children are introduced to the criminal justice system
when their parent is arrested and they see her taken
away in handcuffs. Most police departments do not
have protocols for addressing the needs of children
when a parent is arrested. The resulting experience
can be terrifying and confusing for the children left
behind. Some wind up in the back of a police car themselves,
on the way to the first in a series of temporary placements.
Others are left behind in, or return home to, empty
apartments. Arrested parents often prefer not to involve
public agencies in the lives of their children, out
of fear of losing custody. Many children share this
fear, but at the same time long for someone to notice
and attend to the family vulnerabilities that can
both lead to and result from a parent’s arrest.
arrest is by definition a traumatic event for children.
But if children’s well-being is made a priority,
it can also become an opportunity— to assess
a child’s needs, offer aid in what will likely
be a difficult period, and connect with and support
arrested her and just left us there.”
age nine, Dave was left alone with his baby brother
after their mother was arrested. Dave—who was
19 at the time of this interview—went on to
foster care and then college. He never learned why
his mother had been arrested, and saw her only once
after the day of her arrest.
I was nine when my mom got arrested.
The police came and took her. I was trying to ask
them what was going on and they wouldn't say, and
then everything went so fast. I guess they thought
someone else was in the house. I don’t know.
But nobody else was in the house. They arrested her
and just left us there.
For two or three weeks I took care of
my one-year-old brother and myself. I knew how to
change his diapers and feed him and stuff. I tried
to make breakfast in the morning and I burnt my hand
trying to make toast. I had a blister.
percent of children who were present at a parent’s
arrest watched that parent being handcuffed.
I wasn’t really afraid. I was
just trying to take care of my brother. That was my
goal—to take care of him. Sometimes he would
cry because he probably would want to see my mom.
When my mom was there, every day we
used to take my little brother for a walk in the stroller.
I still did that every day, even though my mom wasn’t
there. Her friend across the street saw us and I guess
she figured out something was wrong. She called Child
Protective Services and they came and took us.
30 percent were confronted with drawn
My mom did come back eventually, but
by that time we were already gone. All I know is that
they just rushed me in the system and that was that.
They didn't tell me why I can’t go back with
I was sent to a temporary foster home and my brother
was in a different foster home. Then I got placed
in the foster home where I live now. I’ve been
there for about eight years.
I felt bad about being separated from
my brother. I should have had visits with my brother,
to at least know exactly where he was. I just prayed
that he was doing OK. During that time we were split
up, my mom died. So then I was really mad because
my brother was the only person I had left of my family
and I didn’t know where he was.
I think when the police first arrested
my mom, they should have looked around the house and
seen that we were there by ourselves. Then I wouldn’t
have had to take care of my brother for that long.
The police should sit down and talk
with you. Explain the situation. Why, and what are
the going to do with you? How long do they think your
mother is going to be there? And don’t just
say, “She’ll be out in a couple of days,
we’re going to put you in foster care and she’ll
get you back,” and then you don’t never
get back out. They should just be honest with you
and tell you what’s going on.
- Develop arrest protocols
that support and protect children.
Training police officers to understand
and address children's fear and confusion when a
parent is arrested is an important first step. At
a minimum, police could be trained to inquire about
minor children, and to rely—in the absence
of evidence that to do so would place a child at
risk—on the arrested parent as a first source
of information about potential caretakers. This
would minimize both the possibility of children
being left alone, and of children entering the child
welfare system unnecessarily when family members
or other caretakers are available.
Keeping in mind that safety is the first priority,
the following steps might also be considered when
• Avoiding the use of sirens and lights in
non-emergency situations where their use is discretionary,
to reduce the fear and/or shame children may experience.
• If the arrestee is cooperative, allowing
her to explain to her children what is happening
and say goodbye, and walking her out of sight of
the children before handcuffing her.
• When it is not possible or appropriate for
the arrestee to offer an explanation, having an
officer take children into another room and offer
them an age-appropriate explanation of what is happening
and what will happen next (e.g., “Mom needs
to take a time-out and we will be taking her someplace
where she can do that. You have not done anything
wrong. We will make sure your mother is safe, and
grandma will be here to make sure you are safe.”)
- Offer children and/or
their caregivers basic information about the post-arrest
process: where the arrestee likely will be held,
how long it may take for him to be processed, and
visiting hours and procedures.
This information might be conveyed
via a simple handout. Officers might also distribute
a resource guide with a list of community agencies
and services to children and families.