Written Testimony to the Committee on Public Safety Jointly with the Committee on Justice System: Family Separation in Criminal Cases

New York City Council

Committee on Public Safety Jointly with the Committee on Justice System

Hearing re: Family Separation in Criminal Cases

February 25, 2019

Written Testimony of The Bronx Defenders

By Fallon Speaker, Eli Northrup, and Caitlin Becker

As practitioners, we see firsthand the impact an arrest can have on families, especially when a child is present. Whenever we speak with clients who have been arrested in front of their child, their first concern is always their child’s wellbeing. Oftentimes, they express deep dismay or justified outrage at the police officers’ handling of the situation, many of which involve aggression, violence and yelling which evokes fear in parents and children alike. Our clients’ singular goal in these situations is to protect their children, yet they are often powerless to do so and any attempts to protect or even comfort their children are interpreted as failing to follow officers’ directives or, worse, resisting arrest and endangering their own child’s welfare.

The impact of these escalated encounters between parents and police on children is even more severe. Children who witness a parent’s arrest experience short term distress and are at a higher risk for developing serious emotional and behavioral problems in life. Babies and toddlers, far from being immune from witnessing their parent be arrested or separated from their parent due to their young age, have less developed coping skills than older children and are at particular risk for experiencing negative life outcomes as a result of witnessing a parent’s arrest. Beyond witnessing the arrest, young children in particular are further traumatized by the sudden separation from their primary caregivers, causing a rupture in the essential attachment relationship.

The Bronx Defenders believes that the harms that are inflicted on families from the initial arrest to the sentencing phase, must be addressed in their totality. We support both bills currently being considered by the Council (Int. 0806-2018 and Int. 1349-2019) and urge the Council to go further. We support an amendment to New York City’s Administrative Code to require police departments to implement child sensitive arrest policies. We believe practical training is necessary, as well as input from experts, community stakeholders and advocates who represent incarcerated parents and parents who face arrest, and children who have been affected by parental arrest and incarceration.

We agree that the creation of an interagency task force to address the obstacles faced by children of incarcerated parents is a good first step. We implore the Council, however, to not only consider children of incarcerated parents, but incarcerated parents and the family as a whole. We believe that current parties listed to serve on this task force is lacking in representation of necessary stakeholders. While we do believe it is important to have the NYPD and ACS at this table, we also believe it is important for the following to have a seat at the table: parents and children with lived experience of family separation due to arrest and incarceration, public defense institutions who represent parents who are arrested, institutions who represent children, community justice advocates, parent support coalitions, and coalitions who fight for the rights of the current and formerly incarcerated. Lastly, we do not believe that the appropriate agency to chair this taskforce is the Department of Corrections. Instead, we believe that an agency in the community and informed by the experience of children and families affected by parental incarceration would be better suited at centering the voices of those most impacted by family separation due to arrest or incarceration.

Read the full testimony here