When mommy is arrested: Police plan for children on the scene

Monday, August 18, 2008

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

Blurred vision

Skin irritation and redness

Burns on the skin

Sneezing and coughing

Difficult breathing, shortness of breath

Chest pain

Nausea and vomiting

Stomach pain

Diarrhea

Headaches

Fever

Yellow jaundice

Hallucinations

Extreme irritability

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

Become pregnant

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

Be apathetic

Wet or soil self

Fail to learn

Have difficulty making friends

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