This past Sunday afternoon, the Montgomery County, Maryland police picked up two children, a brother and sister aged ten and six, in a local park. The children were undernourished, trembling, with suspicious bruises on their bodies, and so the police took them to a crisis center run by Child Protective Services.  

One lesson of the Meitiv story is that benevolent collective insanity when reinforced by police power can hold its own kind of dangers.

All that is true -- except the part about the two children being undernourished, bruised and trembling.  In fact, they appeared perfectly healthy and happy. The only thing that made Montgomery County’s Finest take the hapless kids to Child Protective Services on that beautiful April afternoon was that they were playing alone.  Outside. Presumably without an Xbox.

One lesson of the Meitiv story is that benevolent collective insanity when reinforced by police power can hold its own kind of dangers.

Though the children live a mere three blocks away with their doting parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, it might well have seemed a strange sight. Unlike most contemporary parents, the Meitivs follow a childrearing approach known as “free range childhood.” The idea is to cultivate a spirit of independence in our overscheduled, over coddled young.  Free rangers and their many supporters recall a time when no one expected children to be leashed to an adult at all times, when they could explore their surroundings on their bikes or during meandering walks around neighborhoods, shops, and fields, skinning their knees, maybe, but all the stronger for it.  

Now not only are such childhood experiences a rarity, they are considered evidence of criminal neglect. For their sin, the Meitivs are under investigation.  They are understandably incensed: “This fundamental, constitutional right of parents cannot be infringed simply because certain governmental employees disagree with a parent’s reasoned decision on how to raise his or her children,” Danielle Meitiv wrote on her Facebook page.

Unfortunately the “governmental employees” are not fully to blame. They are after all doing the public’s bidding.

Consider, for instance, that the police weren’t the ones who decided something was amiss in that Silver Spring park.  A local resident had called 911 to report the suspiciously unsupervised children.  Given a litigious and easily outraged public, the police were in no position to tell the “good Samaritan” to mind his or her own business. And once they called CPS to describe the situation, there was no turning back.  The CPS were equally terrified of gruesome headlines, however unlikely.

There is also the unfortunate reality that the Meitivs were breaking the law. Maryland has an ordinance that a child under 8 has to be cared for by someone at least 13. It may be a stupid law – I’ve known 20 year olds who I wouldn’t let watch my dog and 10 year olds with the judgment of Solomon -- but the duly elected Maryland state legislature saw fit to pass it. It seems that the Maryland Child Protective Services are not the only ones fearful of an exceedingly risk averse public.

The truth is the police and CPS were reflecting the mindset of a significant subsection of their community. 

On Danielle’s Facebook page any number of commenters chastise her for her “irresponsibility.”  

In reality, child abductions by strangers in a Silver Spring park are as rare as tiger attacks. But in this case reality does not matter. A society that bans dodgeball for being too violent, whose federal government produces a 52 page Public Playground Safety Handbook, and whose state and local officials pile on with ever more playground regulations is one that is in the throes of what Bloomberg’s Megan McCardle calls a “collective insanity.”

One lesson of the Meitiv story is that benevolent collective insanity when reinforced by police power can hold its own kind of dangers. 

In January, another neighbor called the police after seeing the Meitiv children walking home by themselves from the same park. Five patrol cars and 6 officers escorted the children home.  

As their father was threatened with losing his children unless he signed a “temporary safety plan” one of the children screamed; “They’re arresting Daddy!”  A social worker warned the kids to tell their parents they shouldn’t “go off on [their] own anymore …since there are bad guys waiting to grab you.”

In Sunday’s event, the police lured the children into their car by telling them they would take them home from the park.  Instead, they were, in their mother’s words, “confined to the back of a police car for almost three hours without any explanation of why they were being detained.” They were not fed and were unable to call or speak with their parents who were growing frantic with worry.

Ironically, it wasn’t bad guys causing them so much grief. It was neighbors, police, social workers, and bureaucrats with the best of intentions.

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and author of The New Brooklyn, due out in January.