Unjust, Coercive Police Interviews Are Traumatizing Children of Color

My client’s 4-year-old son was locked away from her, held in a back room by police officers in the Manhattan Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in New York City. When I asserted her right as a mother to refuse a police interview of her son without an attorney present, we were met with the threat of arrest. So, a young Black child sat scared and away from his mother, waiting to be interviewed by New York Police Department (NYPD) detectives in connection with a criminal investigation.

As a social worker on the Family Defense Team at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, I see police and child services workers attempt to put families in these positions all too often. Thankfully, due to the quick work of my team, our client and her son were reunited before police interviewed him. However, not all parents are able to secure such an outcome, and the systemic discrimination against poor, Black children continues today just as it did when police and media alike rushed to condemn five Black boys in 1989.

Our legal system has a long history of coercing confessions from the most vulnerable, as vividly depicted in “When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s mini-series on the Central Park Five case. That shameful legacy remains unbroken: In 2019, situations like my client’s, in which police attempt to separate children from parents and attorneys, are far too common.

Of course, instances of child abuse should be taken seriously. Child Services already has license to conduct interviews with children alone, but the police interview process goes well beyond that protection. When police talk to children for the purpose of a criminal investigation, without consent and without allowing families or children to consult an attorney, they trample our clients’ and their children’s constitutional rights.

Police interviews with children often happen at Child Advocacy Centers (CAC) like the one that held my client’s son. These are centers created with noble stated intention: to house resources for children in need of protection. In reality, those resources are secondary to their function as a law enforcement entity, one plagued by the biases of our legal and foster care systems.

These systems remain deeply prejudiced against people of color, who are constantly surveilled in their neighborhoods and therefore more likely to be targets of an Administration for Children Services (ACS) investigation. Just six percent of children in foster care in New York City are white compared to 43 percent of residents. That reflects a broader national trend: across the country, 44 percent of children in foster care are white, while white people represent 60.4 percent of the population. This prejudice makes the parallels between the legal system’s treatment of our clients and those the media have dubbed “the Central Park Five” unmistakable. Even though the children interrogated at CACs do not typically face criminal charges, their families — predominantly Black and Brown — are being targeted and torn apart.

From 2014-2017, there were more than 280,000 civil investigations conducted as a result of calls to the New York State Central Registry, the body that fields all calls about suspected child abuse. Just 8.3 percent of those investigations concerned white families.

In low-income neighborhoods, Black and Brown families seldom receive the benefit of the doubt. The investigations they are subjected to often have everything to do with poverty or race and nothing to do with the treatment of children. Their wealthier, whiter neighbors receive no such scrutiny.

Families of color are subject to discrimination before they even set foot in a CAC, just as the exonerated members of the so-called Central Park Five were racially targeted before them. They face a terrifying power dynamic during these investigations: NYPD detectives and ACS workers threaten arrest or the removal of children from their parents’ care, and the potential arrest of their children as well.

Meanwhile, the interview process itself is menacing: Children sit isolated from their loved ones as police grill them for long periods of time. Interviews sometimes include a strip search. There are many reasons a parent would not want to subject their child to a potentially traumatic police interview alone, and they have the right to make that decision.

The information gleaned from these interviews is extremely unreliable, just as it was when the youth dubbed the “Central Park Five” were unjustly interrogated by police. Interviews conducted at CACs result in a higher number of criminal charges against parents and their children than interviews conducted by child services specialists, but a higher percentage of these cases are dismissed once brought to court. This can be attributed to the fact that much of the time, no child abuse actually occurred. These families were simply interviewed at the CAC because of their race and class by detectives biased against them.

Thirty years have passed since the innocent youth in the Central Park Five case were unjustly targeted and punished. If we are serious about reckoning with the abuse they endured, we must put a definitive end to these unjust, coercive interviews — whether they happen in a police precinct or a CAC. The time has long since come for the criminalization of poor families of color to end.