Magazine | May 18, 2015, Issue

The Paranoid Style in American Parenting

In Maryland, Big Brother plays Big Mommy

It may not yet have congressional recognition, but May 9 is the red-letter day on the calendar for a growing national observance: “National Take Your Kids to the Park . . . and Leave Them There Day.” Owing to recent very stupid events in a tony Maryland community, this year the theme has been slightly revised: “National Take Your Kids to the Park . . . and Let Them Walk Home by Themselves Day.”

The Meitiv family resides in Silver Spring, Md., a comfortable suburb directly adjacent to the District of Columbia with a median family income pushing $90,000 and a crime rate well under the national average. The Meitivs, Alexander and Danielle, had their children, Rafi and Dvora, taken into police custody and now find themselves on the wrong side of Child Protective Services as offenders — repeat offenders — whose crime is letting their children play in the park and walk home by themselves.

In December 2014, the Meitivs dropped their children off at a park less than a mile from their home; police picked up the children, ages ten and six, during their walk home. They delivered them to their parents, who received a letter from Child Protective Services a few months later informing them that they were guilty of “unsubstantiated neglect,” the Orwellian term that the CPS bureaucracy uses when it wants to convict parents of an offense for which there is no real evidence. But the Meitivs were determined that their children would not be raised as prisoners, and, after a six-hour drive from upstate New York in April, they dropped them off at another park to give them a chance to play and unwind from the long ride. They were given instructions to be home at 6 p.m. By 6:30 p.m., the parents were quite worried. It was not until 8 p.m. that they received a call from CPS informing them that their children were in custody. They had once again been picked up by police, but this time delivered to CPS rather than to their parents.

Mindful of the paranoid style of American parenting, the Meitivs had instructed their children in how to deal with inquiring police or assorted do-gooders, to inform them that they are not lost, that they have permission to play on their own, that they know their way home, etc. That availed the Meitivs nothing. They are, so far as the State of Maryland is concerned, neglecters of children.

“Children have the right to some unsupervised time, and parents have the right to give it to them without getting arrested.” So declares Lenore Skenazy, advocate for “free-range kids” and former host of World’s Worst Mom on Discovery Life. Danielle Meitiv had written to Skenazy some years ago with a parenting question, and the subsequent developments are an excellent illustration of Skenazy’s view: “This isn’t about parenting. If I knew anything about parenting, I could make my kids clean up their rooms or go to bed on time. This has nothing to do with parenting — this is about fear.” The United States and much of the developed world is in the grip of an irrational panic directed at our children. From paranoia over vaccinations to Whole Foods shoppers’ ruthlessly eliminating gluten from their toddlers’ diets to those who are scandalized by parents’ allowing their children to play in the park unsupervised, anno Domini 2015 — arguably the safest time in human history to be a child in the English-speaking world — is an age of terror for parents.

And that terror has real-world consequences: “It’s fantasy as policy,” Skenazy says. The end product is what she refers to as “salvation by regulation,” with laws named for unfortunate children who are victims of vanishingly rare traumas. “If a child dies in a horrible way and it’s been on TV for more than two nights, then they’ll want a law named after that kid. It’s a way to make these events seem less terrible. It has to do with superstition — it’s a way to appease the gods.”

Skenazy isn’t a home-schooling Evangelical in Wyoming; she’s a Jewish liberal from New York. But on this subject, she sounds like a Rick Perry voter despairing at the nexus of suburban yuppie paranoia, American litigiousness — “In a litigious society, everybody starts to think like a trial lawyer,” she says — excessive solicitousness toward “expert” opinion, and an absurd level of risk aversion. “It’s as though the choice were between being home and safe or free and dead,” she says, “as though there were something inherently wrong with something that isn’t 100 percent safe. In Richmond, Wash., they’re getting rid of the swings, because they’re the most dangerous piece of equipment on the playground. Of course they are: You already got rid of the teeter-totter! What’s next?”

Silver Spring is, affluence aside, a relatively high-crime part of Montgomery County, Md. Which is to say, it has a crime rate that is 25 percent below the national average rather than half the national average. There’s a lot of that sort of good news going on in the Washington suburbs: Nearby Fairfax County, Va., in April reported its lowest level of crime since it has been keeping records. Across the country, child abductions and child homicides are at record lows. Almost all of the missing-person cases involving children turn out to be runaways — less than 1 percent are abductions. The risk of premature death of any kind for an American child between five and 14 is one in 10,000, while deaths for children between one and four have plunged by 93 percent over the past several decades.

The Meitivs could very well lose custody of their children, though that seems unlikely to happen in this case. Their story was picked up by talk radio and other media and has become something of a cause célèbre. Petitions are being circulated and solidarity is being affirmed. When you have the opportunity to make your case in the Washington Post and on Fox News, that makes an enormous difference.

But most families do not have that chance.

The worrisome fact is that the great threat to American children comes not from lurking trench coats or rusty playground swings, but from the people entrusted with looking after children’s interests when their families fail to do so.

As domestic terrors go, the nation’s CPS agencies might be the only branch of the budding American police state that gives the IRS a real run for its money. A boy shows up at school with a bruise from the usual roughhousing and sets off a chain of events that finds his parents under investigation for child abuse. Single mothers and poor families, sometimes poorly educated, find themselves dragged into Kafkaesque proceedings that they can neither escape nor comprehend.

A criminal-defense attorney in Arizona tells of being shocked by the CPS proceedings that followed his client’s being acquitted in an assault case. This wasn’t an acquittal on a technicality, but a case in which the prosecution dropped the charges because the prosecutor became convinced that the assault in question hadn’t actually happened, that it was a fiction. CPS never reviewed the facts of the criminal case, and informed the mother that she’d made things unnecessarily hard on herself by bringing a lawyer to the hearing. The CPS worker “generally undertook the role of grand inquisitress with zeal that would make Mike Nifong blush,” Matt Brown, an attorney assisting the mother, wrote about the case. In the end, CPS took custody of her daughter and informed her that any visitation would be at CPS’s discretion. “I can’t believe what I saw,” Brown says. “I can’t believe CPS can take kids based on nothing, can’t believe the facilitator and the caseworker could do something like that to a family, and can’t believe that any human being could be so willing to make a life-changing decision so callously. It’s the kind of thing I’m going to have nightmares about for years to come.”

Social workers in arms — the stuff of nightmares indeed.

But after a generation’s worth of “If it saves one child’s life!” rhetoric, we’ve begun to take that sort of thing literally. And the change came with amazing alacrity: A generation of people who’d never so much as seen a bicycle helmet outside of competitive racing became parents and suddenly insisted that their own precious snowflakes could not possibly be expected to pedal a Huffy without headgear. People who were taught to handle firearms safely as children are having their own children instructed to report them to the Man for legally keeping guns in the home. Edward R. Murrow used to smoke while delivering the news; today Broadway shows warn grown men about the presence of “theatrical smoking,” which makes one think of Cruella de Vil — or not, given that British authorities threatened to slap an “adults only” rating on 101 Dalmatians because of the arch-villainess’s tobacco habit.

“It’s a genuine national psychosis,” Skenazy says, “and an international one, too.” But it’s nothing a little sunshine and fresh air couldn’t do wonders for, if that were still permitted.

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