Kids left alone? Call Mom, not the cops

Mom: We didn't do anything wrong
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Story highlights

  • Parents who let children walk home alone are cited for neglect, they say
  • In a supportive community, parents watch out for each other's children
  • Free-range parenting really means teaching children important lessons

Katia Hetter writes about travel, parenting and trending news for CNN.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)We were moving into our new townhouse last year when I met the grandparents next door.

"We hope you'll come by if you need anything," they said.
They had two grandchildren, and the wife, a reading specialist, had more books than you could count. The neighbors on our other side, also grandparents, offered play dates when their grandson visits.
    As we were being welcomed into this community, I handed the responsible adults my phone number, so they'd know to call me if they saw anything of concern.
    To call me, not the cops. Unless there's a crime taking place or a fire, I hope they'd call me.
    I thought about my new community when I heard this week that Maryland parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv had been found responsible for "unsubstantiated" child neglect, they say, for allowing their children to walk home alone from a nearby park.
    Montgomery County Child Protective Services will keep the Meitiv family's case open for five years. It's not clear what will happen if the parents continue to allow son Rafi, 10, and daughter Dvora, 6, to walk alone -- which they say they will continue to do.
    CPS referred questions about the Meitivs to the Maryland Department of Human Resources, where a representative said the department does not comment on specific cases.
    It's all left me wondering: Was it a stranger who didn't know these children who called the police to report the suspicious activity of children walking alone? Or adults who couldn't be bothered to call their parents?
    "We are shocked and outraged that we have been deemed negligent for granting our children the simple freedom to play outdoors," Danielle Meitiv wrote in an email to CNN. "We fully intend to appeal."
    Nothing bad was actually happening to these children. In fact, they were modeling behavior parents like to see: kids practicing some degree of independence, a short distance from home.
    I get the tendency to worry. I'm your classic nervous parent of an only child. I watch my precious girl like a hawk, even when she doesn't know I'm looking, anxious about nearly everything.
    I blame it on growing up in a rough neighborhood for the first part of my life; I know bad stuff can happen. The world is actually safer for my child than when I was young, according to the stats, but I remember the cops were rarely interested in reducing crime where I lived.
    I've also worked with neglected teens, and I see the sexual abuse and other evil that parents can do to their own children. That's why I believe government must take a role when children are being starved, beaten or abused, or when parents are incapacitated by their use of drugs or alcohol.
    There are times when children must be rescued from their parents.
    Was that happening in Maryland? Not from what I've seen. I think that's why Danielle Meitiv says she and her husband don't plan to change her family's parenting approach.
    "We do worry, however, what will happen to them and us if CPS gets another call about them," she wrote.
    In a community where nobody knows your name, maybe your first call is to the police department. But wouldn't it be nicer if neighbors knew your name and you knew the child's name and perhaps even their parents'?
    As a nervous parent, I welcome more eyes caring for my child. "What do you do if I fall and sprain my ankle?" I asked her one afternoon.
    We've practiced before, so she knows the answer.
    "Go knock on the neighbors' next door for help," she said. Then we practiced. Yale Parenting Center head Alan Kazdin told me that talking to children isn't enough. We have to practice the situations so they physically know what to do.
    I'm grateful for neighbors I trust, apparently a luxury these days.
    I recently found out my neighbors trust me, too, when another child knocked on my door last week.
    "Can she play?"
    I didn't see any adults with the young boy, who I had just met a day ago. I called out to my child, who knows nothing about this child except that he liked to wrestle like she did the day before.
    "Sure," she said. They ran off to find her large collection of Legos.
    I called his grandfather, yet another neighbor in my complex, to tell him I had his grandson in my house. He thanked me for the call and asked me to send him back when they were done.
    Three hours and one fabulous playdate later, I sent him back across the path alone.