What to do if the TSA takes your child

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By Christopher Elliott

While White and her son were passing through the security checkpoint in Atlanta yesterday, she claims a TSA agent walked away with her toddler.

Nicole White describes herself as a 28-year-old freelancing writer, “tattooed liberal” and mom to a 16-month-old son, Jackson. She lives in Annapolis, MD., with her husband, Paul, a Navy pilot.

“My eyes welled up with tears,” she says. “I stood up from my chair and I asked the female TSA agent, “Where is he going? Where is he taking my child? Why is he leaving?”

Jackson, while being whisked away looked at the male TSA agent awkwardly and repeated “no no no no.”

“I started crying,” she says.

Sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? After all, TSA promises it won’t separate parents from their children. It notes:

We specially train our Security Officers and they understand your concern for your children. They will approach your children gently and treat them with respect. If your child becomes uncomfortable or upset, security officers will consult you about the best way to relieve your child’s concern.

So what went wrong here?

Nothing, according to the TSA. Late Friday, the agency released the complete video footage of her screening, which shows she and her son were never separated and calls into question other parts of her account. It also sent me the following statement:

International Citizens Insurance helps expats, travelers and anyone far from home find the right insurance plan. Our knowledgeable agents will help you find the best plan at the right price and be your advocate for the life of your policy.

On Oct. 15 at approximately 11 a.m. at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, a female passenger and her small child processed through the security checkpoint. Following her trip, the passenger blogged an online narration describing her airport security experience and alleged that TSA separated her child from her during screening.

TSA’s policy is that officers will not ask parents to do anything that would distance them from their children during the screening process. Our goal is to provide the highest level of security while ensuring that all passengers are treated with courtesy and respect.

After reviewing the footage it is evident that all proper screening procedures were followed and at no time did any TSA officer remove her child from her custody, as was described in the blog post.

I have also reached out to White to get some details from her. She hasn’t responded. Curiously, she’s removed all the comments from her blog post as well.

It appears that White and her son were pulled over for secondary screening. The process took a little while longer than they expected. From her post:

At this point in time, my heart began to race, thinking we would miss our flight and I would be stuck in the Atlanta airport with Jackson for who knows how long until there was another flight to Baltimore.

The female TSA agent stood in front of me while I sat with Jackson and she continued to watch luggage come through the conveyor belt.

“Ma’am, can someone please just search me so we can be on our way? We are going to miss our flight,” I said.

The female agent then called an older gentleman, also a TSA agent over. The male TSA agent stood in front of me and said “I’m going to have to pat down your son.”

The reaction from the Twittersphere, where I first reported this issue, has been swift and merciless. Although one follower called White “high-strung” most of the criticism was leveled against the agency:

Some people need to be fired!

Not COOL!!


Disturbing story.

At least we are safe from dangerous terrorist infants.

This reminds me of the Monica Emmerson incident in 2007, where an account by a woman who had a run-in with a TSA agent over her child’s sippy cup turned out to be incomplete. There’s always another side to the story.

In the meantime, what if you’re at the airport with a child (or in my case, three of ’em) and a TSA agent nabs one?

If I’m reading White’s account correctly, this probably could have been prevented by giving herself some extra time at the airport. Kids always slow things down. There are pit stops for diaper changes and emergency detours to the gift shop for snacks.

Also, securing your metal objects is helpful. From White’s account:

The instant I walked through the metal detector with Jackson in my arms, we beeped. I knew exactly why.

I told the TSA agent, who asked me to back up and walk through again, “It’s my son’s pacifier clip, can I put it on the conveyor belt?”

What did she know?

If White suspected the clip might be an issue, she might have considered putting it in her luggage.

OK, so in the unlikely event that an officer takes your child, what now?

My advice: take a deep breath and politely but firmly insist that the child be returned to you. (I think the child will probably be making similar demands at this point.)

Here’s how it went with White:

Panic set in. My hands began to shake. My body was sweating. My breath was short and my heart was racing.

They had taken my child and not told me.

Jackson was out of my eye sight.

I could not see my son.

Now sobbing, I repeated my questions to the female TSA agent.

She told me “Ma’am, we’re trying to be nice to you. We don’t know which one of you went off in the metal detector. Stay here so I can search you.”

“But my son… where is my son?” I asked over and over again.

The female TSA agent called a second female TSA agent over as she began to search me. Apparently the second female TSA agent could hear me protesting and asking for my son.

“Ma’am you need to calm down or I’m going to have to involve the authorities,” she told me.

Now I was pissed.

If the woman in the TSA video is White and I have no reason to believe it isn’t) then the only reason to be “pissed” is that the TSA officer gave her a very thorough screening. But it never separated her from her child.

That should come as a relief to parents everywhere. I still believe this incident could have been handled better. But after watching the video, I think the TSA screened White by the book.

Note: This story has been updated several times since I first posted it. As a result, some of the initial comments don’t reflect the version of the post you are now reading.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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