Cops Call for Backup – From Social Workers

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San Jose, Calif.—On a dreary evening in January, a man walked into the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department to lodge a complaint. When a deputy checked the man’s criminal history, he found an outstanding felony warrant and arrested him.

There were two complications: The man had brought along his 6-year-old son, and the complaint was against the boy’s mother.

A few years ago, the child probably would have been buckled into the back seat of a police car and driven to the county Children’s Shelter, where the boy would stay for a night or more while social workers figured out what to do with him. But thanks to an agreement between Santa Clara County’s 13 police agencies and its Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS), the arresting deputy called one of the department’s after-hours social workers.

She checked child-abuse records, found that the child’s mother had a clean history and authorized the deputy to release the boy to his mom. The child was spared the trauma of a ride in a police car, the shelter bed was left open for a child in need and an unnecessary entry into foster care was averted.

“Just a few years ago, the conversation between the deputy and me wouldn’t have even taken place,” says Coleen Kohtz, who handled the deputy’s call. “He would have done his thing, and we would have found a new kid in the shelter the next day.”

Santa Clara and San Francisco counties are the only two counties in California – and among perhaps a few handfuls in the United States – that have adopted formal protocols for how to handle children when their parents are arrested. Another, Los Angeles County, posts social workers in 19 sheriff’s stations to help officers deal with arrestees’ children.

The potential for harm was tragically driven home last month, when Minneapolis police arrested a woman for fatally beating a four-year-old boy whom the father had left in her care when he was arrested.

In California this year, as a result of a 2006 law, a state commission is developing a two-hour video-based course for police in California’s 58 counties on arrest procedures that focus on child safety. Over the next few years, many of the state’s 80,000 police officers are expected to take the training, which will tout the approaches of Santa Clara, San Francisco and Los Angeles counties as models.

California isn’t the only place that’s formalizing the actions of police and child protection when parents are arrested. Police and child welfare agencies in several states are replacing haphazard practices with formal child-safety protocols.

“We don’t have the coffee yet, but it’s percolating,” says Dee Ann Newell of Little Rock, Ark., who has been working on the issue in 14 states through a Soros Justice Fellowship. “There’s a growing consensus that we need to find ways to provide for the children without putting them into shelters or foster care.”

Interest in adopting child safety-focused arrest procedures grows out of recognition that watching a parent get arrested can traumatize a child for life. A parent’s arrest can also lead to a child’s unnecessary entry into foster care, or his informal placement by a harried police officer with an inappropriate or even dangerous caregiver.

But as the experience in California shows, changing the system can be a slow process riddled with complications.

The Motivation

The catalyst for the California law was a seven-year research, education and advocacy effort by the California Research Bureau, an arm of the California State Library. Through five reports, several seminars and a conference, the bureau educated legislators and policymakers about a previously invisible population: an estimated 274,000 children in the state with a parent in prison or jail, plus an estimated 564,000 with a parent on probation or parole. (Nationwide, 2.4 million children have an incarcerated parent, and many more parents are arrested each year.)

The bureau found that most counties had no official policy for dealing with an arrestee’s children, leading to a hodgepodge of approaches. The bureau also unearthed reports of children police had left by themselves. One child, Megan Mendez of Modesto, was murdered by the neighbor with whom her arrested mother left her. Other children were put in foster care, even though they could have been safely cared for by relatives or family friends.

Even before the statewide conversation began, DFCS in Santa Clara County had been criticized by its ombudsman and a grand jury about its overuse of its Children’s Shelter and its reliance on police to take children there. During nine months in June 1999, the grand jury reported, 83 percent of children in the shelter had been taken there by police, which left them “frightened, confused and feel[ing] as if they have done something wrong,” the report said. “Because they’re often brought to the shelter in a marked police vehicle, many want to know why they’ve been arrested.”

The shelter, designed for stays of just a few days, had become a long-term residence for some children. DFCS was trying to reduce the shelter’s daily population from 120 to 30, but that effort was hampered by unnecessary emergency placements.

Making it Work

In 2000, the Annie E. Casey Foundation gave the county DFCS a $1 million grant to help implement reforms, including a more humane arrest protocol and a reduction in shelter use. In 2002, DFCS and the San Jose police launched a Joint Response protocol as a pilot project in two police districts.

