On Monday, as we celebrated Memorial Day, Cal Berkeley women's basketball head coach Lindsay Gottlieb was traveling with her fiancé and her 1-year-old child. As they boarded a Southwest Airlines flight in Denver, an agent asked her for paperwork that would show that her infant was indeed hers. Gottlieb supplied a passport but was asked for further proof, such as a Facebook photo or birth certificate. The coach became offended and accused the agent of singling her out because her child is biracial. A Twitter firestorm followed.
The coach tweeted:
"I'm appalled that after approx 50 times flying with my 1 year old son, ticket counter personnel told me I had to 'prove' that he was my son, despite having his passport. She said because we have different last names. My guess is because he has a different skin color."
Gottlieb later told the Associated Press, "I felt that in this situation it was my responsibility to say 'Hey, this isn't OK.' I hope the coverage this has received can serve as a learning opportunity and that all families—regardless of how 'traditional' they may or may not look—are treated with dignity and respect."
I was not there and do not know exactly what was said. I am also unaware of the training this particular Southwest staffer has received and do not know the exact intention of the agent involved, but what the agent did appears to be commendable. In fact, it is exactly what my staff and I train airline personnel to do as a way to combat child sex trafficking.
Sadly, tens of thousands of children are trafficked every year. It happens everywhere—including on domestic flights in the United States.
As well-intentioned as Gottlieb may have been, she likely doesn't realize that her actions may actually hurt the fight against child sex trafficking and put children of all races in harm's way. There will undoubtedly (and unfortunately) be a call to stop agents from doing what is right as a way to appease people traveling with children so as not to inconvenience them or ruffle any feathers. Also agents having seen the news coverage will now be reticent to ask for full identification for infants. I believe Gottlieb has unwittingly, unknowingly and unintentionally given child traffickers reason to rejoice. She may have set back years of work in our fight to protect children.
While I understand the coach's reasoning and her emotional hurt, her response was wrong. As I noted, in our fight against child trafficking, the organization I founded and direct, JOY International, is now training airport and airline staff to do exactly what this agent did. Two weeks ago I was in Alaska with my team, training personnel in anti-trafficking techniques at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. We have the support of Airline Ambassadors International, an organization of 16,000 airline employees that helps orphans and other children.
A substantial part of our training is what we call "situational awareness." This involves careful screening at ticket counters and gates. We instruct airline and airport employees (especially ticketing and gate agents) how then can recognize even the slightest possibility that a child is potentially being trafficked. This type of screening is absolutely necessary across the board, regardless of race. It should not be done based on skin color or nation of origin. It should be done for everyone traveling with an infant. We must never lose sight of the big problem of child trafficking around the world, including the children trafficked each year right here in America. While combating racism and having respect for each person are absolutely valid, the fight against child trafficking is literally a fight to save lives.
There is no certain "look" of a trafficker. Race has nothing to do with it. The courier can be a mom or grandma type. Traffickers come in all shapes and sizes. Yes, Lindsay, even someone who looks like you. What this agent did was a good thing that should be applauded. I'll take it one step further: It should become law. Yes, being asked for a birth certificate or other verifiable proof can be a hassle (and passports are not enough, as they can easily be forged), but I assure you, the potential trafficking of a child, teen or young woman can be averted. Agents who have used these steps have caught traffickers in the act.
Do you understand what that means? It means that children who were going to be trafficked and forced into sexual slavery have been rescued before the abuse took place. Unspeakable horror and pain have been stopped before they happen, and potential traffickers have been arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned. Wouldn't one child being saved from a life of sexual slavery be worth it? What if that child were yours?
Coach Gottlieb, while I empathize with any mother or father who is inconvenienced, and while I firmly stand against all forms of racism, prejudice and bigotry, I also cry out for the tens of thousands of children who are trafficked each year, many traveling on public airlines.
Southwest Airlines should not have to apologize for their agent's actions. If anything, this Southwest Airlines employee should be congratulated by the airline and even by you, Lindsay Gottlieb. She was doing something to protect your child. Please stop lambasting her, and send her a thank-you card! This story would be quite different and you would see this agent through different eyes if what she did had actually prevented your beautiful child from actually being trafficked.
Please, Lindsay, try to set aside any feelings of being demeaned or embarrassed or inconvenienced. I believe you are a good person at heart. Please set aside your personal feelings for the sake of the safety of all children. Perhaps there are ways the airline agent can better ask the questions, but the questions need to be asked. Together we can work out how to do this properly so that every child, regardless of race, color or ethnic background, is protected.
I also call on Southwest and all airlines to continue to carry out correct, proper, across-the-board, respectful screening. We must all work together to do whatever is necessary to fight even the slightest possibility of child trafficking in America and around the world. No matter the inconvenience or cost, every child is worth our greatest efforts.
As I shared in new my new book, The Least of These, "Awareness is good, but awareness without action is apathy." This airline employee took appropriate action. That, Lindsey Gottlieb, was a good thing.
Jeff Brodsky is the president and founder of JOY International, joy.org.
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