05/14/2010

Betsy Brantner SmithSurvival Insights
with Betsy Brantner Smith

Cops and kids: 3 keys to dealing with "out of control" children

Many parents just don’t know how to deal with an unruly or uncooperative child — all too often, that responsibility falls to police

Cops and kids are a natural combination. We all know that police officers do so much good in our communities — we’re SROs, child abuse investigators, juvenile officers, and gang specialists.

We also work with youth informally, through afterschool programs, Special Olympics, youth sports, Explorer Scouts, and many other worthwhile endeavors.

Most cops have a natural ability to deal well with kids, but when you get that call to assist a parent because Johnny is getting out of hand, don’t let complacency turn a citizen assist into a deadly assault.

Times Have Changed
I hate to sound like an old-timer, but things are different now. If my older brother was beating the crap out me when I was in junior high, we called it “playing.”

Nowadays that’s called “domestic violence.” Kids today aren’t allowed to “play rough” on the playground — if one child strikes another and the victim fights back, they both get suspended from school. Today, kids are taught that they don’t have to tolerate corporal punishment at home, but if my dad thought that my smart mouth deserved to be countered, I might get the palm of his hand to the back of my head.

It was his parental right. And yet I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve been to as an officer, a detective and as a sergeant to deal with “out of control” children who simply needed a little parenting.

Let’s face it: Many parents just don’t know how to deal with an unruly or uncooperative child.

Let me be clear, I am NOT advocating child abuse, true sibling domestic violence, or uncontrolled school-yard brawling. In 29 years as a cop, I’ve seen more than my share of beaten and broken kids, and I’ve also seen parents who were bullied and battered by their own teenagers. Like many of you, I’ve also been sent to a “domestic” or an “unknown problem” that turned out to be an 8-year-old girl who was refusing to go to school, or a 12-year-old boy who was grappling with his 10-year-old brother over an X-box.

Stay Alert, Stay Safe
These calls may sometimes seem like a silly waste of time, but take the time to look a little deeper — don’t allow yourself to become so cynical about these types of calls that you forget officer safety...

Separate the parties and ask questions. An overly aggressive 10-year-old child may have an undiagnosed mental illness, or be the secret victim of physical or sexual abuse (possibly even by another family member). The little girl may not want to go to school because the janitor is fondling her in the coat closet every day and she doesn’t know where to turn. These kids may initially be a challenge to deal with, but you may be their only hope of getting help or escaping an awful situation.

Beware the mother bear — don’t go it alone. When you must arrest a youngster — many of us work in “mandatory arrest” jurisdictions when it comes to domestic violence — make sure that you have backup. Also, make sure you have family members controlled and separated when you put Johnny in handcuffs. The mom who originally called “911” on her obnoxious 14-year-old kid just may turn into your worst officer survival nightmare when you’re stuffing her baby into the back seat of your cruiser.

Don’t underestimate the furor or cunning of siblings, grandparents, and other family or friends on the scene. Just because your arrestee hasn’t graduated elementary school doesn’t mean that he or she won’t hurt or kill you if they get the chance.

Don’t worry about people’s misconceptions. I once arrested a 10-year-old boy for arson — he set fire to the family’s townhouse and believe me, it was no accident. Needless to say, I endured quite a bit of ribbing from my co-workers and some negative local press. I believe the editorial headline said something along the lines of: “Doesn’t the police department have anything better to do than put 4th graders in jail?”

This wasn’t the first time I’d had contact with him and it certainly wasn’t the last, but I knew what I was doing was right. He was a kid who needed a lot of help, something my agency desperately tried to provide, but it didn’t necessarily make the department — or me — particularly popular.

Like so many of you, I spent much of my career working with kids, and like you, I know that working with kids is so vital, so frustrating, and yet so often, so rewarding. We’re all part of a warrior profession, and one of the most important roles a true “warrior” has is to protect the weak, the young, those who can’t protect themselves. But we also have a duty to protect each other and to protect ourselves.

Stay safe!

About the author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.

Contact Betsy Smith and Follow Betsy on Twitter

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