll be given a ticket to freedom on a winding country road with no traffic. It’s more like a one-way ticket to misery.

    Back when I graduated college I actually was faced with a choice of taking jobs in my field (electrical engineering) where I would need to deal with rush hour traffic daily, or remaining underemployed working jobs I could take the subway to (and later do at home). I choose the latter even though it meant a substantial loss in income (there were many years I didn’t even make five figures). No amount of money was worth the toll I knew driving daily would have had on my health. I knew people who did this and had heart attacks by their 40s. You experienced this yourself as a car commuter. Perhaps if more of their work force just plain refused to drive, employers would locate more jobs in places where people wouldn’t need to drive. Unfortunately for me, I graduated in 1985, at a time when the whole office park in suburbia model was in vogue. It’ll be a great day when most engineering and science jobs come back to the cities even if it’ll be too late for me by then. Thankfully I’ve managed to secure a great consulting position about 21 months ago. Better late than never but I wish I wouldn’t have had to face a choice of driving to work or being underemployed as a college graduate. Maybe someone who grew up in suburbia can make the adjustment better but as a city person driving to work in a sterile office park would have been poison to me. That just wasn’t what I imagined my life would be when I was studying to be an engineer in college.

  • Jake Wegmann

    Indeed: things got so nuts with some of these incidents like the Silver Spring one that sooner or later the countermovement had to get started. Good on Lenore Skenazy for getting it started. And while I don’t have any use for the Tea Party, good on Sen. Mike Lee for doing something concrete on this.

  • CalRobert

    We agree that cars are a menace. They should be removed. Let’s be clear – I am very pro-bike and pro-walking. That being said, for a person who can either walk along busy streets or drive (not such a rare choice in cities) driving is often safer, which of course is utterly ridiculous.

  • Rascal_Face

    I’d like to see pedestrian bulb outs at the intersections so there is more viability for peds stepped into the intersection and maybe a speed bump or too. However as I’m lucky enough to have a parking spot in my building so calling for a 5% reduction in street parking feels hypocritical.

    San Francisco’s woefully lackluster public transportation needs to come up to speed before car free streets would be politically viable. I did see a proposal on here somewhere for infill housing in wide streets with super narrow one way roads for cars going 5mph tops, I’d love to see that in front of my building.

  • Rascal_Face

    Yeah and here’s me doing the math about the safety of my toddler and choosing the car-seat over the stroller or bike-seat. I had a scary run in with some kids going to a concert over the summer and it’s put me off biking with the kid a little bit but I’d much rather be on the bike or walking than contributing to the traffic problem.

  • CalRobert

    Hey, this sounds familiar! I rode from Santa Monica to El Segundo for work for almost a year and it was awesome. About 24 miles a day round trip and beautiful ocean most of the way. That ride, fortunately, was mostly separated bike path (Venice and Dockweiler) but the stretch around Marina Del Rey nearly killed me several times, and I did break a rib after getting hit in SM.

  • CalRobert

    We don’t disagree. I think walking and biking – in civilised countries (Netherlands, Denmark, even Davis!) is safer, and better in every regard. However, here in ‘murrica we design our cities pretty much as though we wanted to kill as many pedestrians and cyclists as possible.

  • Rascal_Face

    mmmm delicious pedantry

    ‘Though I do agree that news stories should mention drivers of vehicles instead of “Car crashes through cafe front, kills 6”

  • Andres Dee

    “Lee is a Tea Party-Libertarian type and wouldn’t support a law that interferes with local government’s authority.”

    I thought “Tea Party-Libertarians” value individual liberty over government authority, federal, state or local. Was I mistaken?

  • Sine Metu

    There is a guy in my office that rides from Redondo to Santa Monica along the beach path a few times a week. I am so jealous. That’s a world-class bike commute (sans the oblivious tourists).

    My entire commute is nonstop interaction with cars along Santa Monica Blvd. If your attention falters for even a second … White knuckle through Beverly Hills, Century City (Big & Little SM Blvd split) and the 405 underpass.

    The worst part is definitely Fountain Ave in Hollywood though. Sharrows with parked cars and 2 lanes of folks pushing 50-60 mph, jockeying and changing lanes. I hold the lane always but it takes fortitude and I have been threatened and forced off the road on that stretch a few times.

    I love it though. Even when it rains.

  • CalRobert

    This is easier said than done, but can you either move or change jobs?

    If you’re a cyclist, LA is a hellhole. At least, it was for me. Leaving and moving to a much more cycling friendly city did wonders for my depression.

