Safeguarding children of arrested parents in Alameda, CA

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By Melinda Clemmons, Chronicle of Social Change

Excited to be home from school, five-year-old Luna Garcia was playing with her little brothers in the front room of her apartment, her grandmother in another room, when she heard a hard knock on the door.

“I wasn’t allowed to answer the door because who lets a little kid answer the door?” she said to a crowd of nearly 100 law enforcement professionals, child welfare workers, advocates, and others last month in Oakland, CA.

Tears welled up in her eyes as Garcia, now 16, recalled how she and her brothers stood and watched as police officers broke down the door of their apartment, ran to her bedroom and then her brothers’, turning over their beds, breaking them in the process.

They were looking for her dad, Garcia told the group, gathered on May 18 for the fourth annual convening of the Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (ACCIPP).

Not finding her father, the officers left. Police officers would again break down the door of her apartment in search of her father while she was home three more times over the next eight years.

“It was very traumatizing,” said Garcia, now a youth advocate with ACCIPP member Project WHAT! of Community Works. “I still get scared when I hear a knock. If you come to my house, I will probably not open the door.”

A coalition of government agencies, service providers, advocates, and others, ACCIPP works to improve the lives of children with a parent involved in the justice system, from the time of arrest through sentencing, incarceration, and re-entry or return to the community. At the convening, the group heard from teens whose parents have been incarcerated, parents who have been incarcerated as well as representatives of law enforcement, child welfare, public health, and others.

With more than one in 100 adults in the U.S. currently incarcerated, a staggering number of children are not only living apart from a parent; many have witnessed their parent’s arrest. In Alameda County, home to one of the largest jails in the country, 868 of 1100 respondents to a ACCIPP survey of jailed men and women described themselves as parents or primary caregivers of children under the age of 25.

In a survey of 100 children of incarcerated parents conducted in San Francisco by Project WHAT!, 43 percent had witnessed their parent’s arrest, and of those, 51 percent witnessed violence or abuse by an officer against their parent at the time of arrest.

“Because their parents are often stigmatized and demonized, it prevents people from understanding that these kids are like all kids in many ways, and they’re unlike all kids in many ways,” said Carol Burton, founder and principal of Jeweld Legacy Group and co-chair and coordinator of ACCIPP.

Currently funded by the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, Alameda County Public Health Department, and Zellerbach Family Foundation, ACCIPP’s work is built on the Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents, developed in 2001 by the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents. The first right on the list is “the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest.”

This year, ACCIPP’s organizing efforts are focused on protecting the physical and emotional well being of children whose parents are arrested, both those who witness their parents’ arrest, and those who do not.

To this end, ACCIPP advocates that the Alameda County Police Department adopt a model policy outlined in Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents, published in August 2014 by the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The report is part of a White House Domestic Policy Council justice initiative focused on reducing trauma experienced by children who have parents in prison or jail.

The model policy is informed by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, first published in 1998, which shows the connection between adverse childhood experiences and health status in adulthood. Parental incarceration is recognized as one of the adverse childhood experiences that heighten a child’s risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence in adulthood.

Procedures outlined in the model policy aim to prevent experiences such as Garcia’s. “Where possible,” the policy states, “officers shall determine whether any child is likely to be present at the location” when an arrest is planned. “When reasonably possible, officers may delay an arrest until the child is not likely to be present (e.g., at school or day care), or consider another time and place for making the arrest.”

If delaying the arrest is not possible, arrangements should be made to have child welfare services or a partner agency at the scene. The policy also calls for officers to directly ask arrestees if they are parents and whether or not a child is present.

Tim Birch, manager of research and planning for the Oakland Police Department, told the May 18 gathering that the department will incorporate as much of the model policy as is feasible for the department.

“We will do whatever it takes to make sure that we do a better job taking care of children when their parents are arrested even when the children are not present or it is not obvious that the arrestees are caretakers of children,” Birch said.

Burton of ACCIPP recently met with the Alameda County Association of Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs to discuss the model policy, and while she found unanimous support for it, the group brought up the many competing considerations that arise for law enforcement officers at the time of arrest.

“We’re going to have to spend time understanding law enforcement’s side of it, and what goes into their day-to-day functioning and decision making,” Burton said. “We’ve begun to have that dialogue.”

Law enforcement professionals made up more than half the attendees at the ACCIPP meeting, and as the entire room listened intently to Garcia and her fellow advocates share their experiences and recommendations, that dialogue appeared to be well underway.

Melinda Clemmons is a reporter and marketing manager for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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