Advocates and Police Say Children Witnessing a Parent’s Arrest Need ‘Empathy’

Print More

When police in Albany, NY make an arrest, they take special care if children are around.

A so-called Model Policy encourages officers to be aware of the risk that children of parents who are detained will suffer serious trauma unless they are treated with empathy during the time of arrest.

“Sometimes, in the criminal justice world…you forget about that empathy,” Chief Brendan Cox of Albany’s police department, told a conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York yesterday.

Cox said he tries to make sure officers in his department understand that “our children are our most valuable resource,” and that just taking an extra five minutes to talk with a child and offer reassurance during a frightening experience can make a huge difference.

The policy was developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and is described in a video designed to introduce the concept to law enforcement organizations nationwide.

But such training needs to be directed at everyone—including schools and community organizations—who deal with the children of incarcerated individuals, said Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University.

Adalist-Estrin said she realized how unprepared she was to deal with the issue in 2013, when her own son-in-law was arrested (he is now serving a one-year sentence), and her daughter and grandchildren moved in with her.

“We are dealing with all the things that, for 30 years, I talked about,” she said. “It’s worse than I ever imagined.”

Adalist-Estrin was one of a number of social workers, law enforcement professionals, family advocates and educators who gathered to talk about the challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents—and to offer a few solutions.

The symposium, entitled “Through the Eyes of a Child: Rethinking Criminal Justice Policies to Safeguard Children and Families” symposium,  was supported by the Pinkerton Fellowship Initiative at John Jay’s  Prisoner Reentry Institute.

According to a 2010 study cited by the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have a parent in prison, representing “one of the most significant collateral consequences” of the country’s growing prison population.

One study estimates that the majority of parents who were arrested (67 percent) were handcuffed in front of their children, and that children who witnessed a parent’s arrest were 57 percent more likely to experience post-traumatic stress than children who did not.

But the trauma experienced by children of incarcerated parents is not limited to witnessing a parent’s arrest. Kharon Benson was told growing up that his father was in the military.  He did not find out until he was 11 years old that his father had been serving a prison sentence for murder at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

“I had so many questions,” Benson, a filmmaker, said in a documentary he screened at the symposium. In the short film, entitled “The Visit,” Benson chronicles  a journey that  took him to Sing Sing to interview his father, and to Florida, to interview his mother.

“There’s a whole lot of kids just like me,” Benson told the audience after the screening, urging them not to judge children of incarcerated parents.

“We need to reframe the cycle,” Adalist-Estrin said, noting that it was important to talk about how trauma and toxic stress negatively impact children who experience separation, poverty or violence at an early age. At the same time, she said, experts from different disciplines, such as education and law enforcement, should collaborate and share their research.

But “people have their own silos, their own agendas,” she added.

Mary Rader, a Bronx, NY school social worker who has been working with children of incarcerated parents for a good part of her career , said yesterday’s discussion was encouraging, but it is “too little, too late.”

“We do not use our resources toward these children,” Rader, an audience member at the symposium, said later by phone. “We need to be more longitudinal in our thinking…the system needs to change over time.”

For instance, Rader said she would like to see a collaboration between Departments of Corrections and various departments of education, in the form of a social-emotional learning program that addresses some of the following points:

  • How children think about an incarcerated parent;
  • How incarcerated parents think about their children;
  • How parents navigate challenges of reentry after being released from prison.

“These kids need to have a relationship with their parents,” she said. “You can, in fact be incarcerated, be convicted of a crime, and be a good parent.”

Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *