Shimea Hooks was so focused on her carry-on full of pumped breast milk that at first she didn’t understand what the agent from the Transportation Security Administration was saying.
Hooks, 32, was at the San Diego International Airport, about to fly alone for the first time with her son, Caleb, then 5 months old. At the security checkpoint, the agent looked at Hooks, who is Black, and then down at Caleb, who is half-Korean and looked nothing like her.
“Where’s his dad?” the agent asked.
Caleb has two moms — Hooks, who adopted him, and her wife, Corritta Lewis, who gave birth to him. At that point, the adoption paperwork had not been finalized, and Hooks realized she wasn’t carrying any legal documentation to prove her relationship to her son.
“I was a new mom and I had this Asian-looking baby with me,” said Hooks, who runs a family travel site alongside Lewis. She believes that she was flagged because she was a single parent traveling alone, and because her child is of a different race. “I was afraid they were going to take my son away from me.”
Parents traveling with children are often so focused on remembering the tickets and piles of gear like diapers and toys that they fail to pack one critical item: proof of their relationship to their children. It’s an oversight, family law attorneys say, that can lead to significant delays at airports and border crossings, particularly in cases of divorce or nontraditional family structures, or when children don’t share their parents’ last names.
Parents are not required by law to carry such documents when they fly. But in 2020, the Department of Homeland Security made combating child trafficking a high priority, and in March it started new anti-trafficking training programs in tandem with the Department of Transportation, specifically for airline industry employees.
There have also been several high-profile incidents of travelers being detained by the police — including a mother traveling with her biracial daughter in Denver, and a Black woman flying with her 4-year-old white sister in Dallas, both of whom were wrongly suspected of human trafficking. Such cases have prompted family law attorneys to issue calls for caution. On social media and online travel forums, many parents who have traveled alone with their children have shared stories of TSA agents directly questioning their young children in order to establish the relationship — particularly when the parent does not share their child’s skin color or last name.
“I always tell clients to carry with them the child’s birth certificate and any passport in the child’s name,” said Josh Northam, a family law attorney in Dallas. When custody battles are afoot, Northam added, parents should also have the “consent to travel” form often required by existing court orders.
In Hooks’ case, the agent called over a colleague, and both of them asked her to explain her relationship to the child. She was then asked to pull up photos on her phone to prove she was his mother. After she showed them several pictures taken at home with Caleb and her wife, they let her pass.
These days, whenever Hooks or Lewis flies with Caleb, who is now 3, they each carry a packet filled with paperwork, including his adoption forms, his birth certificate and many family photos.
Most TSA agents are not law enforcement officials, and they do not have the power to arrest people. But they do have the power to detain travelers and call in the airport police, who are on site and can make arrests.
TSA workers, agents with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration, and employees of every major airline all receive mandatory training on kidnapping and child trafficking — and for good reason: The U.S. State Department estimates that 24.9 million people are being trafficked worldwide, and children are believed to comprise nearly one-third of the victims, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF.
Thousands of TSA officers also undergo behavior detection training so they learn how to identify signs of stress or fear among passengers and then flag them for further screening.
At security checkpoints, the TSA has modified screening procedures designed for children who appear to be 12 or younger. These include allowing younger children to leave their shoes and light jackets on during screening, and being careful not to separate them from their parents or guardians. But some parents say that their children are also being directly questioned.
“It’s not easy for a 5-year-old to answer a stranger’s question, so I was a little nervous,” said Catherine Collins, 35, a personal finance author and single mother who was stopped by the TSA last year while flying out of Detroit with her twins, a boy and a girl. Collins’ last name is different from her children’s.
“He asked the twins, ‘Who is this?’ And he pointed to me,” she said of the agent. “And when my son said, ‘That’s Mommy,’ the agent asked him, ‘What’s your mommy’s first name?’”
Her son correctly said his mother was named Catherine, and the three were allowed to pass. But Collins said she had been shaken by the incident. “I was thinking, ‘Gosh, what if they just didn’t respond, or it was a child who only knows his mother as ‘Mommy’?”
The TSA said in a statement that for security reasons, it could not outline the specific behaviors that officers are trained to look for, adding that the agency’s protocol calls for local law enforcement to be alerted whenever there is speculation of suspicious behavior. “Officers are looking for behaviors that, together, indicate that a particular passenger should be scrutinized more closely,” the agency added.
In cases where parents are divorcing or are in a custody dispute, the need to carry documentation is even more urgent, said Andrew Zashin, a family law attorney and adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. That’s because parental custody doesn’t automatically guarantee parents the right to get on an airplane with their children.
“There’s a difference between custody rights and the rights of possession,” Zashin said. “Just because you have custody rights doesn’t mean you have the right to do anything you want with a child.”
A parent who travels with a child without the consent of the other parent can, in extreme cases, be accused of kidnapping.
“You can go to jail if you’re accused and convicted of having kidnapped your own child,” Zashin said. Why would you take the chance, without permission of the other parent?” “The issues of transporting children often come up too late. People don’t think about it until the last minute or after there’s a problem.”
It’s better, he said, to think about it well in advance and carry a copy of all custody agreements, with a notarization seal for good measure, as well as a signed letter from the other parent granting consent for travel. This thinking applies to international trips as well as domestic travel across state lines.
And even when there are no custody battles at play, Zashin said, any parent traveling with children should employ a better-safe-than-sorry attitude. He recommends traveling with the child’s birth certificate and passport, as well as a handful of documents that only a parent would have, such as a school report card or health records, which can go a long way in defusing suspicion at a security checkpoint.
“You don’t need to have a suitcase full of stuff,” he said. “But you should have a little bag with everything you could possibly need. And then hope you don’t need any of it.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.