When Cheyenne McKenzie's father was arrested at her fifth-grade graduation, in front of her whole school, it was the second time the now-16-year-old had seen police take her father away. The first time was on her 10th birthday, when he took her shopping using counterfeit money.
“He ruined my birthday,” she said, recalling the memory of sitting on the curb outside the mall as her father was put into the patrol car.
When 17-year-old Moesha Wise was 12, one of her parents was arrested too. Unlike McKenzie, no family members were called when they took her mother away.
“There was no adults in the house,” she said. She was left alone in her San Francisco home with her two teen siblings — for two months.
April Freeman, 39, was on the other side of the coin when she was arrested in 2009. Handcuffed in front of three of her children after police raided her San Francisco home, she was allowed to at least dress herself and talk with her children before she was taken away.
“They literally had to rip my kids off me, my baby screaming. It still brings me to tears thinking about how my 5-year-old felt,” Freeman said.
These stories are not out of the ordinary for children who see their parents arrested, said Zoe Willmott, the program director of Project What, a program for kids with incarcerated parents run by the nonprofit Community Works.
But now, hopefully, there will be fewer such stories of children left to fend for themselves after their guardians are arrested without other adults present. The Police Department and Police Chief Greg Suhr have officially changed how children are dealt with in such circumstances, said Willmott and the coordinator of San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents, Nel Bernstein.
Passed by the Police Commission earlier this month, a new general order will mandate training — including a video with McKenzie as well as Freeman's daughter, Ameerah Tubby, telling their stories — so police will make sure kids who see their parents arrested are properly cared for. The order will mandate a series of steps when kids are present in such situations. For instance, officers must make sure an adult who can care for the child is contacted. It would also give an arrested parent a chance to explain to his or her child what is happening.
The rule would also require officers to ask those they arrest if they have children whom they are responsible for. If so, a procedure to make sure the child is cared for should be followed.
Although general protocols of this nature have been in existence for the SFPD since 2007, this latest action permanently codifies it.
“The reality is, arresting a parent is going to be traumatizing for a kid no matter what,” Willmott said. “What we're trying to do is minimize it and make it as safe and comfortable an experience as it possibly can be for that kid.”
A 2011 study by the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families found there were 17,993 children in The City whose parents were locked up. And an informal survey of 100 youths with incarcerated parents conducted by Project What found that 50 percent were present when their parents were arrested.
The effort to put protocols for kids into place began when Children of Incarcerated Parents approached the department in 2006 and asked it to put into practice procedures they had developed for children in such situations.
The push to make the procedures permanent only happened recently with the help of Samara Marion with the Office of Citizen Complaints and the Youth Commission, Bernstein said.
“It's the official policy of the San Francisco Police Department,” Bernstein said. “In fact, I don't know of another police department that has made it its official policy to consider kids at the time of arrest.”
For minors like McKenzie, the shift could change how police operate, making officers think more about how an arrest impacts a child.
“I really do think they should have changed the time and place they arrested him, because it was at my fifth-grade graduation,” McKenzie said of her father's arrest. “And I don't think that is the best time to arrest somebody, because that was very humiliating for me. And ever since then, my classmates and my teachers have looked at me differently. Like they put me in a category I should not be in because of the mistakes my father made.”