April 27, 2009

Mom and Dad in Cuffs: Arrests in Front of Children

Watching Predator Raw on MSNBC, I watched police shout to a man to hit the ground, grab him and roughly cuff him. It was deserved, as he was being arrested for coming to the home of a 14 year old for illicit purposes. But...it was done in front of his approximately 6 year old child. The child watches in horror as his father is slammed to the ground and cuffed and a female police officer scoops the child up, holding him so that he watches the scene unfold behind her shoulder. I cringed inwardly, imagining the scenario to follow:

- The child waking up in the middle of the night screaming
- The child being terrified when he sees police or people in uniform
- The child clinging to his mother in fear that she too will be taken
- The child exhibiting bad behavior in school
- The child disrespecting authority and possibly growing up with innumerable problems if this trauma isn't addressed, and addressed properly, in a therapeutic setting

Certainly the blame rests on the father for committing a crime and shuttling his young child to the scene of that crime. But could police have mitigated the negative result for this young boy through a few modifications of procedure?

2 million children across the United States have a parent that is incarcerated. A 1998 study showed that 67% of children with a parent incarcerated had witnessed the parent being handcuffed (Phillips, S. “Programming for Children of Female Offenders.” Washington, DC: 4th National Headstart Research Conference, 1998.). Studies show that witnessing a parent's arrest can have long lasting negative effects on the psyche of a child. Post traumatic stress disorder is a common result, and that can lead to a host of adjustment problems if left untreated.

Many police departments do not have protocols for the proper management of arrests in the presence of children, but an increasing number are developing them, often at the demand of state legislatures.

The Family and Corrections Network has developed a bill of rights for children with incarcerated parents that includes the right to be safe and informed at a parent's arrest and calls for the following:

Develop arrest protocols that support and protect arrestees’ children but do not unnecessarily involve the child welfare system and increase the risk of permanent separation.
Training police officers to understand and address children’s fear and confusion when their 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 the 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.

Recruit and train advocates to support children during and/or after a parent’s arrest. The amount of time a police officer can invest in caring for the child of an arrestee is necessarily limited. In any case, when a child has seen an officer arrest his parent, he may be less than receptive to seeing that officer as a source of comfort and aid. To fill the resulting gap, volunteer advocates could be recruited through existing organizations that serve prisoners and their families, or at-risk youth generally.Police could call on these advocates when they have reason to believe a child may be present at a planned arrest, or shortly after an arrest takes place. The advocate would be there to support and reassure the child, and also to assist in finding a family or other informal placement when child welfare intervention is not deemed necessary.

These are interesting points to begin the discussion of proper procedure, but they fail to address some key points.

First, there need to be protocols in place for arrest that permit the most non-traumatic experience for the present child as possible while maintaining safety. Some possible means of achieving this would be:
- attempting to plan pre-planned arrests when a child is not present
- asking the parent to cooperate with the removal of the child from the scene before cuffing, and giving them an opportunity to reassure the child when appropriate
- when necessary to cuff the parent in the presence of the child, explaining to the child that the parent is not being harmed and that the child is safe
- remove the child from the scene as quickly as possible, and provide them with something to distract them from the event (toy, game)
- avoid using flashing lights and sirens, and other loud noises when possible

Secondly, the recommendations of the Family and Corrections Network suggest finding appropriate placement for the child without involvement of child welfare. As well meaning as this is, without the resources that child welfare can provide in screening potential kinship placements, putting a child with an uncle or grandparent could potentially be putting them at risk for other harms. Although placement with a family member can be and should be a priority over foster care, the safety of the child in such a placement must be properly and thoroughly assessed.

Finally, providing advocates to help children through the experience of their parent's arrest is a great idea, but an expensive one. In the absence of such targeted advocacy, police should be trained to provide it at least until child welfare or the other parent can relieve the situation. Common sense, combined with sensitivity training and and procedure that is guided by the advice of child advocates and professionals, can significantly minimize the trauma experienced by children. However, in every case where a child experiences the arrest of a parent first hand, child welfare should be required by state law to enlist the help of professionals in performing a trauma-specific evaluation to determine if the child needs trauma related therapy, and if they do that therapy should be provided. If parents cannot pay for the therapy, then the state should provide for it. Although this is costly on the front end, there is societal savings in the long run because of the high risk that children with PTSD will grow up to be offenders themselves.

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