Human Rights

Excerpt: All Alone in the World

With their parents arrested, these children were left to fend for themselves.
The following is an abridged excerpt from All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated by Nell Bernstein. Published with the permission of The New Press.

Anthony was a slight and restless boy of ten with pale skin and huge brown eyes. In a nearly bare office adjacent to the room where his grandmother was attending a support group, he was in and out of his chair, squirming and wriggling, his eyes wandering the room.

"I lived with my mother and her boyfriend and then they made drugs and sold them in the shed and I was in the house and they weren't even watching me," he said in one breath. While his mother cooked methamphetamine, Anthony watched television. That is what he was doing the day the police came. Anthony was five years old. The police broke down the door, then smashed through the floorboards looking for drugs. Anthony remembers a lot of things shattered or crushed after that, things that had belonged to his grandfather. He remembers an officer putting him in the back of a police car. He was frightened, and didn't know where he was being taken.

"It's kiddie jail," he said of the children's shelter in which he found himself. "A jail for kids. Actually, it's not punishment. Actually, they punished me, though. Someone stole my watch. And they gave me clothes too small for me. They keep you in cells--little rooms that you sleep in, and you have nothing except for a bed, blankets, and sheets. You couldn't even go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. They wouldn't let you out."

At the shelter, Anthony cried for his mother and his grandmother. His grandmother came right away when she learned what had happened, but it was two and a half weeks--and three family court hearings--before Anthony was released from the shelter and permitted to go home with her. She lived in another county, and child welfare authorities insisted that she secure local housing before they would release Anthony to her care. "He was in so much pain," she said of the boy who met her at the shelter. "He jumped in my arms from across the room and said, 'Granny, get me out of here.' "

Anthony remembers the day he left the shelter. "I had a Wolverine and an Incredible Hulk in a plastic baggie in one hand and the other hand was holding my grandma and we ran down the street as fast as we can, away from the shelter." Anthony's mother is out of jail now, trying to stay clean. Anthony knows if she slips up, the police will take her away again. He fears it will happen to him, too. Because of the way he was taken there, and how little was explained to him, the shelter has come to haunt Anthony.

"The third time you go in the children's shelter, you can never go out until you're eighteen. My uncle told me, and it's true, too."

Anthony drew from his mother's arrest a few simple lessons: his mother was bad. He was bad. Authority was destructive. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a parent's arrest would not be wrenching for a child. But Anthony's fear and sorrow might have been eased by steps as simple as having someone take him into another room while his home was searched and talk to him about what was going on, or asking his mother if there were someone she might call to care for him.

These things happen, sometimes, when an individual officer thinks of them, or a chief mandates them. But the majority of police departments have no written protocol delineating officers' responsibility to the children of arrested parents, and those protocols that do exist vary widely in their wording and their implementation. A national survey by the American Bar Association (ABA) Center on Children and the Law found that only one-third of patrol officers will handle a situation differently if children are present. Of that third, only one in five will treat a suspect differently if children are present. One in ten will take special care to protect the children.

The result is that an event that is by its nature traumatic--the forcible removal by armed strangers of the person to whom children naturally look for protection--happens in ways that are virtually guaranteed to exacerbate, rather than mitigate, that trauma.

A national study found that almost 70 percent of children who were present at a parent's arrest watched their parent being handcuffed, and nearly 30 percent were confronted with drawn weapons. When researcher Christina Jose Kampfner interviewed children who had witnessed their mothers' arrests, she found that many suffered classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome--they couldn't sleep or concentrate, and they had flashbacks to the moment of arrest. If an arrested parent later returns home on parole or probation, officers often have license to enter the house at will--meaning that children may relive that trauma in their living rooms as well as their imaginations.

Police often plan raids for late-night or early-morning hours, when those they seek are most likely to be home with their families. That ups the odds that police will get their man, but also that children will awaken to see it happen. It should come as no surprise that sleep disorders follow.

Some narcotics officers report that they have children searched before releasing them to a relative or a shelter, in case they have drugs in their clothing or diaper. Washington Post reporter Leon Dash interviewed the son of a longtime drug dealer and prostitute who recalled being forced to strip and spread his buttocks inside his own apartment during police raids. When police deem children in need of child protective services, the majority deliver the children in a police car rather than having a child welfare worker pick them up in a lessintimidating vehicle. About one-fourth of police departments routinely bring children first to the police station rather than to a shelter or other civilian destination. Officers who find themselves responsible for children at the time of an arrest complain that their "babysitting" responsibilities interfere with their ability to do their real job.

