What Should I Do If My Child is Arrested?

Written by Matthew Lanthier July 25, 2023; reviewed by Danielle Nygren April 17, 2024.

Few scenarios are more terrifying than knowing your child has been arrested or charged with a crime. Plus, you may not realize that there are steps you should be taking to help your family during this trying time. 

Here is everything you need to navigate this difficult and scary situation.

How is the juvenile system different from the adult system?

In California, a juvenile charge does not result in a criminal proceeding. Even if a child is charged with a crime, it isn’t legally a crime.

The purpose of the juvenile system is also different from the adult system. In the adult system, the purpose is punishment. In the juvenile system, the purpose is (at least theoretically) rehabilitation. 

The juvenile system operates with more confidentiality than the adult system.

You don’t need to tell your child’s school what is happening, and the public isn’t allowed to know about the arrest.

Plus, eventually, your child’s records can be sealed by the court once a case is finished.

There are still some similarities between the juvenile and adult criminal systems. First, your child has the right to an attorney.

Note you don’t have a right to an attorney. The child does.

Second, interaction with the juvenile court system still carries some of the same consequences as interactions with the adult court system. For example, your child may have to: 

1. spend time in juvenile hall
2. go on probation
3. pay restitution for property damage or other harm they have caused

Find out when a juvenile can be tried as an adult in California.

What are the possibilities if my child has an encounter with the police?

There are four possibilities in most police encounters involving your child. 

• The police issue a citation and release your child.
• The police write a report and release your child without any paperwork.
• The police arrest your child and bring them to juvenile hall. 
• The police arrest your child, then later release them from juvenile hall.

What happens if my kid gets a citation?

A citation is a ticket requiring the child to appear in court on a certain date.

You should read the citation carefully and make sure you and your child have a way to get to court on the date indicated.

Sometimes juvenile citations won’t have a court date on them.

This means the juvenile probation department or the court will mail you a date if charges are filed.

Keep a close eye on the mailbox and open any mail. This is not a good time to let mail pile up on the kitchen table. 

The police will forward a police report to the juvenile probation department.

If the citation is for a minor first-time offense, like shoplifting of a small amount, or small acts of vandalism that don’t cause much damage, then the probation department may handle the matter internally and ask the child to complete community service or take classes in exchange for not forwarding the charges to the District Attorney (“DA,” for short). 

The District Attorney is the lawyer who represents the government in juvenile cases. 

Sometimes probation does nothing because they feel no true crime has been committed.

If the case is more serious, such as a fight or another violent crime, a DUI, a reckless driving charge, a charge of major property damage, or a sex offense, the probation department will forward the case to the District Attorney.

The District Attorney will then decide whether to formally file a juvenile case against your child and what the charges will be.

These charges are filed on a document called a petition, which will be mailed to you with a notice to appear in court on a particular date. Once charges are filed, the child will have to appear in juvenile court.

What happens if my child gets a police report written about them?

Police may write a report even if they do not have enough information to arrest your child or write a citation.

A report gives the police the foundation to investigate further.

This means your child may be a suspect in at least one crime.

At a later date, if the police feel like they’ve gathered enough information to charge a crime, they may arrest a child, get a warrant, or forward the report to the juvenile probation department.

It’s likely that the police report will be sent to the probation department. If the charge is serious, the probation department will forward the report to the District Attorney (DA).

If further action is taken, you will receive notice of a court date in the mail, so keep a close eye on your mailbox.

Use this intervening time wisely. 

If your child gets a police report written about them, you must tell them not to talk about their encounter with law enforcement with anyone: not friends, family members, teachers, or school staff. Any of those individuals could be required to testify against your child later.

You should also teach your child to avoid speaking to police or probation officers. You should tell your child to ask to speak to an attorney before answering any questions from a police or probation officer.

If your child asks for an attorney, questioning has to stop. You can read more here about when juveniles can be questioned by police.

You shouldn’t even encourage your child to speak to you about the case. Your child’s attorney is the only safe person for them to be discussing their arrest with.

What happens if my kid gets arrested?

Sometimes, police decide to arrest a child, rather than issuing a citation or just writing a police report. Any arrest should be taken very seriously. There are several possibilities for what happens if your child gets arrested. 

Possibility #1

The first possibility is your child will be kept in juvenile hall. If probation wants to keep the child in juvenile hall, charges will be filed within two business days.

The court schedules a detention hearing within one business day of the charges being filed to decide whether to release your child or not. 

