For Angelica's mother, Jessica Venegas, drug dealing had been a normal part of growing up, and it seemed normal to her and her brother to make their money that way too. While Venegas sold her drugs on the street away from her daughter, it was her brother's drugs, sold out of their mother's home, that the police were looking for that early morning.
The sleep of small children can be otherworldly, and that night Angelica slept on, in another world, while the police yelled to Venegas to get up out of bed, and Venegas yelled back to take care, that she was there with her daughter. Angelica slept while the police ransacked the apartment and handcuffed her mother, her uncle, and her grandmother, guns drawn. Miraculously, she slept while her uncle's two pit bulls hovered over her protectively, growling at the police to stay back. She slept while the police captured the dogs, cutting their jaws and splattering their blood on the floor and the walls in the process.
And then it was time to wake Angelica up.
There were the officers, with their badges, their guns and their walkie-talkies. There was her mom, in handcuffs. And there was the blood. But nobody explained anything to Angelica. The female officer simply dressed her and asked who could look after her. Venegas said they could take her to a neighbor until her sister came.
"You don't deserve to have your child," Venegas recalls one of the male officers telling her. Then motioning to the female officer, he added: "You're lucky. If it weren't for her, we'd be sending your daughter to child protective services and you'd never see her again."
As Venegas sat on her brother's bed and looked out at her daughter standing silently in the hallway staring back at her, she thought to herself: "I can't believe I let this happen. I can't believe I let her down."
Growing consciousness about impact of arrests
Twenty-five years ago, one out of every 125 children in the United States had an incarcerated parent. Today, that number is one out of every 28.
That includes an astounding one out of every 9 black children, one out of every 28 Latino children, and one out of every 57 white children, according to a 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts report. Despite newsworthy declines in the number of people incarcerated in New York state over the past decade, over a 100,000 children have a parent in a New York state prison or jail. Two-thirds of those parents, and 83 percent of mothers, were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.
Nobody knows just how many children are present during the time of their parent's arrest, because to date, nobody tracks those numbers. But a recent survey by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) found that nearly one-fifth of parents surveyed (18 percent) reported that their child had witnessed their arrest. Of those, all but one had also been handcuffed in front of their child, while 9 percent said their child had witnessed guns drawn.
The fact that the government has begun to collect these numbers is significant, because for a long time, the trauma suffered by children during their parents' arrest and incarceration was a relatively invisible phenomenon. "For many years, I believe there was an unspoken, unconscious assumption that children of the incarcerated were guilty by association, and were therefore in a different category than other children, so we just didn't think about them," says Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated.
But slowly over the past decade, as greater attention has been focused on the human and taxpayer cost of mass incarceration, attention has also begun to be paid to the toll that a parent's arrest and incarceration takes on children. Studies show that children experience their parent's incarceration in many of the ways children experience a parent's death, and suffer from mental health problems at far higher rates than children in the general population. Moreover, after witnessing an arrest, children often feel very angry, scared and guilty for being unable to protect their parents, explains Susan Chinitz, professor of clinical pediatrics and director of the Early Childhood Center at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine.
In one sign that the experiences of these children may be beginning to penetrate mainstream consciousness, later this year Sesame Street will release a new campaign aimed at helping children figure out how best to go on living their lives with a parent living behind bars. In another, this past winter, two bills introduced for the second time into the New York state legislature aim to minimize the trauma children suffer when arrest and incarceration become part of their reality.
New rules for cops
The first bill would require the state's Office of Children and Family Services and DCJS to work together to ensure that arrangements are made for the care of children when a primary caregiver is arrested. The law is broadly worded, but it's most specific provisions allow police officers to give an arrested parent additional phone calls beyond the typical one in order to arrange for child care, and provide them with information about community-based resources to help them. The report by DCJS found that only 15 percent of parents surveyed said the arresting officer had inquired whether they were responsible for the care of children, and only 11 percent said they'd been allowed to make arrangements for their children.
The law would also mandate that law enforcement officials receive training on how to minimize trauma when a child is present at the time of arrest, and require that police departments have a written protocol detailing steps officers should take to minimize the trauma to a child.
A 2010 report by the New York State Council on Children and Families found that children are often out of the home during the time of a parents' arrest, in part because police already do attempt to plan their raids in a way that keeps children out of harm's way. But in a series of focus groups with children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers both upstate and in the New York metropolitan area, the report's authors found that when children were present, the attitudes of officers varied widely.