In Maryland, Tempting Moral Luck And The Barn Door Phenomenon In A Free Range Kids Ethics Conflict

Lyon Sisters

Just months after suburban Maryland parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were cited by Montgomery County’s Child Protective Services for “unsubstantiated neglect” for allowing their children Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6, to walk home from a park close to home, the defiant parents let their kids to do it again. Again, someone called 911 (anonymously), and again the children were picked up by police.

This time, the police took the Meitiv children to Child Protective Services headquarters and for some reason didn’t tell the parents, who, naturally enough, freaked out. Five and a half hours later the agitated children and frantic parents  were reunited. You can read about the initial incident from the mother’s perspective here; and obviously Lenore Skanazy is in full battle array on her “Free Range Kids Blog.” Columnists everywhere are rushing to their keyboards to write columns like this one, by the Washington Post’s Petula Devorak, titled “Why Are We Criminalizing Childhood Independence?”

The ethics of this issue are more complicated than simplistic “We used to walk around freely all the time when we were kids and it was more dangerous then than now” reminiscences are equipped to explore.

Analyzing this ethics conflict (“when two or more ethical principles are in opposition”)  screams out for the useful starting point for ethics analysis:

What’s going on here?

Before I answer, let’s get a couple of ethics verdicts out of the way:

The Montgomery County police:  Obviously taking the children into custody without notifying the parents was a major mistake, and wrong. There is no defense. Was somebody trying to solve the conflict by teaching the free-range parents a lesson? I wouldn’t be surprised. That would be an abuse of power; neglecting to inform them that their children are safe is otherwise just incompetent.

The Meitivs: They were told by Child Protective Services that they were being monitored, and were essentially on child endangerment probation. They sent their children out alone again, doing exactly what they had been told not to do. This was using their children as pawns in their battle against the County. Whether they or the County are right, half-right or wrong about how young children should be supervised and what the role of government is in protecting them, the Meitivs defied the authorities and used their children to do it. They share responsibility for what happened.

The anonymous 911 caller: According to the Montgomery police report, an anonymous caller alerted them about unattended children,  and they found the kids in a parking garage where a “homeless subject” was “eyeing the children.” Was the caller a meddling hysteric or a responsible citizen? The answer is either, neither, or both. Do we want community members to be alert and to err on the side of caution when something in their gut tells them that children may be in peril, or do we want them to think, “Hey, none of my business!”?

In a controversial post last year in which I sided with a bystander who investigated what he saw as a suspicious public photo session that might have been human trafficking, but that was really a professional photographer using his adopted Asian daughters as subjects, I wrote,

We all have an obligation to look out for each other, and along with that comes an obligation to be understanding, forgiving and to extend the benefit of the doubt when a well-considered intervention is based on seeing a situation from the wrong perspective. Gates’ [the photographer/father] correct and ethical response to the man, after explaining what was going on, should have been, “Thank you for looking out for my girls.”

Absent more information, I think this applies to the 911 caller as well.

Now on to that crucial question: What’s going on here?

On March 25, 1975, 12-year-old Sheila Lyon and 10-year-old Katharine Lyon, daughters of a popular D.C, area radio personality, walked by themselves to the mall in Wheaton, Maryland , and were never seen again. A massive police search found no sign of the girls. Over four decades, police have pursued numerous leads and identified potential suspects, but have never charged anyone. The case remains open, and is a lingering nightmare to the entire region. Just this February, the case was in the news again, as another suspect was identified.

Should a 40-year-old mystery restrict the freedom of children and the liberty of parents to set boundaries as they see fit? No, but it will, and it does, and pretending that it won’t or that human nature will respond any differently from how it always has is not helpful. This is the Barn Door phenomenon (“locking the barn door after the horse has fled”), which works in several ways. Sometimes there are practices that we should objectively realize are too risky and dangerous but do not until a disaster occurs, and then we over-react. Sometimes a completely reasonable practice with a low risk probability results in the unlikely disaster, and as a result the practice is no longer seen as reasonable, although it is. Human beings learn from experience, not projections.

Once a disaster has occurred, those in positions of authority are in an impossible situation. They can, like the mayor of Amity in “Jaws,” argue that the disaster was a one time fluke and take no steps to reduce the risks. You know how that turned out for Larry Vaughn. On the other side of the spectrum, they can install extensive measures that restrict freedoms and the enjoyment of life, as schools and communities did, and are still doing, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting hysteria.

Human nature as well as bureaucratic nature gravitates to the second approach, and if the Meitivs and other free-range advocates were interested in or capable of seeing the issue objectively, they would understand why. CPS officials issued a statement this week saying, “Protecting children is the agency’s number one priority. We are required to follow up on all calls to Child Protective Services and will continue to work in the best interest of all children.”