"It is unfair to keep young children at the police station," one officer told the ABA researchers. "This is not a good place to watch children; there is no place to eat; they can't sleep here; we often don't have the supplies to take care of them, especially infants." A child who is picked up by police officers, transported in a police car, and deposited at the police station--where he may be deprived of food and sleep--will almost inevitably experience himself as having been arrested. To all intents and purposes, he has been.

In one jurisdiction, police supervisors described the follow ing protocol for handling the child of an arrestee when no relative is available to pick him up: first, officers take the child to the hospital for a physical examination. Next, they transport him to the local juvenile detention center to "fill out the necessary forms." Finally, they deposit him at a foster home. This jurisdiction was presented as a model by the researchers who visited it. Both police and child welfare workers reported that their protocol was working efficiently and congratulated themselves and each other for their smooth collaboration. But try for a moment to imagine this circuit as a child might experience it (an exercise that is necessary because the researchers did not speak with any actual children). An armed and uniformed stranger handcuffs and takes away your parent, then places you in a police car, where you are separated from your rescuer by a metal grid. From where you sit, you can hear the crackle of the dispatcher on the radio reporting crimes and crises elsewhere in town. You are driven to the hospital, where you are required to take off your clothes and be scrutinized and prodded by another stranger. Then you are taken to a jail--just as your parent has been--where you sit in silence as the adults around you process the paperwork that will determine your immediate future. Finally, you are deposited at the home of yet another stranger, where you are given someone else's pajamas and sent off to sleep in an unfamiliar bed.

It is quite likely that the various adults this child will encounter along his route will make an effort to treat him kindly. The problem is not the callousness of individuals but the mechanical indifference of multiple bureaucracies, each of which functions according to its own imperatives. These bureaucratic exigencies--rather than children's experience--become the lens through which policies and protocols are drawn up and assessed. The system is viewed as "working" when it works for the institutions that comprise it--in itself, a legitimate end. But when children's experience is not also given priority, the effect is to leave children feeling afraid, alone, and unseen. "I just wish the police would have talked to me like I was a part of it," said Christopher, who was whisked off to a foster home in the wake of his mother's arrest--"which I was. But they acted like I wasn't."

With appalling regularity, young people describe being left to fend for themselves in empty apartments for weeks or even months in the wake of a parent's arrest. In most cases, these children were not present when the parent was arrested; they simply came home from school to find their parent gone and were left to draw their own conclusions--not to mention cook their own dinner. But some told of watching police handcuff and remove a parent--the only adult in the house--and simply leave them behind. These stories bring home like no others the degree to which children are simply not seen, much less considered, within the criminal justice system.

The first time I heard such a story was from Ricky, then sixteen. Ricky's mother, like one-third of all incarcerated mothers, was living alone with her children at the time of her arrest. Ricky was nine years old, and his brother was under a year. "The police came and took my mom, and I guess they thought someone else was in the house, I don't really know," Ricky said. "But no one else was in the house. I was trying to ask them what happened and they wouldn't say. Everything went so fast. They just rushed in the house and got her and left." After that, Ricky did his best. He cooked for himself and his brother, and he changed the baby's diapers. "Sometimes he'd cry, because he probably would want to see my mother. But he was used to me, too," Ricky said.

Ricky burned himself trying to make toast and got a blister on his hand, but he felt he was managing. He remembered that each day, his mother would take him and his brother out for a walk. So he kept to the family routine, pushing the baby down the sidewalk in a stroller every day for two weeks, until a neighbor took notice and called Child Protective Services. Social workers came and took Ricky's brother from him, just as police had his mother. The boys were sent to separate foster homes. Ricky saw his mother only once after that, years later, when he ran into her on the street and she told him she was working on getting him back. A year after that, he received a letter from a stranger with a hospital return address, telling him his mother had died. He never found out how she died, or what had happened to her in the years following her arrest.

I spoke with Ricky again a few years after our first meeting. He was nineteen, and doing well. He had been lucky in foster care; he had landed with a loving caregiver who had made a stable home for him. As a teenager, he had been contacted by his brother's adoptive parents and had been able to forge a new relationship with him. Now he was attending a suburban junior college, where he had been recruited for his football talents. As we walked around campus, Ricky seemed calmer than when I had met him three years earlier, confident and happy in his new role as college athlete. It was late summer, and he was registering for classes and getting ready for the upcoming season.

