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...I am a child...

02 February 2021 |

On Friday, January 27, 2021, a distressed 9-year-old child in Rochester, NY was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed as police officers tried to resolve her crises by getting her into the back of a police cruiser.

The very thought of police taking down a 9-year-old child with handcuffs and pepper spray is extremely disturbing; witnessing this occurrence is a community’s siren call for action. While police officers’ traumas are real and deserve attention, having support for adults who work with children does not diminish the main expectation that every adult work to ensure trauma and racism-responsive practices to address ravages from witnessing interpersonal violence are confronted in that child’s daily life.

This is another very disturbing incident in Rochester affecting its African American community. This child’s plight highlights the intersection of race and interpersonal violence and the rampant public health crises of racism and suicide. We must contend with the systemic bias this produces: a reliance on police action to resolve mental distress even with a child.

Counterfactual thinking demands we ask what else could have happened under different conditions. If it was a white child, would the response be the same? Would police be dispatched and not a mental health team? Would that white child be met with the same level of violent tactics? Or would a team prepared to deescalate all family members while keeping each safe from physical and emotional harm be called when a family in such crisis reached out for help? 

If I am a child, is this truly the best response? 

It is important to view this incident through the lenses of racial justice and equity as well as holistic wellbeing. A child’s wellbeing must involve treating the whole child - their mental, physical, social and emotional functioning. Considering and acknowledging the impact of trauma and the toxic stresses of adverse childhood experiences is essential.

Children in mental distress have the mental capacity or cognition to deduce actions of aggression (physical or verbal) from adults; they understand, have witnessed, and can easily associate aggressiveness of law enforcement toward Black and Brown people, resulting in death. To be committed to holistic wellbeing for children means recognizing and fully engaging in dismantling racial barriers and disparities in the care of children as they witness violence. Trained mental health professionals, and not law enforcement officers, should handle situations involving mental distress, especially in children.


–Earl Greene, MA, CAMS-1/Fellow, ACT Certified Trainer
Director of Family Engagement and Equity

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