Translation: “Do you think we’re crazy? What if someone calls 911 about two kids, we say, “Oh, those are just free-range kids, nothing to worry about,” and they end up like the Lyon sisters? We get sued. We get fired. We get condemned by the community.”

And of course, they are right.

It’s simple, really. Parents like the Meitivs need to sign a binding contract in which they agree not to hold any government agencies responsible for the welfare of their children and directing them to ignore 911 calls and the expressed concerns of anyone but the parents themselves. The children should carry ID cards that mark them as free-range kids, and direct officers to leave them alone unless they are being attacked, threatened or victimized. The parents should also be required to waive legal action if their unsupervised children’s injuries or deaths are attributable to the lack of supervision by a child that is 13 or older. (A state law mandates that children younger than 8 must be left with a reliable person who is at least 13, but that only applies to enclosed spaces.)

I am being facetious, of course. As we all know, once such children actually fell victim to tragedy, the community would never permit such a waiver. The barn door would be locked and double locked.

In a way, the Meitivs are like the mother dangling her toddler over the cheetah exhibit.  It’s safe, until it isn’t: they are challenging moral luck. If their children get mauled by a stray dog, or attacked by a PCP addict, or kidnapped by a child predator, or sucked into another dimension, everyone will say, “See? Those irresponsible parents let their children roam free, and look what happened!” The Meitivs might even say it themselves. And laws and greater restrictions than  the Meitivs have had to deal with will be put in place, because the perception will be that it is irresponsible not to.

Anyone who objects risks becoming Larry Vaughn, Mayor of Amity.

Belonging to a community sometimes requires members to adopt community standards that they don’t agree with or believe in, or to find themselves in constant conflict. Fairly or not, suburban Maryland, where two young girls, roaming free, vanished without a trace, is not the place to be a free-range kids crusader.

Meanwhile, allow me to hope that Sheila Lyon and Katharine Lyon were picked up by benign alien visitors like all those people in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and will eventually be returned, healthy, wiser, and not having aged a day.

That would really be great.


Sources: NBC, Free Range Kids, Washington PostABC


30 thoughts on “In Maryland, Tempting Moral Luck And The Barn Door Phenomenon In A Free Range Kids Ethics Conflict

  1. Yeah – you state it all pretty well. People, it would seem, have a problem with others accepting risk and the consequences they entail. If you live on planet earth, you risk being mauled by a tiger, hit by a bullet, run over by a car, or strangled by a constrictor. You’ll never hear people say we should kill all of the tigers and snakes, though you will hear people try to destroy all of the guns and wheeled transports. To have “liberty” is to court “risk”. Sure, you can choose to have sex without a condom, but there’s a few associated risks. You can choose to allow people to drive their own cars, but you’ll be risking their individual errors. It’s better to put everyone in computer controlled boxes for their transportation – everyone will arrive alive without human error.

    When you put “Life” as your priority, you remove “risk” for a controlled environment. Control will thus be wielded by those with authority to make controlling rules / laws. “Life” is the mantra of Government because Government wants to control. So don’t worry, we’ll all get our opportunity grow old and get to experience Medicare together.

  2. My gut says that “it’s what we all used to do, and times were more dangerous then,” if backed up by fact, makes a pretty air-tight, logical argument. But I understand the allure of the “if it saves just one child” mentality. Aren’t most kidnappings committed by relatives or known persons? CPS can check on the girls, escort them home, or whatever. Cops can keep an eye on that suspicious homeless person, or the kids, or both. They can stop by the parents’ house and let them know about any risks in the neighborhood. Those seem like reasonable actions if the goal is to “protect and serve.”
    But authorities seem to have a quick trigger finger for snatching kids away from families, and apologizing later when children’s lives are ruined in foster care or by having their home torn apart in their formative years. I might trust the track record of parents in general over CPS when it comes to doing what’s best for kids. Domenic Johansson in Sweden has been kept away from his parents due to a bureaucratic misunderstanding involving education for 6 years now, with the parents treated like villains by a state trying to cover its ass. What a nightmare. At least if a drifter kidnaps your kid, you’ll feel as if there are people on your side.

  3. I don’t think it’s letting children be “free-range” (used to be just called childhood, but whatever) can be fairly compared to dangling a two-year old child over the cheetah exhibit. If nothing else, there is inherent value in teaching children to be independent, and navigate the world with confidence. Children should receive increasing levels of independence as they age, and I don’t think being a 10/15 minute walk away from home is unreasonable for the ages cited. Do we expect the kids to suddenly get thrown out there and know what to do when they are 13-16 years old, having ventured no further than their own front yard unsupervised? In my own jurisdiction, children are expected to walk to school if their house is within one mile of the school. While I see kindergartners accompanied by adults and older kids, many of the elementary school age children seem quite competent at getting themselves to school and back without much adult interference.