This means your child could be held for several days after an arrest. This is especially likely if they’re taken into custody on a Thursday or a Friday. 

At the detention hearing, the court decides whether to release the child before a trial. Sometimes the child is sent home on a home supervision contract which allows probation to monitor the child before the trial.

Before trial, the court may also release a child on electronic monitoring (a GPS ankle bracelet). It’s also possible that your child will be released from custody after two days without any charges being filed. If this happens, no detention hearing would occur.

However, police may still be conducting further investigation and charges could be filed in the future.

It is very important for you as a parent to appear at the detention hearing.

Lots of judges will base their decision at the detention hearing on how well they think the parents can supervise their child.

Past criminal history and the severity of the charges are also considered, but being present is one of the best things you can do for your child. 

Possibility #2

The child is released from juvenile hall immediately with no supervision.

You’ll be notified by mail and given a court date if there are any charges.

Your child may also receive a citation directly from the probation department (just like the citations discussed earlier). This is often referred to as a “book and release.”

Even if your child is released without a citation or a court date, you should still take a book and release very seriously.

Watch the mail closely. Your child’s release doesn’t mean charges won’t be filed. 

Possibility #3

Your child is released directly from juvenile hall with a home supervision contract without a detention hearing occurring.

When your child is released to you, the probation department will give you a date to appear in court.

What is a home supervision contract for a juvenile?

A home supervision contract for a juvenile feels like a “mini-probation.” 

Under the home supervision contract, your child voluntarily agrees to follow specific rules in exchange for being released from the juvenile hall before trial.

If your child violates any provisions of the home supervision contract, they’ll be taken back into custody at juvenile hall.

Typical requirements include curfew restrictions, travel restrictions, and parental supervision.

If your child is released on home supervision, it is extremely important that you know the whereabouts of your child at all times, as the probation department may conduct random checks to enforce the parental supervision requirements.

In addition to the rules imposed on your child, the court can order parents to comply with reasonable conditions like enforcing the child’s curfew. 

If the probation department determines that the child is unlikely to be properly supervised in their parent’s home, the supervision contract may also require the child to stay with a relative.

Why is it important for parents to go to their child’s detention hearing?

Many courts make decisions about pretrial release by evaluating a parent’s ability to supervise the child. If your child has a detention hearing, you and your child’s other parent should appear.

The judge will want to ask you questions. The courts will be asking about your living situation and work schedule. They’ll ask if any other relatives, or older siblings, can help supervise your child.

They’ll also want to hear about your child’s performance in school and their involvement in extracurricular activities. 

Your child’s attorney may want to talk to you before the hearing to learn this information and use it to your child’s advantage. 

Bottom line? The court wants to be confident the child will be safe when released and that you, as the child’s parent, will take this run-in with law enforcement seriously. 

What if they take my kid to juvenile hall?

If your child is booked into juvenile hall, the District Attorney has two business days to file charges.

Once charges are filed, a detention hearing will be scheduled for the next business day.

Probation will call you to notify you of the hearing date and time.  

Until the detention hearing, your child will be in juvenile hall unless law enforcement chooses to release them. 

If the judge refuses to grant pretrial release at the detention hearing, your child will be in juvenile hall until their trial date.

This is rare and is reserved for the most serious crimes. Nevertheless, you should be aware of the possibility.

Will my child be charged with a crime?

It’s possible. Every situation is different.

You’ll usually find out if your child has been charged via a letter from the court. The letter will contain a court date. It will be called either a jurisdiction hearing or an arraignment.

In rare cases, you might receive a phone call instead. This is either because there’s a short turnaround time on the court date and the mail is too slow, or the court can’t reach you by mail.

Sometimes, instead of receiving notice of a court date, you will receive a letter from the probation department notifying you that the child is being considered for informal diversion. 

This means the probation department has yet to forward the report to the District Attorney’s office. If your child is eligible for diversion, the probation department won’t forward those charges as long as your child abides by certain conditions, such as attending an anger management class or performing community service. 

If your child is detained, juvenile hall staff will tell them when charges are filed and the probation department will make sure to notify you of the court date.

What are the consequences if my child is arrested and charged, but not convicted, of a crime?

If the child’s charges get dismissed, or the child successfully completes an informal diversion program, the court’s file can be sealed. Legally, the incident is deemed to have never occurred.

A few exceptions exist; certain people could still look up your child’s sealed records. These exceptions usually don’t come up in the ordinary course of a child’s life.

See also: What You Need to Know About Having Juvenile Records Sealed

What are the consequences if my child is convicted of a crime?