Progress was slow. In July 2003, a new grand jury report described the handcuffing of shelter-bound children and a rise in shelter costs to $19,063 a month per child. Police and DFCS stepped up their efforts to collaborate.

One impediment: police and social worker concerns about sharing confidential information about families. Judge Leonard Edwards of the Santa Clara County Superior Court issued a standing judicial order that allowed them do so.

The Joint Response protocol went citywide in May 2004. By April 2007, all 13 police agencies throughout the 1,300-square mile county were on board.

Among the protocol’s key elements:

• Unless an arrestee is suspected of abusing his child, he has the right to designate an alternative caregiver. Police call DFCS, which checks whether the designee has a child abuse record.

• If a relative or family friend is not available to care for the arrestee’s child, a social worker, not a police officer, drives the child to the shelter. As of last August, social workers were taking 90 percent of such children to the shelter, with most of the rest driven by shelter counselors.

• If police suspect the child has been abused, a social worker comes to the arrest scene within 30 minutes (45 minutes in outlying areas). A new swing shift and on-call after-hours social workers assure around-the-clock response. The social worker and police officer determine whether the child should go to a relative’s home, the shelter or a foster home. Since 2004, more than half of suspected abuse victims have been diverted from the shelter.

The protocol is one reason that the average daily population at the county’s Children’s Shelter is now around 30, compared with 130 in the late 1990s.

“Everybody in the department is very supportive of this,” says Deputy Chief Andrew Galea, of the San Jose Police Department. “It cuts down our time on the call. We don’t have to bring in additional officers to transport juveniles to the shelter and spend time going through the intake process there. And there’s less report writing.”

Says Jonathan Weinberg, DFCS’ emergency response program manager: “The main point is that children and their parents are being dealt with in the most humane way for the child. Ideally, the children don’t watch their parents get handcuffed and thrown on the ground, and we’re keeping children out of the system when there are no child abuse issues involved.”

In Other Action …

Here is what other jurisdictions are doing:

San Francisco: Implemented a child safety-focused arrest protocol in January 2007, culminating more than a year of discussions among police, child protection officials, public defenders and children’s advocates. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency is evaluating the approach.

“In the past, we’d sometimes hear about the police leaving children on their own, sometimes for days at a time,” says Debby Jeter, deputy director for the San Francisco County Family and Children’s Division. “Now we’re going in and making sure that children are safe and checking whether there was any trauma as a result of the arrest and whether the family needs continuing assistance. Our hope is that we can safely prevent more children from entering the foster care system.”

The next challenge in San Francisco is to persuade judges to consider the needs of children when deciding whether to place a parent on probation or in jail. “I still remember one of the first cases I had where a parent was taken into custody after sentencing,” says Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “He threw his car keys to me and told me to pick up his kids at school.”

Bellingham, Wash.: Police despaired over how long it sometimes took social workers to respond when a parent was arrested and no relatives could care for the children. Five years ago, the department recruited several employees to become licensed emergency foster parents. Since then, those employees have accommodated about 40 children for up to two weeks each.

“Kids shouldn’t have to spend hours in the police department,” says Sgt. Tim Lintz, who is in charge of the family crimes unit. “They’ve already been traumatized, because their parents have been arrested, and they’ve been taken from their home. It’s an unfair way to treat them.”

Louisiana: Harold J. Brouillette, a retired district judge, developed an arrest protocol and training program a few years ago for police officers in his home county, Avoyelles Parish. Now he’s training recruits from nine parishes at the Central Louisiana Police Training Academy.

Part of his motivation is guilt. “I sat on this bench for 12 years hearing about all these arrests and ruling on Miranda warnings, and it never really occurred to me to think, ‘What about the kids?’ ” he says.

Arizona: A Statewide Arrest Protocol Work Group has prepared a model arrest protocol, and the attorney general is encouraging law enforcement agencies to review and modify it. The work group plans to create a lesson plan and a training DVD for police.

If the idea continues to spread, child welfare systems should ultimately see a decrease in foster care placements stemming from parental arrests. No one knows the precise number, but a 2004 study of emergency shelter placements in Hennepin County, Minn., conducted by University of Minnesota researchers, found that the arrest of a parent was the third most common reason for placements, accounting for 12 percent of admissions.

“The beauty of these protocols is that they can be done administratively,” says Newell, the Soros fellow. “We don’t need to wait for a law.”

Journalist Martha Shirk is co-author of On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age Out of the Foster Care System.