A child’s mother thrown to the floor. A mom screaming “I love you!” as she’s shoved into a squad car. Cops drawing guns. Cuffs out. A beloved pet shot. The house torn apart, toys broken.
These are the images that can stick with kids when their parents are arrested. But in upstate New York, a network of law enforcement, court officials, social service providers and community activists are hoping to alter these all-too-common scenes, highlighted in a training video shown to the public earlier this month.
Under the Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents policy adopted in late 2021, officers in the Buffalo Police Department who arrest parents or serve search warrants are expected “to minimize trauma experienced by a child.” The new directive calls for officers to be “trained to identify and respond effectively to the child, and support the child’s physical safety and well-being.”
Specifically, that means “minimize visuals” and explain what’s going on in kid-friendly language. Police officers must “whenever reasonably possible, avoid handcuffing, questioning, or displaying a firearm in the presence of a child.” They should also “avoid the use of force including use of force to physically separate a child from the arrested parent.” The local guidelines state that before parents are led away, they should be given a chance to speak with their child, and to arrange for an alternative caregiver.
To date, 76% of Buffalo police officers have been trained on the new policy, which is a joint project of the nonprofit Osborne Association, the activist group VOICE Buffalo, and the University of Buffalo School of Social Work’s Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care. The groups have collaborated for the last three years in this Western New York community, where far too many children grow up with a loved one who has been arrested, often watching it unfold before them.
“Few law enforcement agencies across the country train their officers in child development or consider children during police interactions,” said Justin Burke, a spokesperson for the Osborne Association, an organization serving people impacted by the justice system. “Our goal is to provide these tools to officers so they can minimize the negative effects that an arrest and other law enforcement activities have on Buffalo’s children, families, and communities.”
The Osborne Association has developed similar policies and training on this topic across the country for years. None have been as extensive as the plans adopted by the Buffalo Police Department, which serves a multiracial community of 276,000 residents.
Training videos — now being shown to sworn-in officers, social workers, community-based service providers and pediatric hospital clinicians — were filmed by young videographers who have experienced the criminal justice system in their lives. They work with the New York City nonprofit Echoes of Incarceration, which produced the mini-documentaries in collaboration with the Osborne Association.
“The police didn’t really explain what was going on, they just said they were taking her in for questioning,” a boy named Travis says on camera.
“All that’s running through my head is: I need to defend my mom,” states a teen named Empress.
For Christina, “the thing that plays into fear is not knowing what’s going on.”
A national model
There are no accurate statistics, in Buffalo or beyond, on how many children are present when a parent is arrested. Yet given the roughly 1.5 million children with incarcerated parents in the U.S., the number is likely high. Recently, Buffalo has begun to track how many children are present during any arrest, not just a parent or caregiver’s.
In 2016, the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed incarcerated people and found that 47% of state prisoners and 58% of federal prisoners had a child younger than 18, with an average age of 10. Many are likely to have witnessed an arrest.
According to a 2021 policy brief released by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it is estimated that between 22% and 41% of children who had an incarcerated parent or were involved with child protective services were present during a parent’s arrest.
The 90-year-old Osborne Association has made it a primary focus to ensure that these children are better protected from the harm that experience could cause. The advocacy group has worked with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the U.S. Department of Justice to create a national policy model it encourages law enforcement agencies, like the Buffalo Police Department, to adopt.
In its 2014 report, justice officials reported that after witnessing a parent’s arrest, “children may feel shock, immense fear, anxiety, or anger towards the arresting officers or law enforcement in general.” Such events, they stated, “can and often do have a negative impact on a child’s immediate and long-term emotional, mental, social, and physical health,” noting symptoms including “sleep disruptions, separation anxiety, irritability, and post-traumatic” stressors.
Police departments in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California and parts of Massachusetts were pioneers in informing the national model for police. In New York, the Osborne Association began its training with police in Albany, New York City, and now Hudson. The Cheektowaga Police Department will soon follow in May, Denise O’Donnell, founder of Leadership for Justice Innovation, said at a March 2 press conference announcing the completion of the Buffalo training. The national model’s policies will also be included in the Erie County Police Academy’s core curriculum.