In juvenile court, there’s no such thing as a conviction. Generally, juvenile charges aren’t criminal.

However, the court can find that your child has committed a juvenile offense. A juvenile offense almost always results in probation.

Ordinarily, a child is not sent to juvenile hall unless the charges are serious or unless it is a repeat offense.

What are the consequences of my child going on probation?

There are two types of probation.

Informal Probation

• Six months long
• Includes a curfew
• Includes travel restrictions 
• Requires parental supervision
• Requires probation check-ins, though less frequently than formal probation
• Requires therapy or classes, if necessary
• Requires fines and community service
• May require searches and drug testing
• Requires the payment of restitution

If the child is not a US citizen, there could be immigration consequences.

Violating informal probation doesn’t result in going to juvenile hall but can result in being moved up to formal probation.

Formal “Wardship” Probation

• Probation until the child turns 21 or until the courts terminate probation
• The child becomes a ward of the court and could be sent to a juvenile hall, a group home, or another type of facility
• Includes a curfew
• Includes travel restrictions
• Requires parental supervision
• Requires probation check-ins
• Requires therapy or classes
• Requires fines and community service
• May require searches and drug tests
• Prohibits ownership or possession of firearms until age 30 in some cases
• Requires the payment of restitution

If the child is not a US citizen, there could be immigration consequences, as with informal probation. 

If the child becomes a ward of the court, the courts can place them in juvenile hall, a short-term residential treatment program, a camp, or foster care. In most cases, the child remains in the home with their parents unless major probation violations occur, but you should be aware of the possibility.

Will my child go to juvenile hall if they are convicted?

Usually, the child does not go to juvenile hall. A child can only be placed in juvenile hall if they’re on wardship probation. Juvenile hall time is reserved for probation violations, serious crimes, and repeat offenses. 

We don’t use the word convicted for juveniles. Technically, children are “adjudicated,” not convicted.

What must I do as a parent if my child is charged with a crime?

Take the following steps to help your child’s case achieve its best outcome.

1. Go to the detention hearing if your child has one. Bring other members of your family (such as your spouse or other relatives that care for your child) if possible.
2. Consult with a lawyer as soon as possible – preferably immediately after police contact.
3. Gather helpful documents such as report cards or transcripts, school attendance records, proof of extracurricular activities, and awards.
4. Ask friends, family members, coaches, teachers, or employers to write character letters. You do not have to tell anyone that your child is facing juvenile charges. Request a general character or recommendation letter as if for a summer program or college.

What must I do as a parent if my child is arrested?

Start by talking to a lawyer!

You should consult with a lawyer immediately upon learning that your child was contacted by the police.

An attorney can begin discussions with the District Attorney before charging decisions are made to minimize the charges filed or avoid charges altogether.   

Plan on attending all your child’s hearings. In the meantime, gather the following helpful documents:

• School grades
• Attendance records
• Proof of extracurricular activities
• Proof of awards
• Character letters from the child’s community (you do not have to tell them the child is in trouble, or what the letter is for).

How can I help my child?

First, don’t pressure your child to talk about the offense. You can still be made to testify against your child.

Counsel your child to speak to their lawyer, and only to their lawyer.

Warn them against talking to anyone else about the case, including friends, family members, teachers, or school staff. Avoid speaking about the case yourself.

Second, hire an attorney. Your child has the right to an attorney, and having one offers a world of benefits.

Third, gather all the documentation that can help put your child in a better light, such as report cards, school attendance records, certificates and awards, and proof of extracurricular involvement.

If you can do so without revealing why, ask teachers, coaches, faith leaders, and other community members for character letters.

Fourth, take this incident seriously, even if the probation department or the District Attorney declined to charge. Explore therapy, anger management, or drug treatment programs.

You could prevent your child from having a far more serious run-in with law enforcement later as an adult.

Finally, you’ll need to restore order.

Enforce the rules of the home and the rules of your child’s probation, if appropriate.

Make sure your child goes to school.

Do so while letting your child know that you love and care about them—it’s a scary time for a child, too, and their very interaction with the system is already punishing them. 


It’s terrifying when a child is in trouble, but we’re here to help. You and your child can get through this.

If your child has been contacted by the police, don’t delay. Contact the Cohen Defense Group for a free consultation and get help today.

About Danielle Nygren

Danielle Nygren HeadshotDanielle Nygren handles felony, misdemeanor, and domestic violence cases. Danielle is a passionate advocate for her clients and works diligently to obtain positive outcomes.