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How cops can improve interactions with kids during parent’s arrest

‘In the Presence of Children’ campaign equips officers with best practices for working with children


Every year, millions of kids in the United States witness the arrest of their parent or caretaker – primarily for domestic violence.


Article updated on August 22, 2017.

You’re dispatched to a house for domestic violence call. You and your backup officers arrive to the location and find the husband yelling at his wife – who shows obvious signs of abuse – while the children huddle in a corner, crying. You begin to arrest the husband, and as you’re walking him to the door, a four-year-old child rushes to cling to their father’s leg.

“Don’t take my daddy away!”

How do you calm the child down while performing your law enforcement duty?

Preventing Lasting Trauma

According to the Department of Justice, it is estimated that more than 1.7 million American children currently have a parent in prison. Every year, millions of kids in the United States witness the arrest of their parent or caretaker – primarily for domestic violence. This trauma often results in mistrust of officers.

Officers are often expected to rely on intuition for handling these painful situations. An IACP study noted that few departments provide officers with policies to handle the presence of children during an arrest.

This problem is described in a recent report that Strategies for Youth (SFY) was commissioned to write for the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center. The report, “First, Do No Harm: Model Practices When Police Arrest Parents in the Presence of Children,” said: “Law enforcement agencies are in a unique position to limit this harm in three key ways. First, they can modify their procedures to make arrests less traumatic for children. Second, they can adopt protocols to ensure children are accounted for, left with competent caregivers and otherwise protected from harm in the aftermath of a parental arrest. Third, they can collaborate with social workers and child advocates to connect children of arrested parents with the services they need.”

The SFY report offers agencies ready-made, easy-to-adopt policies based on the organization’s survey of existing policies and research on trauma-informed practices. The report also explains how to detect signs of trauma in children and the importance of mitigating it. Some basic key practices are:

  • Avoid pointing a weapon at a child;
  • Avoid cuffing the parents in front of their children;
  • Ensure someone will look after the child once the parent is taken away.

Further, SFY has developed training for officers encountering these situations as part of its ‘In the Presence of Children’ campaign. The training equips officers with an understanding of child development and psychology, as well as best practices for working with children in such situations.

In addition to offering policies, protocols, and training, SFY also provides materials – free of charge, thanks to funding from the Sills Family Foundation – for officers to use and share with parents. These include:

  • A “What to Expect” chart that explains how to handle arresting a parent in the presence of children by age group. This chart is easy for officers to carry with them, so that they get a refresher on the policies whenever necessary
  • Leave-behind parent cards that explain to parents how to detect signs of trauma in children and where they can receive help
  • An officer protocol sheet cops can keep in squads and review as a quick reminder when rolling up on a call where children may be present.
  • Teddy bears, which officers can give to young children to provide comfort in order to reduce possible trauma

Real World: Putting the Program in Place

Deputy Chief William Dean revised the Virginia Beach Police Department policies and training to adopt these best practices. The Virginia Beach Police Department has constructed a hybrid program comprised of elements from the “In the Presence of Children” campaign as well as the IACP program on the same matter.

“We must realize that the impact of our actions as we apply our authority may likely determine how children will view all police officers throughout their lives,” Chief Dean told Police1.

Dean said his agency is applying these principles not just with kids who have witnessed arrests, but in all types of interactions his officers might have with them.

“The guidance we provide for our officers includes interactions with children and juveniles who might be victims of crime or witnesses to crime. Our intent is for our officers to understand how and when to intervene in all situations involving children and expand our options for matters involving children who commit minor crimes or status offenses to options other than the criminal justice system,” Dean said.

Dean explained that this is a component of a broader set of objectives to connect with the community in a meaningful way every day.

“It’s been a longtime objective of policing – ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’ – a significant portion of any community is comprised of children, teens, and young adults. Given the frequency that we deal with these age groups, we must make efforts to connect with them that builds confidence and trust. A key to the success of any police department is the efforts made daily to build community support and trust. So it is truly a traditional approach – it’s really about the relationships. All good policing comes from good relationships. We focus on these relationships one interaction at a time.

“If you’re going to have a friend in the community, you have to be a friend to the community. This is a slow dance. You need to be able to dance fast when the music calls for it, but the process of building good relationships is a long, slow dance. We have to get past the belief that our sole responsibility is law enforcement when the vast majority of what we do is street-level social work. That is critically important, especially when you have to respond and investigate a serious crime that did not occur in your presence or on video, a community that trusts the police will call and assist in the investigation. Good relationships, established individually, over time, garners the support you need at critical times. We have a complex role in this society. We need to recognize that we do many things. We have a responsibility to do them well.”

“Careful planning and respectful interactions during arrests made in the presence of children contribute to our current, but more importantly our future, safety and reputation in the community,” Dean said.

The image of police officers taking extra steps to care for children in a time of distress has a long shelf life in children’s minds, and all it really takes – once you’ve had the training and been given the resources – is a couple of extra minutes on every police interaction in which kids are involved.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.