When Your Child Gets Arrested

If you have children, then you know the truth. Kids, especially teens, are impulsive. Sometimes they behave erratically. Sometimes their decisions defy logic. And occasionally those bad decisions get them arrested.

It doesn’t matter that you spent countless hours mentoring them. It doesn’t matter that you told them, “Never drive a car without a license and insurance.” Because the gazillion and one neurons in a teenager’s brain are growing and firing at rapid speed. And that can compromise a teen’s judgment and decision-making abilities.

There’s an adolescent brain issue. That means that teens may not understand the rules the way you meant them to be understood. Driving in the parking lot with friends is, in fact, really driving.

Arrest Is Traumatic

You can know all of this. But if  your child gets arrested, it will still be traumatic for both of you.  And even though the police and the judicial system expect kids to make illegal mistakes, their jobs are to enforce the law. How that law is enforced and what the outcome will be for your child is sometimes about luck. The outcome may depend on the judge, police jurisdiction, the state you live in, and the severity of the offense.

If your child has been arrested before, then you are all too familiar with how the system works. But if this is the first time your child has been arrested, you will need to educate yourself in a hurry. You may need to take some measures to protect your child and your family. It’s also important to strengthen yourself.  Being involved in the judicial system–even juvenile court–is traumatic, expensive, emotionally draining, may seem unfair, and is at times, unpredictable.

The first thing you should do, after finding a good lawyer, is to research the laws in your state concerning juveniles and to learn how juvenile court works.

What Is Juvenile Court?

Juvenile Court is a special court that deals with minors who have been charged with a crime. The age range dealt with by juvenile court varies by state. Unlike adult court, juvenile court only deals with civil cases and violations of the law by young people are referred to as delinquent acts rather than crimes.

In most states, a child is tried as a juvenile until the age of 18. But much also depends on the type of crime.
In most states, a child is tried as a juvenile until the age of 18. But much also depends on the type of crime committed.

If a juvenile is arrested and accused of violating certain laws, the juvenile court will determine if the charges have merit and if the minor is delinquent. The court looks at a petition from an intake officer and considers the following information when making its decision.

  • Seriousness of the offense
  • Child’s age
  • Past record
  • Evidence
  • Gender (boys are more likely to be charged than girls)
  • Social history
  • School records
  • Family history and structure

After reviewing everything, the court has broad authority to decide what is best for the child and others involved. Based on the state, that can mean placement in a juvenile facility or treatment in a therapeutic residential treatment facility. It can mean remaining at home with parents or being placed in foster care. If the charges are for a more series crime, the juvenile court can reassign the minor to be charged as an adult.

But while your child is being processed through the inner workings of juvenile court, he has certain rights.

troubled teenage offende

Know Your Child’s Rights

According to NOLO.com, a legal self-help website, your child has certain rights in the juvenile court. Some of those rights are based on decisions in U.S. Supreme Court cases and apply everywhere; other rights vary by state.

The police must have probable cause to search a minor. To search and arrest a minor, police officers must have what’s called “probable cause.” This means that the police must have sufficient reason to believe that a crime was committed.  An exception to this rule is if a parent or a school official knows of an offense and involves the police.

A minor has the right to a phone call after an arrest. It sounds cliché. In any television show, whenever the main character is arrested and waiting for arraignment, he always asks to make his one phone call. But the corny-sounding one phone call thing is based on the Miranda Rights. And these are enshrined in law.

According to Cornell University Law School, the police must read the Miranda Warning to all suspects. That warning tells suspects that they have a right to remain silent–that they have a right not to talk to the police without an attorney being present. Based on the 5th Amendment, the Miranda Warning is meant to protect suspects from self-incrimination. If the police arrest your child without reading him his Miranda Rights, anything your child says, any testimony he gives, is inadmissible in court. When your child gets arrested and asks to call you or an attorney, your child is invoking his Miranda Rights

teenage boy in leather jacket handcuffs arrested

A minor has no right to seek bail.  In many states, a minor is released to his parents or guardians before court meets to decide on the case. But in some cases, if a judge feels it necessary, he can hold your child in detention until all evidence is evaluated or until the case is reviewed in court. As a minor, your child has no right to bail and can be held for an indefinite period of time.

A minor has a right to counsel. As a parent, you should secure an experienced attorney to defend your child. That attorney should be someone one who knows the laws, who works in juvenile court, and who knows the trends and personalities of different juvenile court judges.

Notice of charges. Your child must be provided with a notice of any charges he faces. There are horror stories of suspects held indefinitely without due process, and without even hearing the charges. These situations do happen, but only on rare occasions. And being held without charges isn’t something that typically happens to juvenile offenders.

A minor has the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. Even though minors don’t go through a trial in juvenile court, they do have the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. It’s one way that a minor can defend himself. And everyone who is accused has the right to defend himself.

The privilege against self-incrimination. Minors in juvenile court proceedings have a right to assert their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. This means that a minor cannot be forced to testify against him or herself.