When I first met Ricky, I was sure his story was exceptional. But the more I spoke with young people about their parents' arrest and incarceration, the less so it appeared. Antonia was five years old when she saw her mother arrested on the street for prostitution. "I saw the police coming at me and I just ran," Antonia recalled. "As a child, I thought maybe they might arrest me. At five years old, I should have been aware of the police as good people who help you. Not, 'My mom is in the car with them!' Not, 'My mom is handcuffed!' " Antonia ran home and told her older brothers what had happened. The children were on their own until their mother was released from jail a week later. Antonia remembers her tenyear- old brother trying to "be like the mother" during that time.

"When we would try to get junk food at the store, he would say, 'No, put that back.' We would burn food and he would get mad at us. 'I'm supposed to do the cooking! I deal with fire!' " When young people describe the arrest of a parent, the sense one gets is not only of unnecessary trauma but also of tremendous missed opportunity. A child whose parent is arrested is likely already a vulnerable child. Arrest, reimagined, could be an opportunity to make that vulnerable child, and her family, visible; to make a bad situation better rather than worse. As it stands, young people's reports of being overlooked or ignored are confirmed by law enforcement accounts. "I have taken and seen hundreds of children processed throughout my years in law enforcement," wrote one investigator in a handout prepared for a seminar at the California State Legislature. "The way these children are handled after a parent is arrested varies from, ignoring them, leaving them with a neighbor, leaving them alone with the promise that someone will be back from the store shortly.

"This area is highly overlooked and uncontrolled," he continued. "This area is like spousal abuse years ago. It was taken lightly and officers took the path of least resistance, until the law required specific actions. I think this problem is in the same realm."

Another police officer told a researcher, "Most cops do not like to and will not take kids into protective custody. It takes time, puts pressure on you from your agency, creates tons of paperwork, and CPS [Child Protective Services] isn't happy because they have other cases. There are all kinds of pressures [for law enforcement] not to take the kids."

Marcus Nieto of the California Research Bureau surveyed California police and sheriff 's departments about their approach to the children of arrested parents. He found what he called a "de facto 'don't ask and don't tell' policy"-- children were generally not considered a police responsibility unless they were perceived to be in grave danger. When Nieto asked law enforcement personnel for their suggestions for improving police response to children of arrestees, the most popular answer was "nothing can be done." Those respondents who did see room for improvement primarily pointed to agencies other than their own. While there is in general no statutory mandate for police to concern themselves with children at the time of an arrest, courts have occasionally held police liable for injuries to children left alone after a caretaker is arrested. White v. Rochford, the case that established the precedent for such liability, is based on a set of circumstances that tax the imagination. Police left three small children alone on a highway at night after arresting their uncle for a traffic violation. One child was hit by a car while crossing the freeway. The other two were later hospitalized with severe pneumonia.

A nine-year-old left alone with a baby--or a child venturing into traffic--does not go unnoticed indefinitely. When a Florida two-year-old spent nearly three weeks alone in an empty apartment after her mother was arrested--surviving on ketchup and dried noodles--the story made national news. Teenagers are more likely to slip under the radar indefi- nitely--and most likely to be left alone in the first place. With few foster homes willing to take them, teenage children of arrestees are commonly left to fend for themselves at home.

Even among police departments that told the ABA researchers they had a written policy outlining officers' responsibility for minor children of an arrested caretaker, only percent defined "minor" as all children under eighteen. The rest offered definitions that ranged from sixteen and under to ten and under. In other words, children who would not be permitted to sign a lease, get a job, or enroll themselves in school because of their age were, as a matter of explicit policy, deemed old enough to be left behind in empty apartments should police find it necessary to take away their parents.


Dr. Steven Berkowitz, a child psychiatrist and the medical director of the CD-CP, is tweedy and bearlike, with curly brown hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. He has the kind of face that, if you were a child and your parents had been spirited away, you might consider trusting. The scenario, said Berkowitz of kids on the couch, unnoticed and unattended, remains the norm in much of the country. "Systems don't think," Berkowitz asserted. "They're more like machines--you turn on the switch and they just keep doing what they always do. The real question is, how do you get systems to think?"

Because police are often the first "system" representatives through the door, they represent an obvious starting point. "If you set it up so that authority and the police are the bad guys, then what reason would any child have to think that doing the right thing is going to be good for them?" Berkowitz asked. "[If instead, you have] the supreme example of authority in society saying, 'I'm here, I'm listening, and I'm not bullshitting you.' It's a huge difference. Do I think it's going to detraumatize or heal? No. But I think it gives them a rope."
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