According to the federal report, however, “many, if not most” law enforcement agencies nationwide still have no policies or procedures to protect children during the arrest of their parents.
Some young adults implored officers not to draw their weapons or handcuff their parents, and to remember that kids want and need to hear things like: “We’re taking your dad, but no one’s going to get hurt.”
‘I just felt so lost’
In its revised policy manual, the Buffalo Police Department spells out the definition of trauma for officers: Events that have “lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing.”
Young people filmed by Echoes of Incarceration bring that notion closer to home.
“I didn’t eat. I starved myself. I didn’t drink,” Empress said. “I distanced myself from all my friends and I wasn’t talking to anybody.”
One youth acknowledged the officers were just doing their jobs. He recalled a memory of having his diaper changed by a female officer.
But the youth asked for some key changes to arrest procedures — principally, spare children the sight of their parent’s arrest, the firearms or handcuffs. Explain what’s happening, and get them quickly to a friend or relative.
“I just felt so lost because that’s my mom at the end of the day,” one girl said, “regardless of what she’s done.”
Some of the young adults implored officers not to draw their weapons or handcuff their parents, and to remember that kids want and need to hear things like: “We’re taking your dad, but no one’s going to get hurt.”
One young person said “having a police officer on the scene of the arrest that’s able to explain in age-appropriate language to the kid what’s happening would have been astronomical and so supportive for me.”
The new Buffalo policy takes that into account, calling on police officers to reassure children “in an age and developmentally appropriate manner,” but also to emphasize “that the child has done nothing wrong and will be safe and cared for.”
In the terrifying and chaotic scene of a home arrest, it could prove to be a difficult task. But police are given specific methods they are expected to deploy, including asking parents about any items that could comfort their children, including toys, clothing, blankets, photographs or food.
Before parents are taken to the station, officers must ask if other children might be returning home later, and discuss with them where children can safely be taken, including to the homes of “willing and able” relatives, neighbors, or trusted friends.
Speaking at the March 2 conference — held at the Community Health Center of Buffalo — Rev. Denise Walden-Glenn said she wished this policy was around when she was handcuffed in front of her son. When parents are allowed to communicate with their child and officers, she added, “they can take back their dignity and their humanity — something that these types of things stripped from them.”
After a parent’s arrest, inevitably, some children may still end up waiting at the police station for a caregiver or a worker with the Erie County Child Protective Services to pick them up. But a volunteer group called the Little Smiles Foundation runs child care rooms in three Buffalo police precincts that are stocked with snacks, books, games and televisions.
“It’s something that you don’t realize until you are in a precinct house, like how dark and kind of scary it would be for a child,” said Buffalo’s Little Smiles director, Mark Sciortino.
The police department’s protocol includes sharing data with community partners who want to help families affected by an arrest, but that plan has been delayed by legal data-sharing concerns.
Meanwhile, the hope is that arresting officers will connect interested families to services from the project’s partners, such as the FamilyWorks Buffalo program, also run by the Osborne Association. That program arranges video visits for the children, provides mentorship, trauma-screening, youth programs and recreational outings.
Police officers who reflect on the new training say it caused them to rethink past behavior.
In the training video, retired Buffalo Police Department Capt. Steve Nichols said he regrets not considering what an arrest must feel like from a child’s vantage point, especially when a child comes home to find a parent gone with no explanation.
“It breaks my heart to think I might have locked Mom up and the kid was at school,” Nichols said.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia recalled an arrest for suspected domestic violence around Christmas time, just as the new training was being put into place.
“We did what we had to. But we could have obviously come back in and tried to explain some things as well and maybe it wouldn’t have had an impact,” Gramaglia said. “But it impacted me, and to this day, it still bothers me.”
Disclosure: The Imprint has partnered with Echoes of Incarceration for a future video project.