Charges must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In order to send a young person to jail, it must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the charges are true. It is the right of every youth charged with a juvenile act to have the charges proved beyond a reasonable doubt. If the investigation takes a long time, the minor can be held in a detention facility or residential treatment center until the charges are proven or disproved.

young offender covers ears during interrogation

What Should You do as a Parent?

Don’t argue with the police: Remember that the police have a responsibility to the public to keep order and uphold the law. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, most juveniles who are arrested are judged delinquent. Of those judged delinquent, most admit their crimes.  If the police arrested your child, they likely have a good reason.

Remember that the police are not on your side. They are there, rather, to enforce the law and maintain law and order. Sometimes you will find the odd police department with an inherent understanding of teen behavior. They may make compassionate recommendations based on family circumstances. But do not argue with or engage the police. Doing so can result in a less desirable outcome for your child.

Finding Support: If your child gets arrested, you need support. But there just isn’t much out there in the way of parenting support groups for parents of children who have been arrested or incarcerated. Experts claim to be focused on parental engagement for parents of juvenile delinquents. But that parental engagement doesn’t seem to include emotional support. The national groups for parents of juveniles, meanwhile, seem to be solely focused on the issue of obtaining justice. This is an important goal, to be sure. But parents of kids in trouble also desperately need emotional support.

Parenting a child who has been arrested can be lonely. Being a parent to an adolescent, especially one prone to risk-taking behavior can be confusing and stressful. In this situation, some parents feel embarrassed and withdraw from supportive social circles. In some cases, communities may alienate the families of those dealing with an incarcerated child. No matter your particular circumstances, it’s helpful to talk with other parents who are going through the same experience or who have survived the arrest of their child.

Local groups such as Centerforce1.org  in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Guided Pathways in Washington State offer support and other resources to parents struggling with teen issues, juvenile arrest, juvenile incarceration, or reintegration after an incarcerated child is released. National groups offering emotional support to parents of arrested or incarcerated children, on the other hand, are few and far between. A lengthy search on Google led this author to find only one such group, a grassroots organization called Parents with Incarcerated Children.

The group’s founder, Monalisa Johnson has been featured on national television, was filmed in a documentary called “60 Minutes In,” and gave a Ted Talk, too. If you’re comfortable with Facebook, check out Parents with Incarcerated Children.

A group for mothers of sons (not necessarily juveniles) who are incarcerated is Mothers with Sons in Prison. A search for “juveniles,” however, brought no results. Even so, it should be possible for mothers to find chat rooms and message boards where they can talk about the issues and find comfort and support from others who have been there.

Find a Network of Care For Your Family: If your child goes to court and the case goes to trial, you could be in trial for weeks or months. That means that you, as a parent, are not available to any of your other children, your spouse, or your extended family. You need to set up a support system for your family while you’re involved with your child’s court case. It may be difficult to find sympathetic friends or family to pitch in, but it is worth a try. A network of care can ease the stress on all involved.

Talk to a counselor or therapist: If your child did, in fact, commit the crime, you will experience grief and trauma even if you can’t quite identify the emotions associated with it. Part of the grief stems from a change of perspective. Your child committed a crime and you have to wrap your brain around that fact.

You also have to realize that your child isn’t who you thought he/she was. There’s the necessity to find a way to see your child as an individual with a unique set of values and characteristics. That’s very hard, because for the longest time, your child was your baby, an extension of you. And in a way, your child still is. He or she has internalized some message either from you or from his/her peers. Or maybe there was no such message but your family or child experienced a major trauma which was never addressed. This too, can precipitate a crime.

Don’t rely on websites for legal help. No website should be used in lieu of legal advice. Do your homework, find a good attorney; and if you can’t afford one, you still have the option of accepting the legal defender provided by the court.

You might also want to contact a local legal aid society if you aren’t happy with the lawyer provided to your child by the courts. It’s possible you’ll find a better match with a neighborhood legal services association or a group offering free legal services. You may not have a lot of time to figure it out, so take some deep breaths and try to figure out which path your gut tells you to take. It may be the most important decision you’ll ever make.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published Jan 4, 2015 and has been completely revised and updated for accuracy and scope.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Subscribe via email

About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

Reader Interactions


  1. Kevin says

    centerforce.org is not functioning. Is there another resource site recommended for parents with children in jail?

  2. maria says

    Is there something like the Legal Aid Society but for California? My nephew was arrested and my sister needs help getting a lawyer.

  3. Tammy says

    My son is 19 and suffers from depression which I also suffer from. From time to time he’d go off for a few days and I knew he was using addictive drugs. I thought he was just partying but he told me he did it to stop the pain he was feeling. The last time he was gone a horrible tragedy happened and someone was killed. Those not the shooter had their and their families lives threatened to cooerce them to participate in hiding the evidence. My son being the youngest and least experienced was set up to take full responsibility. In Virginia unfortunately suspects are treated as guilty until proven innocent and my son doesn’t stand a chance at a fair trial without a good lawyer but I’m on disability and can’t afford one. Is there any help for him?

    • Merle says

      While a public defender is assigned to anyone who cannot afford to hire an attorney, you may get a better response from Virginia Legal Aid Society. Their website is vlas.org. Good luck!