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The 'free-range kids' debate in an urban environment

Fifth-grader Aiden Coldsmith has memorized the streets around his family's Waverly home. He knows every mud puddle, the homes of dogs both friendly and fierce, a park where a group of middle school girls hang out. The 11-year-old walks alone the few blocks to an art program or hardware store with "really good candy."

A few miles away in Fells Point, Kameron and Eddie Gordon keep their eight children close to home. Even the oldest, a 14-year-old high school freshman, is not allowed to walk outside alone.

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And in East Baltimore, Angela Brown's three sons — ages 13, 11 and 8 — walk the four blocks alone to catch a public bus to school.

"If I had my way, I would always take my sons to school, but I can't," said Brown, 33, who works long hours as a nursing tech.

A case involving a 10-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister in Montgomery County has sparked a debate about the age at which children should be allowed to walk and play without parental supervision.

The children have twice been picked up by police while walking between their home and a nearby park — most recently on Sunday, when, the children's parents say, police held them for hours before calling the parents. The parents, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, are proponents of "free range" parenting and believe kids should be encouraged to roam their neighborhood, as children did in decades past. Attorneys for the family say they plan to sue over the incidents.

Baltimore-area parents have strong feelings on the issue, particularly as it applies to city living. Some believe children should be allowed to explore their neighborhoods, climbing trees, playing pick-up soccer, and learning how to be independent. Others fear kidnapping, crime, reckless driving and racial profiling. And some parents find themselves letting children walk or play alone earlier than they had planned because they can't afford child care.

Maryland's fire code bars children under 8 from being left alone in an enclosed space — such as a home or car — without the supervision of someone at least 13 years old. But the law is nebulous when it comes to walking or playing outside.

The law defines child neglect as leaving a child "under circumstances that either harm a child's heath or welfare or expose the child to substantial risk of harm," David Nitkin, a spokesman for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, said in an email. The law does not define an age at which children are considered too young to walk or play outside alone, although the ages of 8 and 13 are considered "benchmarks," he said.

Local child welfare officers would consider the length of time children were left unsupervised, when and where they were left alone, and the child's maturity, among other factors, when investigating a neglect complaint, he said.

The plight of the "free range" kids has become a hot topic nationally. Local officials and groups appeared reluctant to jump into the debate.

Frosh declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees Child Protective Services, did not respond to a request for comment. And representatives of the nonprofit groups Advocates for Children and Youth and Legal Aid declined to comment.

Many local parents say they're outraged that a passerby called the police on the Meitiv children.

"If you're really worried about the kids, walk over to them and talk to them," said Rebecca Murphy, a 49-year-old mother of two from Roland Park. "Or call their parents. Why create all this trauma for them and their parents?"

Murphy, an employee of the city's Recreation and Parks department, describes herself as an "anti-helicopter" parent. She believes in giving her children, 17-year-old Hannah Jones and 14-year-old Carter Jones, freedom to explore. Murphy isn't worried about crime in their affluent community.

But, as an African-American, she worries that her children, especially her son, will be victims of racial profiling. When Carter was younger, the family lived in Homeland and a neighbor would blame the boy for mischief caused by another African-American boy who, like Carter, attended Roland Park Elementary Middle School.

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Murphy said that especially after the Trayvon Martin case, the unarmed 17-year-old* African-American boy in Florida fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, she has been worried about Carter's safety.

"I don't worry that someone is going to call the police because they're worried my son is going to be kidnapped," she said. "I worry that someone would call the police because they think that he was going to harm them."

Other parents, such as the Gordons of Fells Point, make sure their children are with an adult at all times.

"We think we might be a little overprotective, but we want to stay that way," said Kameron Gordon, a stay-at-home mother to the couple's eight children, who range from 3 to 14. "We don't let them go outside on their own — even the one that's almost 15."

Gordon, 35, says she grew up with much more freedom. But times have changed. She fears that child molesters or abductors could prey on her children.

Rosa Martinez shares the sentiment. Although her son, Jason Jarra, is only 7, she has already decided she doesn't want him to walk or play unsupervised until he is 14 or 15.

Martinez, 32, has an older son who is being raised by her mother in a her native Ecuador. The 13-year-old enjoys total freedom, exploring his rural village with other kids, Martinez said.

