James Cole, U.S. deputy attorney general / Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg
WASHINGTON - The Justice Department and police officials across the nation are directing their agencies to deal with thousands of children who are left behind following the arrests of parents, from surprise raids at family homes to roadside traffic stops.
Few law enforcement agencies have policies that specifically address the continuing care of children after such arrests, despite an estimated 1.7 million children who have at least one parent in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of children jumps to about 2.7 million when parents detained in local jails are included.
"This is one of those situations whose time has come,'' Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in an interview with USA TODAY.
Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the nation's largest organization of police officials, are beginning to roll out guidelines to agencies across the country. It is an unusual attempt to shield children - often forgotten in the chaotic moments before and after arrests - from unnecessary "trauma" related to their parents' detention.
While there is little reliable data to indicate how many children each year are in need of emergency placement because of parental arrests, Cole indicated that thousands of children could require such care.
"In addition to the legal consequences, protection of a child in these and related situations should also be viewed as an ethical, moral and pragmatic responsibility that serves the short-term and long-term interests of both law enforcement â?¦ and the communities they serve,'' the IACP concluded in a report outlining the proposed guidelines to thousands of member police officials.
Earlier this week, Cole directed the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshals Service to begin adopting guidelines across the government that would assist in ensuring the care of children involved in federal law enforcement operations.
Among the major policy recommendations:
â?¢ Officers and agents should be required to determine the whereabouts of children during parental arrests.
A California Research Bureau report, cited by the IACP, found that only 13% of officers in California agencies routinely asked whether suspects had dependent children during arrests. Nearly two-thirds of state departments, according to the bureau, did not have policies to guide them on how or when to take responsibility of children during or after arrests.
â?¢ Children in need of emergency care, whenever possible, should be placed with other family members or close family friends, rather than social service agencies or police.
"Custody by a law enforcement agency or (child welfare systems) can have a significant negative emotional impact on a child, adding to the trauma of parent-child separation that the arrest may cause and possibly creating an enduring stigmatization,'' the IACP report stated.
â?¢ Law enforcement and child welfare authorities should have agreements in place to assist in cases when emergency placement is necessary. In advance of police raids, child welfare officials should be part of pre-arrest planning when it is likely that children will be present at targeted locations.
"In some cases, where timing is not a critical concern,'' the IACP report suggests, "an arrest may be postponed so that it will not be conducted in the presence of the child. If delay is not possible, arrangements should be made in advance to have additional law enforcement officers and or representatives from (child welfare services) ... at the scene or on call.''
Cole said decisions on such things as postponing arrests because of the presence of children are "huge issues'' that should be left to the individual agencies involved and based in part on the potential threat posed by the suspects being sought.
"To the extent that you can keep children from witnessing (the arrest of a parent), that's a good thing,'' Cole said.
Within the federal system, Cole said the goal is to adopt more uniform guidelines government-wide in place of largely individual practices by the DEA, FBI, U.S. Marshals and ATF.
A series of training sessions will be conducted over the next several months for federal, state and local authorities.
"The arrest of a parent can, and often does, have significant lasting effects on children whether they personally witness the arrest or not,'' IACP President Yousry Zakhary said in the association's report, adding that the new guidelines can help "ensure the well-being of children while also maintaining the integrity of the arrest and officer safety.''
Read the original story: Who's watching the kids when parents get arrested?