Police Commission to consider new rules on domestic violence calls involving children

The Police Department could adopt new rules tonight governing how officers deal with cases concerning domestic violence and children — specifically when to call the Family & Children Services division.

Several activist groups involved in the process commend the department for taking big strides in handling domestic violence inside and outside the force, but they worry that blunt efforts to protect children by alerting the division, also known as Child Welfare, too often could have a chilling effect on already-reluctant victims of domestic violence. In some communities, activists say, any interaction with child welfare workers raises fears of having children taken away.

The new rules, known as general orders, act as a standing order to officers and define how they must operate when responding to domestic violence calls. According to a draft of the rules, police are to call Child Welfare if one of seven criteria is met.

The criteria include when there is a crime against a child, a homicide or attempted homicide, serious bodily injury, the threat or use of weapons and/or firearms in the home. Additionally, a call to the welfare division would be sparked whenever there are threats to commit a crime resulting in someone's bodily injury, there is immediate access to drugs and alcohol, and parents are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Activists, as well as the police, want to ensure children are protected but worry some of the criteria are too broad and might cause harm instead.

“Our fear is that it could have a chilling effect on [the] community's comfort calling police,” Adele Failes-Carpenter, director of the Youth Commission, said about the scope of some of the criteria.

Failes-Carpenter hopes the Police Commission, which has the final say on the proposed orders, holds off on its scheduled vote tonight so more can be done to better define vague parts of the rules.

Under the original proposal, police would be required to call the agency whenever kids were present on a domestic violence call, even when no arrest was made, said Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium.

But that approach worried some in the domestic violence prevention community because it could have impacted domestic violence reporting. After a year of talks with police, the proposal was refined, Upton said.

“This is not 100 percent of what we'd like to see,” Upton said. “I think the language is vague and any time there's vague language, it leaves room for more discretion.”

Upton, who praised the Police Department for its willingness to work with community groups on the issue, said one particular criteria, which deals with drugs and alcohol in the home, stood out.

“If there's a beer in the fridge, we want to make sure that doesn't put family at risk,” she said.

Such fears were increased when she recently saw a proposed department bulletin — one step below an order — that would have police call Child Welfare on all calls when children are present. But pressure from her group and others has put off the release of that bulletin until, she hopes, it has been altered.

Kathy Baxter, director of the Child Abuse Council, says the new general order is good policy.

The order came from a desire by police to have clear rules in cases where kids are involved, and the proposed order aims to give police a clear protocol of what to do in such situations, she noted.

Baxter understands that some communities that have more contact with police have legitimate fears about Child Welfare. But now, she said, Child Welfare does all it can to keep families together. Children are only removed from the home in rare cases, when violence or harm is present, she said.

Additionally, she said, the Child Welfare hotline has two domestic violence experts on staff and the Police Department's Special Victims Unit works very closely with domestic violence groups.

The Police Department and Child Welfare did not reply to requests for comment.

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