    From what I read from the earlier story, the free-range kids in the story do carry cards identifying themselves as free range, and it has their address printed on it. Therefore the police failure to return them is inexcusable. There is absolutely no way that the foster care system would be a better place for them than allowing to play by themselves in a park close to home. It’s hard for me to believe that this would even be a rational response for people.

    • Wow, it is so rare that I disagree with Deery. I don’t think the question is whether or not the kids will be lost, it is whether they will be abducted. An address card around their necks is akin to advertising that parents aren’t watching them and are easier to grab. It’s like a dog with tags running loose — whoever finds him has the option of being a good citizen and returning the dog or being a jerk and keeping it.

      Is society safer than when we were kids? Absolutely. Should parents still let a 6 year-old go to a park with a 10 year-old? No. Under no Circumstances. No.

      There are plenty of times for kids to learn and develop independence. 6 is not it. My daughters also are unlikely to choke on a hot dog — but I still cut them up for them. They are unlikely to run away from me — but I still hold their hands in parking lots and when we are crossing the street. I still chaperone every field trip and scrutinize any potential care givers very closely. My kindergartner ate shrimp for the first time last night. I made her sit with me for 30 minutes after to make sure she wasn’t going to have an allergic reaction (although I didn’t tell her that’s what we were doing).

      I don’t think I am smothering my kids or being a helicopter parent — I just think I am being a good parent. They can play by themselves on another floor or in the backyard — not in the park down the street. For that, mommy and/or daddy need to come along.

      • Everyone has their risk tolerance. (BTW, I’m pretty sure the card is in their pockets, not around their necks). It sounds like you would have no trouble with the 10 year going to the park, just the 6 year old? Or both?

        There is no law against doing what they were doing, as it will obviously vary wildly depending on the competencies of the child in question. I see children younger than the ten year taking the metro to go to school in the mornings. I probably won’t be cutting up a hot dog for a seven year old, and as far as the shrimp thing goes, you know the recommendation now is to expose them to potential deadly allergens sooner, rather than later? Sometimes overcaution has the boomerang effect of exposing kids to needless risk. At what age would you deem a child sufficient to go off on their own? And without giving them increasing levels of independence, how are they supposed to handle being self-sufficient?

        • I would have to judge the 10 year-old in question, but my initial thinking is that I would be more comfortable with 12.

          I know the risk re allergens and I have exposed my kiddos to just about everything — shrimp was the main one that I forgot.

  4. I’m torn.

    While we are responsible for our own personal safety, and no one should be more concerned about your safety than you, more and more I notice policies out there that remove people’s ability to exercise their place in the survival of the fittest. The difference in a case like this is that children aren’t responsible for their own safety, their parents are. And I’ve made the point before that parents can be stupid. The idea of parenthood magically making people more responsible is a myth.

    So the question becomes: “What do we do about it?” Jack made the point that if CFS ignored the 911 call, and something went sideways, they’d be in massive trouble), and I agree (we’re dealing with that exact scenario here in Winnipeg, MB. The person who called 911 (assuming that it was a genuinely well intentioned bystander as opposed to someone who knew the situation and was trying to stick it to the parents) should be encouraged, it makes for a friendlier society. So does it fall to the parents to change? This is where it starts to fall off the rails for me.

    This hits me as an issue that both progressives and conservatives should be on the same side of. Progressives should say something like: “Don’t tell my children where to walk, teach axe murderers not to axe murder them, you victim blaming, misogynist, neck beard shitlord!” And conservatives should say something like “Liberty, liberty, liberty” About 100 times to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner. But maybe we’re breaking the glass on those individual stupidities because we’re talking about the safety of kids.

    But in shedding those stupidities, are we trading them for another? Are we really at the point where a 10 year old can’t walk down the street? Our kids ARE safer now that they have ever been historically. So we’re being overcautious, and making the argument that it might actually be the best choice. We’re saying that because there is a chance of something catastrophic, we shouldn’t let children walk down the street alone. Where does that stop? Will parents be required to sign kids in and out of class? Hit the ball off the tee and run for them? And at what age do we say a kid can walk down the street unattended? Apparently 12 isn’t old enough. 14? 16? 18? 21? 30?

