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.
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.