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Many 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.

Parental 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 vulnerable families.

“They arrested her and just left us there.”

At 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.

70 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 weapons.

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 my mom.
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.

 

RIGHTS TO REALITIES

  • 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 feasible:
    • 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.
 
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