This article is written from a U.S. perspective with regards to matters of law. I welcome other perspectives in the comments.
Did you see Making a Murderer, about a man who's been convicted AGAIN of a crime he possibly did not commit? We don't have to go into my opinions of Steven Avery's guilt or innocence — I just want to talk about what seems to me to be a classic case of extorting a false confession out of his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, and my fear that my children could one day be accused, arrested, tried, and convicted simply because I haven't told them this important piece of advice:
Brendon is a minor when this murder investigation goes down. He is repeatedly interviewed without a parent present. He has a low I.Q. In short, he is vulnerable, and the cops take advantage of this.
Despite no physical evidence whatsoever, and no prior run-ins with the law by Brendan, they decide he's guilty and then systematically, over many excruciating hours, manipulate and lie to Brendan to coerce him into saying what they want. I don't really want to "prove" here that I'm right — this is just my opinion, after having seen comparable interrogation footage of other false confessions of similarly vulnerable people. You can watch the footage yourself and form your own opinion.
Whether this particular confession was false, my point is just this: People DO give false confessions, and innocent people DO go to prison, and I definitely don't want that to happen to my kids!
But how do you balance the messages you want to give young kids about law enforcement with the warnings you want to instill in older children? How do I tell my four-year-old, "Police officers are our friends! They help us!" — and then turn around and tell my eight-year-old, "If the police want to talk to you, you say NOTHING but 'I want to talk with my parents'"?
To be clear, we haven't yet had this talk with our eight-year-old. I don't know how to, but I know I need to.
We all need to know and be prepared to exercise our rights (to breastfeed in public, to birth as we please, to make health decisions we have researched, to educate our children as we see fit), and we need to pass that same strength of character down to our children. But how do we do it in a way that doesn't erode trust in the basic benevolence of our government? How do we make our children savvy but not paranoid, prepared but not paralyzed?
And the questions become even thornier when you consider certain groups of people are unfairly targeted by the police. If I were the parent of, for instance, a black son, how would I address this balance with him? Even with my own white children, I want to warn them not to antagonize police officers or other officials with power and weapons. I want to teach them not to run or be aggressive if a police officer stops them, not to resist arrest, and to be respectful in tone and word choice, even though I realize the underlying message of "I'm refusing to cooperate with you" is not considered respectful.
Here, then, are some common threads of false confessions and how we can help our children fight back. Note that I'm talking false confessions, because we can all agree innocent people shouldn't be punished. But even if, heaven forbid, our children are guilty of something, these tips will still help protect their rights to a fair processing through the legal system.
Characteristics of false confessions:
- The confessors are usually young, developmentally challenged, or otherwise vulnerable. There's nothing we can do to prevent these inherent vulnerabilities. All we can hope is to give them a fighting chance to even the playing field.
- Often, a parent or guardian is not present. Parents might not realize this, but it is absolutely your right to be with your minor child during any and all police questioning. Insist on it. The police might try to get you to waive this right by suggesting things might go easier or your kid will be more truthful or open if you're not around. Tough noogies for them. Stay with your kid.
Teach your children to say nothing except that they want you there. Tell them that the police are allowed to lie and try to make them feel bad but that it's not rude to say nothing but that they want to see their parents and then wait patiently until you arrive.
- False confessions are hard to elicit with a defense lawyer present! As the parent or guardian, when you arrive or if the police come to your home, tell them you'll only allow questioning of your child with you and a defense lawyer present. If you can't afford one, it's your right to have one appointed. Then you wait, politely and patiently.
Some people who are vulnerable are not minors and therefore not automatically eligible to have a guardian present. Teach your kids to insist on a lawyer instead once they're eighteen.
- The police aren't upfront that the person is a suspect or being arrested. The police are allowed to lie and be cagey. If your kid is being questioned as anything other than a witness or victim, assume they're collecting evidence for an arrest. (I can't go into all the ways to distinguish which it is for a particular situation — you'll have to follow your gut, but I recommend erring on the side of caution. If you try to lawyer up and the police act baffled, probably you weren't a suspect. On the other hand, it can't hurt.) Police don't have to read Miranda rights until it's, in many instances, too late, or they'll try to get a suspect to waive rights early on because "this is just a friendly chat." Even if your child fell for that, you can reassert the rights at any time and stop talking. Your child's not bound by waiving them once for all time, so tell your kids that they should ask for you or a lawyer if they start feeling nervous about police questions, even if they were willing to talk at first.
- The police make the interrogations long, repetitive, and uncomfortable. Some of us can't believe that anyone could make a false confession, but interrogators purposely wear people down, keeping suspects in a small room and denying them simple privileges, such as using the bathroom, eating and drinking, seeing a friendly face, or going home. Note they don't have a right to deny all this without an arrest, but again, many people don't know their rights and submit to this treatment, which is very wearing physically, mentally, and emotionally. It's a form of, no joke, torturing a confession out of someone. If you teach your children to ask for you, and if you insist on a lawyer, you will automatically have better treatment than this.
- False confessions often happen from people who are eager to cooperate with authority. Think about how often we insist that our children be obedient to authority, and consider how this could hurt them when the authority isn't trustworthy. Instead of teaching my children mindless obedience, I prefer to encourage reasoning through motives, mutual trust that must be earned, and a sense of self-respect that I hope will keep them safer in the face of those who might harm them.
- The police promise benefits from cooperating. I saw a video of one vulnerable woman confessing because the police lied to her and told her she could go home to feed her new kitten if she just told them what they wanted to hear. Once she did, of course, they arrested her. She was shocked and heartbroken. Tell your kids this hard truth: If you're accused or suspected of something, the police are not your friends. They are not on your side. They can and will lie. Ignore what they're saying to you and (broken record alert) insist on the presence of a parent, guardian, or lawyer.
That's what I want to teach my children. I know the content — now I just need to figure out the delivery.
I don't want to confuse or frighten my children too young, of course. I wouldn't want my four-year-old, if lost, to go up to a police officer and when asked his name and where his mom was say, "I want a lawyer." I have to hope that at my kids' ages that inviting a parent into any interrogation would be a matter of course.
I think I'll wait till the tween years. Maybe 10, 11, 12? And hope it's not already too late.
Have you considered this topic? How and when would you address this with your kids?
Teach your kids to resist police interrogation
by insisting on a parent's presence:
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