ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – America's latest folk-hero flight attendant may be the one on a Southwest Airlines jet who took a 13-month-old baby from her mother after the woman slapped the crying child for kicking her.
The flight attendant's actions, however, set off an intense debate: When and how should bystanders intervene?
"We live in such a 'mind your own business' and `I'll sue you for getting involved' society that I feel we're afraid to stand up sometimes for the right thing," said Jen Reynolds, 38, a stay-at-home mom to 15-year-old and 16-month-old boys in Sandwich, Ill.
"We don't want to be yelled at or told to butt out," she said. "The flight attendant is definitely my hero."
Parents on both sides of the corporal punishment debate agreed that hitting a baby that young was wrong. But they also empathized with the mother, saying they've been exactly where she found herself on Monday on the Dallas-to-Seattle flight: stressed, and trapped on an airplane, with virtually no way to distract or console a child.
"My biggest question is why didn't anybody else say anything before it got to the point of the baby being slapped," Reynolds said.
The federal laws that give crew members broad power to ensure safety can be invoked in situations like the one that unfolded on the flight, said Jerry Sterns, a San Francisco attorney specializing in aviation cases. But those rules don't necessarily protect non-airline employees who want to intervene.
Acts of aggression against children in public places are often witnessed but frequently ignored, said Christin Jamieson, a spokeswoman for Washington state's blue-ribbon, anti-abuse commission called the Council of Children and Families.
"Simply put, most people don't know what to do," she said. "This is one of the most helpless feelings — both for the child and the witness — that you can imagine."
Flight attendant Beverly McCurley told officers that she saw the mother hit the child on the face with her open hand while the father yelled at the mother to stop screaming at the girl. She noted the girl had a black eye. The parents said the bruise was from a dog bite.
McCurley described the mother as agitated. She said the woman also slapped the baby on the legs and told the child to shut up.
The mother later told police she "popped" the tired tot when the child kicked her, because "when she's screaming and she can't hear me say no, that's the only way I can get her to stop."
The flight attendant said she took the baby and walked to the rear of the plane. She said the father came back, took the child and stood there with her until she fell asleep. The father told McCurley the parents had several arguments about the mother hitting the child.
Details about how McCurley took the child from the parents weren't immediately available.
The father told police the mother would occasionally "pop" the child to stop her kicking and screaming, but that the baby had never been hit in the face. The parents weren't identified because no charges were planned.
At the request of the airline, authorities met the parents when the flight landed at the Albuquerque airport, a scheduled stop. Paramedics checked out the child, and the family boarded another flight to continue their trip.
Brad Hawkins, a Southwest spokesman, could not provide details about training given to crew members to deal with such situations. He said they were "empowered to simply do the right thing and to maintain the security and the comfort of all customers."
Research on corporal punishment used on children shows there's no value in hitting a baby who's too young to understand right from wrong, said Cara Gardenswartz, a Beverly Hills, Calif., clinical psychologist specializing in early childhood trauma. She is mom to a 7-year-old.
"If I were in that situation, I would have a serious, serious talk with the mother," she said.
Gardenswartz added that she hoped McCurley approached the mother with kindness, offering assistance rather than making a demand to turn over the baby.
"That's the best approach to take," she said. "If the mom is so frustrated, she might be relieved to have someone help her."
Jackie Lantry, a Rehoboth, Mass., mother of four well-traveled children now in their teens and 20s, said she has intervened on behalf of other children in public.
"Once the mother nearly took my head off in the street, and once the mother gratefully accepted my offer of help in an airport. The key is to be sympathetic with `Can I help?' and not be judgmental. Let the mom or parent know that you've been there."