When mommy is arrested: Police plan for children on the scene
Patrol cars pull up to a house, looking for an adult suspect. They enter the house to make an arrest. There, on the couch, an eight year old is reading a book.
Suddenly, the plan changes.
"Kids are so impressionable," said Le Mars Police Chief Stu Dekkenga. "It's a big deal, removing a parent. You don't want to traumatize the child."
Law enforcement agencies plan for how to care for children at a crime scene.
The Le Mars Police run into 10-12 situations like this every year, Dekkenga said. The possibility of children being around is part of their checklist when they're heading into a home.
"We want to know if there are kids there or not -- we're really hoping to create the least amount of trauma as possible," he said.
If the police are executing a search warrant, they can find out whether any children will be in the house and what times of day they are at home.
"(A search warrant) is done on our time. We decide when to go and who's there," Dekkenga said. "We can wait until the kids are in school."
But, if the situation is urgent -- like a drug bust -- and a child might be involved, the police bring a Department of Human Services (DHS) worker with them.
"We also try to find out information on who is a close relative -- someone who could take responsibility for the children," Dekkenga said. "But we wouldn't call them until we were already on the scene."
That's in case the relative would notify the suspect that the police were coming.
On the scene, the officers work to make the children feel safe.
They explain to the kids what's going on in the situation, or they ask the parents to explain what's happening, Dekkenga said.
"We try to engage the kids, have them show us their room," Dekkenga said. "One officer is usually designated to take care of the kids until we can transport them to somebody they can stay with."
They make sure the children have what they need before they leave the house, too: clothes, school supplies, and medications.
"We don't remove the parent or take them to jail until the child is taken care of," Dekkenga said. "We don't want kids to be afraid every time they see a police car. We want it so that if they're ever in real trouble, they will call us."
Parents, although they are being arrested, usually cooperate with the authorities on care for their children.
"Even though they were not doing what was in the best interest of their child by committing whatever crime, when they are under arrest they do want the child cared for," Dekkenga said.
He recalled a case where the police arrested a mom and her boyfriend, and there were two small girls living at the home.
"A Child Protection Services (CPS) worker came with us to the house," Dekkenga said. "At that time the parent, knowing she was under arrest, helped the CPS worker."
Parents often cooperate to match their child with a safe home, according to Roger Munns, a spokesman for the DHS.
If there's no one in the immediate house who can take care of the kids, they ask the mom and dad for suggestions.
"We don't know these people, so we have to ask the parents. We want to do the right thing for the kids," Munns said. "Our first priority is always to find a relative who will step up and help out while the parents get their act together."
A relative is the first choice because it keeps the element of family for the child.
"This is going to be traumatic for kids no matter what. But if you preserve the family connection and they stay with somebody they know and trust, it will help a lot," Munns said.
They don't place a child with a family member without doing background checks.
"We won't place the child with somebody we don't think is safe, even if they are a relative," Munns said. "We do checks as fast as we can, but it is a judgment call. If we doubt the safety at all, we won't place the child there."
If placing the child with a relative isn't an option, the DHS will work to match the child with an emergency foster care. They have a list of licensed foster parents who are trained and ready to accept children into their homes, Munns said.
"They have told us in advance that they will take children at any hour of the day," he said.
But the priority, by law, is to reunify the child with his or her parents as soon as possible, if it's safe, Munns said.
Child placement is supervised closely by juvenile court, he added.
Police Chief Dekkenga said that every once of protection would be available for these kids.
"Just because the parents are arrested doesn't mean these kids are doomed," he said.
He's seen how children being in the home of parents who are breaking the law are directly affected. Sometimes, children can tip the police off to danger at home.
"A lot of times we get information about parents' activities through a child's behavior -- warning signs," Dekkenga said. "Sometimes it's in school or at a friend's house, a parent's activities at home will be brought to the light by children's behavior."
Warning signs of neglect or abandonment:
Arrive at school with no coat
Appear dirty or smell unclean
Wear torn or dirty clothes
Lack needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses
Appear extremely hungry or horde food
Stay late at school or with friends because they don't want to go home
Become the caregiver either to younger siblings or to parents who can't care for themselves
Warning signs of exposure to drugs:
Burning and watery eyes
Skin irritation and redness
Burns on the skin
Sneezing and coughing
Difficult breathing, shortness of breath
Nausea and vomiting
Warning signs of physical abuse:
Have unexplained injuries, broken bones, bruises, burns, open wounds, lacerations, welts, black eyes, or bite marks
Have grip marks on their arms
Have unexplained fear
Be depressed or talk about suicide
Show sudden changes in behavior
Have physical signs of being tied up or otherwise restrained
Deny there is a problem when other warning signs are present
Have injuries in the shape of an object - belt, cord, iron
Have injuries that do not fit the story
Be frightened of parent, caretaker or other adults
Exhibit anti-social behavior
Warning signs of sexual abuse:
Have unexplained bleeding, wounds, bruising or pain in genital area
Have unexplained sexually transmitted diseases
Be in pain when going to the bathroom
Have difficulty walking or sitting
Touch others in inappropriate sexual ways
Be afraid of being touched
Show self-destructive behaviors like cutting themselves or pulling out their hair
Exhibit regressive behavior
Have (or show) inappropriate interest in or knowledge of sex acts
Warning signs of mental/emotional abuse:
Be constantly afraid
Withdraw from situations they used to enjoy
Have low self-esteem
Be extremely timid or passive or pushy and hostile
Be unusually upset or anxious
Be nervous around certain people
Make excuses why he/she cannot make phone calls, leave the house or go home
Wet or soil self
Fail to learn
Have difficulty making friends