Since the mid-1980s, there has been an exponential increase in the number of girls arrested, waiting in detention, and serving time in foster placement. According to statistics published in 2009, of all juvenile arrests, 25% are arrests for crimes of domestic and family violence. These arrests disproportionally affect girls: although young women represent 29% of all juvenile arrests, they make up 31% of assault arrests, 35% domestic violence arrests, and 41% child-to-parent violence arrests. It is this last number that is particularly disturbing. It is widely known that child-to-parent violence is more complicated than the name might suggest, and is often correlated with other violence in the family.
Outside their homes, girls are arrested primarily for non-violent crimes — prostitution, running away, simple assault against peers. Girls are involved in violent acts mostly in their homes. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Prevention, the increased emphasis on arrests for domestic violence has disproportionally affected girls because most of their violence is acted out in the home.
Pro and mandatory arrest laws have revolutionized the way that police respond to calls of domestic violence. In the 1970s, the police only made arrests for 3-14% of the calls they received for domestic violence. At this time, police could only make an arrest if the following conditions were met: there was a valid arrest warrant, probable cause that a felony had occurred (usually due to visible injury), and the policeman was a direct witness to the misdemeanor.
Throughout the last few decades, with the pressure of the victims’ rights movement, women’s movement and battered women’s shelter movement, policies shifted to encourage police to make an automatic arrest when responding to a domestic violence report. With the goal of supporting victims of domestic violence, several policies were put in place in the mid 1990s. In 1994, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges clarified that the same laws applied to intimate partner violence as to other forms of family violence. This council also delineated the power of the police, and encouraged police to make arrests when responding to calls of domestic violence. If the police did not make an arrest (or made multiple arrests), they would be bogged down with extra paperwork. These pro- or mandatory arrest policies were endorsed in the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, VAWA, and enforced by only allowing states who adopted pro- or mandatory arrest policies to be eligible for VAWA funding.
With pressure to make an arrest on the scene of family violence, police face the decision of whom to arrest. If the violence is of the typical male-on-female intimate partner variety, the decision may be easier. But how do police react when called to the scene of parent and child violence?
Consider the case of my client, Rachel*, and her twin sister, Daisy. Rachel and Daisy lived with their mother, Valerie, and their two younger sisters in a domestic violence shelter in a low-income area of Brooklyn. One night at the end of December, there was a fight in the home involving Valerie, Rachel, Daisy and one of the younger sisters. Valerie started the aggression, annoyed at Rachel for some reason that quickly became unimportant as the fight escalated. Protective of Rachel, Daisy came to her rescue; similarly, the younger sister sided with Valerie. Valerie called the police, who came quickly before Rachel and Daisy had time to run from the house. The policeman knew the family and was reluctant to arrest Rachel and Daisy, but he was mandated by domestic violence policy to make an arrest. Rachel and Daisy were arrested and removed from the home to a foster care placement. During the course of my time working with Rachel, their mother never dropped the charges or the order of protection against the twins.
The reaction of the policeman to Rachel and Daisy’s situation is typical. When a policeman responds to a call of domestic disturbance, he/she first has to determine whether the violence is in the scope of domestic violence laws — namely, presence of a victim and an offender. In cases of child and parent violence, there are several reasons why the police will identify the child as the offender and the parent as the victim. First, stereotypes of teenagers are hard to combat, and police may be likely to identify the teenager as disrespectful of her parents and other authority figures. In most states (including New York), parents are allowed to use a reasonable amount of corporal punishment to discipline their children. If the police were to believe that the child was the victim of family violence, the case would move from the jurisdiction of the police to child welfare. Further, should the police arrest the parent and remove the parent from the home, they would have to implement a plan for the kids. Even though most incidents of child-to-parent violence in the home are children’s response to parent-initiated violence, it is much easier for the police to arrest the child than the parent. In a study in Massachusetts, youth under 18 were 4.5 times more likely than adults to be arrested in cases of domestic violence.