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At the airport with kids: Are they really going to pat down little Sally?

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 9:29 PM

Over the river and through the body scanner to Grandmother's house we go!

What a fun, new twist on traveling with the kids this year. And you thought getting them to take their shoes off and let Bunky the Bear go through the dark tunnel was hard.

For this holiday season, parents get to choose between a scanner that will generate portraits of your kids looking like nude ghosts and, according to some reports, give off questionable levels of radiation, or they can take the little ones for a rubber-glove pat down that will upend years of stranger-danger training.

After the Transportation Security Administration announced these more invasive pat-downs as an alternative and sometimes in addition to the body scanners, dozens of stories of groping and humiliation have surfaced online from adults.

Upon hearing these stories, parentworld, predictably, went bananas. On playgrounds, at playdates and across e-mail groups, parents railed against the TSA, wondering whether its personnel are pedophiles with badges. Many even canceled their holiday travel plans with righteous indignation. (This had NOTHING to do with that spat over the health-care debate with Aunt Edna last year, right?)

This is fertile ground for a millennial mom and dad's worst fears.

The TSA backpedaled after that first wave of parental blowback. Not long after the "don't touch my junk" dude dethroned JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater in air travel folklore, the TSA announced that children who didn't go through the body scanners would undergo "modified" pat-downs. Officials provided limited detail - for security reasons - of just what that means.

Without those details, parents were left to imagine that kids will be fondled and groped in the same way that author Dave Barry described his intimate pat-down. How do you tell your kids that it's now okay for people with a blue uniform and a badge to touch them in any kind of an intimate way?

"People should refuse to be molested. And NEVER permit your child to be molested," one poster railed on Flyertalk. That was one of the few, fulminating comments that was clean enough to print.

Talking about touching a child and generating images that show him or her nude is radioactive, no matter how you tackle it.

The folks at child abuse prevention organizations are fielding questions about what to do, and it's making people queasy.

"You need to have a conversation with your child based on what is going to happen," said Nancy McBride, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria. "Tell them they have to conduct this examination and they have to do it to be safe. This is just something that has to be done."

But the key here is to let the child know that this kind of search can happen "only in an airport, only by these people and only when I'm here with you," McBride said.

Will "playing airport" soon dethrone the old "playing doctor" game?

I'd already begun to worry about how these new searches would fly with my own children, who are such seasoned travelers that they remind me to pull out their Crocs when we are heading to the airport: "Those are easier at security, Mommy," they tell me.

So I spent some time at BWI to see how it's been going.

I talked to dozens of parents right after Thanksgiving. They were coming in on flights from Phoenix, Florida, Dallas, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City and Toronto.

Not a single parent said that a child had been invasively searched, both at airports with the new scanners and without.

"We went right through, no search, no problem," said Tabitha Chase, who was flying from Oklahoma City to Germany with her 6-year-old daughter and a very hot pink Barbie backpack. "I thought about it before we left for the airport. I figured we'd just do what they tell us to do, since we have to get where we're going. But she didn't get searched at all beyond the normal metal detector."

Olga Brand, a former criminal defense lawyer, said she thought about what she was going to do before getting on plane in Florida with her two children, heading back home to Baltimore."I do think the pat-downs seem invasive. I'd go for the body scanner," she said.

But again, no intense search of the kids. It was just the usual metal detector and a wave forward.

So far, there have been just two cases making the Internet rounds involving kids at TSA checkpoints. One is about the 3-year-old daughter of a Tennessee TV reporter tantruming hard when a TSA agent runs her hands up the girl's legs and arms. This child was unhappy before she got to the checkpoint, probably somewhere around the gift shop or candy aisle.

The search did not look invasive, but, like all searches of little people who just want to smuggle Laffy Taffy onboard, it appeared needless.

And the other case was a video of a child with his shirt off being searched. The dad said he had taken his boy's sweatshirt off to make the search faster, probably exasperated by the theater of it all and ready to get moving. The kid didn't look unhappy. I know mine would be stoked to go shirtless and might even strip down to their Spider-Man underpants.

When we finally flew out of Dulles Airport on Tuesday for a cross-country flight to see the grandparents, I was braced to experience the new procedures up close and personal.

Beaten up by the traveling public, I suspect the TSA is on a massive kindness campaign. One agent wished my child a happy belated birthday, another - this is the first time in six years and several continents I've seen this happen - unfolded our stroller after it went through the X-ray, and a third directed us to a back elevator for the quickest route when he saw we were rushing.

There was nothing but the usual metal detector, and neither child got a pat-down. My husband, totally suspicious because he's a man with a linebacker build who was wearing a Charm City Cakes sweatshirt, got a pat- down that was only above his waist.

All of the passengers around me with kids had similar experiences.

None of the child abuse groups I spoke with has received a single call about a child being touched in a sexually inappropriate way. "And trust me, they call us right away on anything," McBride said.

My guess is that the TSA's refusal to give details about the kid searches is fueling a needless frenzy among parents.

"So tell me this: Can TSA agents touch a child's genital area? That's really what all the fear is about, right?" I asked Greg Soule, a spokesman for the agency.

"We can't go into specifics about the procedure," Soule said. But I begged him to be more specific.

"I can say this. They will be less thorough in sensitive areas," he said.

I think that is the kind of detail that parentworld is eager to hear. Now how to deal with the remaining six hours of the journey?

E-mail me with your airport tales of woe at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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