Police officers dread “domestic” calls involving dysfunctional personal relationships because their legal options in dealing with the participants are limited. Calling the police to discipline a child is not only a call for help by a parent, it is an admission that a situation has gone beyond the point where the adult is able to manage the behavior of a child. Forcing the police to step in the middle seldom changes that dynamic.
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Each call to a police department is treated as an emergency. When a parent contacts the police to discipline an unruly child, many departments will dispatch a social services unit or community services officer with the patrol or “sworn” officer--the one who carries a weapon and can arrest people. Many departments, however, do not have the resources to maintain such units.
The first person through your door will be an armed officer whose first responsibility is to ensure public safety and enforce the law. Officers never decide who’s right and who’s wrong at the time of the incident. If your child has broken a law, she may be taken into custody. The officer may try to calm you both down, summon a social service officer or inform you that police officers are not authorized to act in situations where no law has been broken and that you will need to discipline your child yourself.
The police officer who answers your call may only enforce discipline in two situations: the commission of a status or criminal offense. Although children can be held responsible for breaking laws, the law does not treat them the same way as adults. They are often diverted to special “juvenile courts” or “alternative dispositions,” such as community service.
Truancy, underage drinking, tobacco and curfew violations are examples of offenses based on a child’s status as a juvenile; they may result in the issuance of a citation or, in extreme situations, removal of the child from the home for evaluation. Citations are often dealt with in a municipal or town court.
If your child has broken a criminal law, it is the duty of the police officer to arrest him and deliver him to the judicial system. Many juvenile courts have social service departments that handle youthful offenders and some have “diversionary” or restorative programs that deal with first offenders.
When officers are called to deal with unruly children, they must arrest the juvenile, involve a mediator like social services or simply serve as an influence to de-escalate the conflict temporarily. If such calls become too frequent, a family services agency may be consulted. Parents run the risk of losing custody of children that are determined by the court to be Minors in need of Supervision (MINS) or Children in Need of Supervision (CHINS).