  • Sine Metu

    It’s relative of course. Compared to when I first started riding it’s night and day better these days. Some of the greybeard commuters I know who have been doing it for 20 years have a completely different perspective.

    I love my job and I love my home and the commute is the only thing keeping me fit these days. If it were any shorter (under 10 miles each way) I fear I would get fat pretty quickly.

    The difference between my body on a friday after a weeks riding and on sunday night after a weekend of resting my legs is disconcerting.

  • Alicia

    Start working to make it better. Look for solutions including crossing guard programs and street redesign (e.g. pedestrian islands and speed bumps) that will make it easier to walk safely in the neighborhood.

  • Robert Ping

    Unfortunately, this is all too common. During the 7 years I was the technical director for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, I fielded call after call from parents and local advocates who were dealing with this situation. A parent lets their kid walk to school or home (even up to 15 years old!) and they are arrested or threatened for neglect, abuse, etc. We went to bat for them, campaigning publicly or at least calling local officials to resolve the situation. The interesting part is that in many of those cases, public sunlight on the situation got charges dropped, and sometimes an older police chief would get his younger officer to drop the case. This may show the generational difference – back in the day kids roamed the streets freely.

    Nowadays we have legal curfews, closed or missing parks, open space areas and school grounds, intensive school arrival and departure processes that are like airport security (and just as effective, or not), peer pressure and helicopter parenting. The fear factor is high, which is understandable, no parent wants their kid to get hurt, but the risk of a lack of learning about the world, lack of community connection, and lack of physical activity is much more dangerous to kids in the long run.

  • PaleoBruce

    Funny thing, I think the public transportation in San Francisco is mostly good, often great. My only complaint is that there are times that the bus gets delayed by cars clogging the intersections, cars queuing for parking, or cars jammed up to get on the bridge.

  • PaleoBruce

    Is your only transportation option a private automobile?

  • njudah

    yes because tea party fake libertarian types are only against government until they are for it, usually to ban someone or something they don’t like.

  • bolwerk

    I’m not even sure they’re that coherent. Their usual interest is defending their own privileges and entitlements. Whether sincere confusion or outright propagandizing, that is what they mean when they talk about “freedom.”

    Real anti-authoritarians occasionally find common cause with so-called “libertarians” like the Reason Foundation, ridiculous as we find them generally. Usually this regards civil liberties, policing, or government surveillance. If such alliances ever happened with a Tea Party-associated group, I never heard about it.

  • Rascal_Face

    Yup, having to share a route with car traffic makes for terrible public transportation. I get to wait another 2.5 years for a BRT lane on Geary and no one except Scott Weiner is even talking about a subway line north of GG park. My co-workers in Alameda and El Cerrito get to work faster than I do. So from here I give MUNI a “Needs Improvement” rating.

  • MichaelinTX

    One issue with that language for the federal law is that it specifically references walking to and from school. Homeschool families will continue to be harassed when they are out.

  • dfwmom

    One of the issues that gets lost in all of these “child abuse/neglect” cases, where the child is perfectly healthy and happy, is well fed, and nary a scratch on him, is the horrendous emotional trauma that the child experiences when being emotionally assaulted by police and cps/dfs workers, denied his liberty, his right to free speech, his right to see his family — basically deprived of his natural human rights to exist anywhere outside his home. Constitutionally, a child should have the same rights as the rest of us, and not be discriminated against based on his age — yet we continually discriminate against the human rights of children. We never, NEVER, have a public discussion about how we are abusing children when we take healthy, happy children and steal their home and their parents from them, and lock them up in foster care. They are generally miserable, terrified, and desperately wanting their home and their families. There are no studies that compare the stress levels of children in foster care compared to children in their natural homes. The powers that be, who are making money on stealing kids, don’t want to ask the question. However, there are studies that show that children have better outcomes in their natural homes.

  • dfwmom

    Or in a schoolbus with NO SEATBELTS.

  • dfwmom

    There is risk in all life. You could be killed sitting in your own home. Risk does not always mean that we must simply give up. Sometimes, risk is fairly limited, and can be accepted, and we can go on with our lives.

  • CalRobert

    I know – just to be clear, I’m a HUGE advocate of cycling and walking. I spoke in favor of bike lanes in my own community a month ago and thanks to some surprisingly receptive city planners got a planned bike lane removal turned in to a bike lane addition. But let’s not fool ourselves in to thinking that US street design and driving culture are anything but a menace to humankind. As safe as cycling may be, it’s a hell of a lot safer when you don’t have 4000 pounds of metal hurtling towards you at 50mph.

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