It is estimated that more than 1.7 million children currently have a parent in prison, and it is important to understand the potential trauma that these children may experience when law enforcement carries out its investigative and arrest responsibilities. –Denise E. O’Donnell, Director, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance.
There are numerous benefits associated with safeguarding the children of arrested parents. The procedures outlined…can be utilized to both ensure the wellbeing of children, while also maintaining the integrity of the arrest and officer safety. –Yousry “Yost” Zakhary, President, International Association of Chiefs of Police.
In 2013, the IACP with funding support from the Department of Justice began to develop a model protocol and training on protecting the physical and emotional well-being of children when their parents are arrested. At the heart of this project was recognition that parental incarceration is among the “adverse childhood experiences” that increase a child’s negative outcomes in adulthood. These outcomes include issues with substance abuse, depression, domestic violence, criminal behavior, health-related problems and suicide. Although law enforcement has a job to do and often that includes investigating and arresting individuals, many with minor children, professionals recognized that the actions of the officers before, during and after an arrest can play an important part in either increasing or reducing a child’s trauma. The project concluded in August, 2014 with the concept and issues paper, “Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents.” The report explains, “Minimizing the trauma experienced by children at the time of their parent’s arrest has the potential to lessen the risk, improving outcomes in the short and long-run.” The collaboration also resulted in a Model Policy. What’s interesting and exciting about this project and the paper is the clear understanding that although law enforcement has an obligation to be part of the solution, they are not the only player and that they have a unique role which includes working in tactical situations that are often unstable, dynamic and dangerous.
Impact of Parental Arrest on Children
“Depending on the age and quality of the relationship with the parent, children may feel shock, immense fear, anxiety, or anger towards the arresting officers or law enforcement in general,” explains the paper. Children can experience a myriad of physical and psychological problems regardless if they witnessed the arrest or just come home to an empty house. Short-term issues, such as sleep disruptions, separation anxiety and irritability can occur, as well as, long-term problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder, and “problems with authority figures in general and law enforcement in particular.” Officers and other professions need to take the time to address the needs of a child during the event of a parent’s arrest even if a child seems old enough to care for themselves. The paper states, “Time taken with a child under these trauma producing circumstances is time well spent. The kindness and assistance of an officer with a child creates lasting impressions even among very young children. Treating a child with compassion and thoughtfulness is not only the proper thing to do, it is also a hallmark of good policing that can have long-term positive benefits for the child and community.”
Lack of Guidance
Even though it seems like common sense that each department should have a policy addressing actions that should be taken to reduce and prevent trauma associated with the arrest of a parent, research shows this is not the case. A longitudinal study conducted in California found that “two-thirds of responding agencies did not have written policies outlining officer responsibilities for a child at the time of a parent’s arrest” and that “about half of responding child welfare agencies had no written protocols describing how to minimize trauma that may be experienced by a child of an arrestee.” To complicate matters, in most places law enforcement and child welfare agencies do not have joint training or policies for working with each other. “Without cross-training and a procedure for the coordination of services between law enforcement and CWS [child welfare services], as well as other partner organizations, the needs of the child may be inadequately or only sporadically met,” outlines the paper.
To even further muddy the water, the judicial system has been vague as to the constitutional obligation law enforcement has to individuals left behind, including minor children after an arrest. Advocates often cite White v. Rochford, 592 F2d 381 (7th Cir. 1979) as the landmark case erasing any doubt that officers have a legal responsibility to ensure a child’s safety after a caregiver is arrested. In White, the court found the actions of the officer who left three young children alone in a vehicle on an eight-lane limited-access highway after the arrest of their uncle as “gross negligence” and “reckless disregard”. But, similar subsequent cases have found that officers have been insensitive and have exercised poor judgment but do not rise to the level of constitutional deprivation. In an article by Marilyn Moses, she describes an analysis of similar cases concluding, “The courts have not been as consistent or as prescriptive as law enforcement administrators would like with regard to guidance in this area. It seems as though the courts are sending the signal that as long as the children are not so young as to shock the conscience and no harm results, the officer can leave children in risky situations and be found to have made an unfortunate judgment call but one that does not rise to the level of deprivation of qualified immunity. But if the abandoned child is harmed in some way, the officer should have anticipated it and will be found guilty of gross negligence and reckless disregard for safety. The problem with this guidance is that it requires the officer to foresee the future.”
There is so much more that can be said about this collaboration, this paper and the Model Policy designed by this group but I only have so much space. I encourage all law enforcement and juvenile justice professionals to read the paper, get together and plan how to address the needs of children who are affected by parental arrest. There’s so much that can be done in before, during and after to change the impact on many lives. One great thing about this paper is it recognizes officers have a job to do and that’s not to go into a home and be a social worker. But, it also outlines many ways that officers can incorporate actions that care for a child’s needs at the same time as performing their duties. In closing I again quote the paper, “Among law enforcement agencies, the philosophy of early intervention in the life of a child to support positive development is being recognized as part of the overall strategy to prevent crime and violence. Helping to prevent or minimize a child’s exposure to potentially traumatic events is an operationally sound law enforcement strategy to promote public safety and reduce the likelihood of future misconduct, criminal behavior, and victimization.” This Model is good sound policy and with pre-planning and policies in place, unintended victims will not be left behind when a parent goes to jail.