Opinion: NYC Must Act Now to Safeguard Children When Their Parent is Arrested

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

ICE executed federal search warrants at multiple work sites in Mississippi on Aug. 7.

On Aug. 7, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers conducted workday raids across Mississippi and arrested nearly 700 people, many of whom had children at school. At the end of the first day of the school year, educators and volunteers had to devise emergency plans to provide food and shelter, emotional support, and age-appropriate explanations to confused and terrified children. The national uproar to these raids cast a bright light on an issue that stretches well beyond immigration: the practice of arresting parents without adequate regard for the well-being of their children.

Last Wednesday, the same day that ICE agents swept through Mississippi, Jazmine Headley filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in NYC that highlights the trauma and harm of separating parents and children. In December, when Ms. Headley was arrested for sitting on the floor of a Human Resources Administration office, her 1-year-old son was ripped from her arms, and she was forced to spend two days in Rikers Island. The video of her chaotic arrest is shocking not only because of the circumstances that led to it, but for the obvious trauma that was inflicted on mother and son.

The overlapping elements of these stories—these lives—cannot be ignored. We are horrified by practices and policies that show little concern for child and family well-being. The parent-child relationship is urgently and critically important—we have only to think of our own children and our own childhoods. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns against separating children and parents, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes parent-child separation among its Adverse Childhood Experiences that can have negative consequences for health and well-being into adulthood.

Fortunately, there are well-developed solutions for exactly these situations. In 2014, the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a model protocol for safeguarding children at the time of arrest. Their protocol includes measures—when possible—not to use force or handcuff a parent in front of a child; it allows parents to talk with their children, and make arrangements for their care before being removed by the arresting officer. It also advises officers to ask people who are being arrested if there are children or other dependents who will be affected—or left vulnerable—by their arrest. It recommends pre-arrest planning, including executing warrants when children are least likely to be present and making plans to minimize their exposure to violence and trauma if they are there. It includes data collection to better understand the magnitude of this issue and to track implementation of the protocol. Several cities such as San Francisco and Albany have adapted and successfully implemented this model protocol.

While New York City has yet to implement such a policy, there is legislation before the City Council (introduced by this op-ed’s co-author) and expected to be voted on Wednesday which requires police officers to use child sensitive practices when arresting a caregiver and to be trained in child development and minimizing trauma to children during arrests. We urge the City Council to pass this bill as well as follow-up bills that incorporate additional aspects of the IACP model protocol. We implore our elected representatives and law enforcement agencies to support all such efforts to best protect New York City’s children.

We know that the people who work in our city agencies often act with empathy and are more effective when they do so. We admire those who honor the dignity and importance of the parent-child relationship. We also know that a lack of clear and effective protocols can put arresting officers in terribly difficult positions, and leave them wondering if they did the right thing, or if there were additional or alternate steps they could have taken to lessen the pain on the faces of the children the arrest left behind. Training and protocols help provide officers with guidance and the comfort of knowing they followed guidelines specifically developed to minimize trauma to children. Not having such protocols is unfair to officers and children alike.

As a City Council member and non-profit leader, we call for immediate action to enshrine these protections in City law. Let’s work together, right now, to make sure that New York City offers the strongest protections for children and families. The alternative is a rapidly darkening path that leads to the rising barbarism the 680 families in Mississippi experienced this week, inflicting pain and trauma they will continue to feel for years to come. We must be—we are—better than this.

Daniel Dromm is the council member for the 25th District of the New York City Council. Elizabeth Gaynes is the president and CEO of the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that works with incarcerated people and their families.

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