    We’re telling parents not to teach their children to be self sufficient. While it might seem easiest for the parents to be held responsible, and while I don’t really disagree with much of what you wrote, I just can’t agree with the conclusion, there has to be a way to balance autonomy and responsibility, even in a child.

    • I’m torn as well, for similar reason, and this caught my eye: “We’re telling parents not to teach their children to be self sufficient.”

      I’m going to be thinking about this every time I hear people complain about the infantilization of young adults and the increasing delay of adult responsibility. There are many other factors, but I have to wonder if this is where it all begins.

    • “Progressives should say something like: “Don’t tell my children where to walk, teach axe murderers not to axe murder them, you victim blaming, misogynist, neck beard shitlord!” And conservatives should say something like “Liberty, liberty, liberty” About 100 times to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner. ”

      Ha,ha! That sounds like so many ‘discussions’ I read online!

    • Love the progressives/conservatives paragraph.

      Some people see the world as a dangerous place, other as a magical place full of enjoyment and possibilities. I imagine that which perspective one leans toward is heavily dependent on whether one’s parents tended toward the “helicopter” or the “free range” style of parenting, with free range seemingly more conducive to producing independent, responsible adults.

      We teach them and train them and show them; we hover and, if we are praying folk, we pray–a lot.

      And, as much as it goes against the core of every parental instinct, we accept that we will never guard against all danger. Lightening will strike. Airplanes will fall. The baseball bat will break, and the flying piece will smash into someone’s head. And every time we start the car engine and check in the mirror that they are buckling their seat belts, we are putting them at much greater risk of calamity the second we are out of the driveway than any potential lurking kidnapper or molester will ever present. And yet we keep putting them in the car and backing out of the driveway.

    • Erm, to be clear:

      “Progressives should say something like: “Don’t tell my children where to walk, teach axe murderers not to axe murder them, you victim blaming, misogynist, neck beard shitlord!” ” Should actually be read as:

      “Don’t tell my children where to walk, let me elect a busy body to tell your children where to walk, while I seek a loophole that keeps me from doing the same”

  5. “My gut says that “it’s what we all used to do, and times were more dangerous then,” if backed up by fact, makes a pretty air-tight, logical argument. ”

    I think each time period has its own hazards. Some were more prevalent then than now. Some dangers have increased. In other situations, the time and place determines what is considered unsafe. In 1975, I’m sure parents had no problem letting their pre-teen kids walk to a mall in Wheaton, MD. After the Lyon sisters disappeared, parents in that area likely thought twice about it.

    When I was a kid, neighbors invited me to a Bible study in their house. My parents wouldn’t let me go because they “don’t know what type of church [the neighbors] go to”. I didn’t see the problem. We went to church. Bible studies were good. Why wouldn’t Bible studies be the same at my neighbors’ house? I’d forgotten the incident until many years later when I saw a documentary about Jim Jones. Jones began his ministry in my hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. And it was not long before that invitation to a Bible study that he went down in infamy in Guyana. I understand now what my parents could not explain to me then…not all Bible studies are the same. They wanted to protect me in case the neighbors belonged to a cult. Were my neighbors cultists? Probably not. But my parents would not take the risk. And that was in 1980.

    It does rather remind me of my Facebook feed which is full of people that like to post memes about how we all used to watch “Hee Haw”, ride in the beds of pickup trucks without seat belts, stayed out until sunset and lived in houses with lead paint…and we all turned out fine.

    And some of us did. It’s the kids that bounced out of the truck bed and were killed, the health problems some children suffered due to lead paint, the ones that were mauled by dogs, hit by cars or kidnapped by strangers because they were out and about alone that caused society to rethink the prevailing wisdom. Of course, I don’t know that “Hee Haw” was ever questioned.

    So, it’s all moral luck. If I turned out fine, great. But the ones that didn’t meant that the barn door had to be fixed so that there was less of a chance of the same fate befalling others.

    • Right, but moral luck should be tempered by realistic expectations. Are we tempting the moral luck that a meteor could strike us when we leave our homes? It’s a ridiculous example, to illustrate that the idea of tempting moral luck is a tool, not a straightjacket. Once we accept that there are situations where risk involved is so small that the risk can either be mitigated or written off, the next step is to find where the line reasonably is.

      • Well, yes, we shouldn’t become so paranoid we’re afraid to leave our houses, but, when it comes to the risks we expose our children to, we should consider what an acceptable level of danger is. A six-year old child is highly unlikely to be flattened by a space rock. Being hit by an inattentive driver, on the other hand…

        • That’s moving the goalposts… These kids are 10 and 12. Which is probably exactly the cusp of where I would think about coaching my kids to deal with responsibility, and why I think this example is so great.

