Can you take a child away from an abusive parent?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 19 2010 4:57 PM

Slaps on a Plane

Can a flight attendant take a child from an abusive parent?

Southwest Airlines plane. Click image to expand.
A Southwest flight attendant took a mother's child away after seeing abuse.

A Southwest flight attendant took a passenger's 13-month-old baby away midflight on Monday after seeing the mother slap the child in the face and on the legs, according to several news organizations. (The airline claims the attendant was merely offering to bounce the baby as she paced the aisle.) Are you allowed to take a child away if you witness abuse?

No. All 50 states encourage their citizens to report child abuse to the appropriate legal authorities. Certain professionals, like teachers, doctors, and psychologists, may be required to do so. But only social workers (in most states) and police officers (in all states) have the legal right to take a child away from a parent on an emergency basis to prevent abuse. Ordinary citizens are not trusted to patrol the fuzzy line between legal physical discipline and child abuse. Nevertheless, if you witness abuse that puts a child in danger of serious and immediate injury, and you choose to intervene, it's highly unlikely that a prosecutor, judge, or jury would punish you.

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According to a legal principle called parental privilege, mothers and fathers have the right to make decisions about a child's upbringing. In a majority of states, the privilege explicitly includes the right to a certain amount of physical discipline. So whereas you're entitled to forcefully prevent one adult from attacking another, you might draw an assault charge for keeping a parent from slapping her child.

The question of how much physical discipline is OK is so bedeviling to state authorities that they employ an exhaustive judicial process to make case-by-case determinations. First, child-protective services open an investigation. If investigators decide that the parent has committed abuse and that the child should be removed, they report the case to family court. A judge then holds a full-blown trial. If the judge, or a jury in some cases, agrees that abuse occurred, the judge decides whether removal to a relative, foster care, or a group home is appropriate. The entire process can take months, although police can remove the child during the proceedings, again subject to judicial review.

One incident of physical abuse can be enough to warrant removal, but it would have to be particularly severe. The judge considers factors like bruises, scarring, and the parent's explanation of what triggered the abuse.

Studies suggest that between 15 percent and 25 percent of people who witness child abuse actually intervene by confronting the abuser or calling authorities, with mothers being the most likely to step in. The most common explanations for doing nothing are fear of reprisals or being sued for misconstruing a legal act as child abuse.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Bruce A. Boyer of the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Vivek Sankaran of the University of Michigan Law School, Elizabeth Trapp of the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Robin Wilson of Washington and Lee University School of Law.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.