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An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max jet at Miami International Airport in March 2019.

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  • A Black social worker is suing American Airlines, alleging that airline employees accused her of kidnapping the white toddler she was accompanying.
  • The social worker, Shannon Murphy, said that she had a court order, the child’s birth certificate, and her work ID, but the airline pulled her off the plane and took the child from her for 40 minutes.
  • She was eventually allowed back on the flight, but said that the experience was traumatic.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A Black social worker is suing American Airlines after airline employees suspected her of kidnapping a white toddler whom she was accompanying during a flight last fall.

Shannon Murphy, a social worker with Riverside County in California, said that her civil rights were violated when she was pulled off a plane in October 2019, and airline employees took the baby she was caring for. The suit alleges violations of Murphy’s civil rights, false imprisonment, and negligence. It seeks unspecified punitive and exemplary damages, and compensation for past and future medical expenses. Murphy said that she  been seeing a therapist since the incident, and has suffered from insomnia and nightmares.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed in late June and was first reported by the Mercury News, Murphy was escorting the toddler back from a court-mandated two-week visit with his father in Arkansas. While waiting for the second leg of the flight to depart from Dallas-Fort Worth for Ontario International Airport near Los Angeles, a passenger allegedly told a flight attendant that they suspected Murphy of holding a kidnap victim. 

The lawsuit claims that there was an alleged kidnapping that had occurred around that time, but that it was in New York City, and involved an older, Hispanic child, with black hair. The child with Murphy had blond hair and “very light skin,” the lawsuit said.

Airline employees asked Murphy for her boarding pass, she said, told her she needed to leave the plane with them, and took the child from her.

“I was shaking,” Murphy told Business Insider. “I was scared, even though I had documentation for this child.”

Murphy said that she had paperwork with her, including her work ID, the child’s birth certificate, and a signed copy of the court order for the trip. She tried to show it to the airline employees on the plane, but they insisted she come with them. They eventually checked the paperwork, and said that there had been a mistake. 

“During this time, the baby was reaching for me and crying,” Murphy said. “One of the flight attendants had grabbed the bottle out of my bag to give the baby, but I said not to, it was my last bottle.”

“Everything just started upsetting me then, because we get these kids and we take them where they’re supposed to be. We’re supposed to provide safety for these children because they’re ours when we have them,” she added. “I just didn’t know what to do. I was scared.”

After about 40 minutes, during which the flight was delayed at the gate, she was let back on the plane. When she got back on board, she apologized to some nearby passengers. “I’m so sorry, you guys, I know you guys have connections,” she said she told them. 

“I wanted to just burst out in tears, but I still had the baby with me so I had to keep my emotions in,” Murphy said. “There was a man next to me and he kept saying, ‘You’re okay, you’re okay.'”

As she got off the plane, Murphy said that other passengers came up to her to express support. “They were like ‘Ma’am, that is so messed up what they did to you.’ Even one of the flight attendants apologized, she said.

“I just wanted to get that baby back. I’ve been with the company for 21 years and I’ve never experienced anything like that before in my life,” she said. “I’ve been transporting kids from state to state for years. I work overtime, I do all kinds of things for these families because I love my job.”

In a statement, American said it was reviewing the incident. “We are reviewing the lawsuit and the details of the flight. We take the safety and comfort of our customers very seriously and we’re committed to providing a positive experience for everyone who travels with us,” the statement read.

The lawsuit claims that if the airline employees had looked at Murphy’s documentation when the passenger first flagged a flight attendant, she “would not have suffered the mental, physical and psychological harm flight personnel inflicted upon her.”

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American Airlines
Social Work
Civil Rights

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