          More, according to

          “Interestingly, while the volume of traffic has skyrocketed during recent decades, the rate of child pedestrian traffic deaths has actually decreased! The number of deaths per 1000,000 children was slightly less than 1.5 children, in 1995. By 2002, the figure had dropped slightly over 0.5 children.”

          Are we really talking about making policies based on a .000000005% chance?

        • You know, I need to apologize. The 10 and 12 year old kids were the Lyon girls, who were abducted, the kids in question are 6 and 10. 6 is early, and 10 probably isn’t old enough to be responsible for the six year old.

            • Absolutely. I should have used more qualifying language. There was an entire generation of latch-key children who can attest to the relative safety (if nothing else) of letting kids handle various degrees of responsibility.

            • That’s what occurs to me. These parents know their children and have no doubt set boundaries, established rules, and cautioned them about the risks. Cookie cutter characterization of individuals is typical of bureaucratic do-gooders who generally see people as a collective to be managed and constrained. Their “good works” always result in sweeping decisions that may not be appropriate, hence zero-tolerance policies and institutionalized abandonment of judgment and discretion.

  6. Media brings into sharp focus all of the dangers in life, but wholly ignores the overwhelming normalcy. Given the fact that children are statistically far more likely to be abused (physically, sexually and psychologically) or killed by a parent or family member than a stranger, perhaps they are LESS likely to meet a grim fate walking the streets without parents. Remember the days when the only traffic jams at the schools was the herd of bicycles and running children (sans helmets) celebrating their freedom from school? Life is risky, it’s fragile, it’s precious – it is that inherent brevity and fragility that gives it it’s value. Extraordinary lives and people without exception learned early in life to take and manage risks. What if Malala Yousafzai’s father had not encouraged her to speak up? What if he had kept her safe and quiet and home and protected her from the possible consequences of her brave actions? Society needs brave souls, risk takers, those who challenge and question authority – those who don’t always make the safe choices and have learned to live with and manage those risks and dangers.

    My best childhood memories are building forts with junk collected from the neighbohood with friends in empty lots, spending a summer day riding bareback on my horse to the river a few miles from my house and playing in the riverbed all day, as pre-teen girls on horses and pre-teen boys on dirt bikes hurled semi-flirtatious insults at one another. Building jumps and courses to ride bikes over, no helmets, no parents, no cell phones, just kids. We learned cause and effect, the consequences of our actions and we also learned our own physical limitations. I ache for the children today. They have truly missed out on the greatest joys of childhood. It is a crime against our children far greater than allowing them to walk to the park unattended.

  7. You can’t start this stuff by balancing freedom to do “this” against the risk of doing “this.” Risk will win every time, because it’s always just an insignificant bit of freedom that’s lost. You have to start with a preference for freedom in general as your guding principle.

    • YES. This is pretty much what I was going to say. In cases like this where there are so few clear answers to the ethical issues in conflict, and so many imponderables, the only really ethical thing to do is to back away from the desire to make rules and control outcomes.

      When in doubt, take the course that maximizes social freedom; if you’re likely to err, do it by respecting the free will of individuals. If it’s not already, that should be an ethical principle of its own.

    • It seems that a lot of people whose preference is zero risk are only to willing to abdicate their freedom for the illusion of safety.

      There are several variations on this Ben Franklin quote, but the essential meaning is the same:

      ”Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”

  8. How dangerous is it in suburban Maryland? I see kids that age riding bikes and walking by all the time in my neighborhood. The drug dealers and prostitutes just leave them alone, for the most part.

    Unlike many times that I am trying to make a point with an exaggerated argument,this is 100% accurate. I see prostitutes and drug dealers walk by my house on at least a weekly basis. I also see young children walk and ride by hourly during daylight hours. I have lived in this house about 10 years. No child has ever been abducted or attacked. There have been several reported abductions, but they were proven to be hoaxes (children covering up where they really were). So again, how dangerous is it REALLY in suburban Maryland?

    If this was just a couple blocks away, I can’t see why it isn’t reasonable for a 10 year old to walk there by themselves. Statistically, they are much more likely to be killed when they visit the doctor (physicians kill >300,000 people/year) and I don’t see a movement to keep children away from doctors.

    • It’s worse than that. Statistically, they were more likely to die in the cop car because of an accident than they were to be abducted. Well, I didn’t find any stats on kids in cop cars in particular, but car accidents are the leading cause of death for children. Even ignoring the possible difference between cops and other drivers, nonetheless, if it was criminally irresponsible to let them walk home it would have been more irresponsible to drive them somewhere…

      I blame Ilya Solmin and Instapundit for getting me to think about it that way.

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