But Martinez, a single mother who works for a cleaning company, doesn't think that's safe here. She always walks Jason to Hampstead Hill Academy and picks him up in the afternoon. She stands watch when the boy plays in nearby Patterson Park.

"That's what parents do in this country," she said. "Things are different here."

Despite parents' fears, statistics show children face fewer hazards than their parents did growing up. The number of fatal pedestrian accidents involving children under 14 fell 34 percent between 2003 and 2012, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

The homicide rate for teens and older children has dropped sharply since 1993, according to data from the United States Department of Justice. The homicide rate for children 5 and under has fallen slightly — but 97 percent of those crimes were perpetrated by someone who knew the child.

Some parents say that economic concerns, job restraints and logistics force them to give their children more freedom than they would like.

That was the case of a South Carolina mother who was arrested this summer after she let her 9-year-old daughter play alone in a park near their home. Debra Harrell, who worked at a McDonald's restaurant, said she was unable to pay for child care out of her hourly wage. She spent 17 days in jail and temporarily lost custody of her daughter.

Angela Brown began allowing her three sons, Jerrod, Jerall and Sampson, to walk the four blocks from their East Baltimore home to the bus stop when Jerrod, the oldest, turned 12 last year. Before that, her mother drove them to school.

Brown, a nursing technician at University of Maryland Hospital, gets the boys up at 5:45 to get them ready for school. She has to leave at 7 to get to work; they leave for the bus about 15 minutes later. The boys check in with their mother when they head home.

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"My oldest has a cellphone, and he lets me know when they get on the bus and when they get home," said Brown.

Jerrod, a seventh-grader at Hampstead Hill, is allowed to play basketball at a court near their home. The two younger boys are allowed out only when supervised, Brown said.

Her worst fear, Brown said, is that the boys would be caught in the crossfire of a shooting.

Many parents believe it's important to gradually increase their children's independence.

Angela Scott recently started letting her daughters, ages 8 and 11, stay home alone while she and her husband run a quick errand. The girls can play in front of the family's Northeast Baltimore home alone, but they aren't allowed to roam far unless accompanied by a parent.

Scott, 38, said she had far more freedom when she was growing up in Baltimore the 1980s.

"Back then, we knew all the adults in our neighborhood and they kept an eye on us," she said. But now, people are less likely to know their neighbors, she said.

Scott is considering letting the girls walk from their school, Hampstead Hill Academy, across from Patterson Park, to her office at the Baltimore Curriculum Project a half-mile away.

"I try not to hover," she said. "They will never learn if you hover."

Rachel Valsing and Ryan Patterson of Better Waverly have also gradually increased the boundaries for their 11-year-old son, Aiden.

About two years ago, they started letting him walk a familiar route to an art program a few blocks from home. The boy would call as soon as he arrived to let them know he was safe. Now, Aiden walks about a half-mile to the Ace Hardware store to buy candy or, if he's with friends, walks a mile to Eddie's grocery store in Charles Village.

However, Aiden is not allowed to roam freely, as his parents did growing up in the suburbs. He must let his parents know his destination and route.

Aiden, a reedy boy with shaggy blond hair, is unusually mature and conscientious, his parents say. On a recent evening, he helped his parents cook dinner, kept his 4-year-old brother, Banner, in line, and corrected his father about the date and location of the most recent homicide in the neighborhood.

Valsing, a 33-year-old art teacher, and her husband, a 31-year-old arts administrator, have taught the boy to be watchful of traffic, but don't give him the sort of "stranger danger" lectures they received from their parents.

"He already worries about safety more than we want him to," said Patterson. The parents know their neighbors well and believe they look out for the boy. The couple chafes at the term "free range" kids; they feel that it is elitist and acknowledge that many other families don't have as many options for their children.

But sometimes Valsing and Patterson find they are overly optimistic about safety in the city. They signed Aiden up for an after-school program in Federal Hill with the hope that he could ride the Charm City Circulator from a bus stop near his school, the Baltimore Montessori School in Station North. However, after they heard other kids were robbed of their cellphones while waiting for the bus, they decided to drive him to the program.

Aiden, for his part, savors his independence and finds the Montgomery County case alarming.

"If they made it illegal for kids to walk alone," he said, "I'd have to get into politics."

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* This story has been updated. A previous version stated an incorrect age for Trayvon Martin. 

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