Nine-year old stowaway on Las Vegas flight is separated from parents by court. What happens next?

October 17, 2013

Delta airlinesIn what should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with child protection law, a petition for child in need of protection or services (CHIPS) was filed in the situation of the nine-year-old boy who stowed away on a plane from Minneapolis to Las Vegas.

In case you need to pick your jaw up off the floor because you’re just hearing about this story for the first time, here’s what happened.

The boy, who has not been publicly named, took a light rail train from his home in Minneapolis to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on October 2 with apparent intention to fly to Las Vegas, Nevada.

According to the CHIPS complaint:

Minneapolis airport police were called to check on an unattended bag at a restaurant near one of the security checkpoints. The restaurant manager said the boy sat down with the bag and ordered food, then left the bag to go to the bathroom. Police were notified after staff checked the bathrooms and couldn’t find the boy. It appears the boy took the bag from a luggage carousel and brought it with him to the restaurant.

He was apparently unsuccessful in attempting to board a plane to Las Vegas, and went home (he did not pay for the food he ordered from the restaurant).

The boy returned to the airport the next day to try again, however.  And this time, he was successful.  If you’re wondering how he did it, he apparently was able to bypass multiple Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints without a ticket by standing in line with a family and blending in with the crowd of other travelers.  At the gate for the flight to Las Vegas, the boy spoke with a gate agent, waited for about a half minute while the agent was talking to another traveler, and then boarded the plane.

Flight attendants on the plane became suspicious because the boy was sitting in a row by himself (thus, was clearly unaccompanied) and was not on any roster of minors flying unaccompanied.  The crew contacted authorities in Las Vegas, and the boy was taken into custody upon arriving.

The fact that a CHIPS petition was filed is not surprising (at least to any attorneys familiar with child protection law) because that is the normal course of action when a child commits a criminal act, but is too young to be prosecuted under state law.  In this case, Minnesota requires that an individual be at least ten years of age to be criminally prosecuted.

Of course, given the allegations in the petition, there are likely other grounds for the involvement of child protection (and they are likely alleged in the CHIPS petition, but I don’t know for certain because I don’t have the entire petition for reference).

One of these allegations is that, the day before his first attempt to fly to Las Vegas, the boy stole a large delivery truck from a Minneapolis grocery store, drove it for several miles on an interstate, and had damaged several vehicles by the time that he was apprehended by police.

Under Minnesota law, a child “is in need of protection or services” if the child “is one whose behavior, condition, or environment is such as to be injurious or dangerous to the child or others.”  There may be some additional grounds that I haven’t covered, but you get the idea.

The hearing to review the CHIPS petition was held yesterday, and the judge found that the petition has made a prima facie case “that a CHIPS matter exists and that the child is the subject of that matter.”  In other words, the judge reviewed the petition and attachments and found that the allegations, on their face, constituted a child protection case.

Considering the nationwide media coverage of this story, it’s not surprising that the judge ruled how he did.  Although the judge did order the boy to be separated from his parents and for both the parents and the boy to undergo therapy, he did grant the parents liberal visitation rights to see the boy.  It’s not publicly known where the boy will be staying in the interim.

If you are fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with child protection proceedings, here’s what will happen next:

The court will appoint a special advocate for the child (in Minnesota, a guardian ad litem (GAL)) if one hasn’t been appointed already.  The GAL is typically represented by an attorney (one who is distinct from the child’s attorney or either of the parent’s); the GAL will do an assessment of the facts of the case and make a report on the best interests of the child.

Within ten days of the initial hearing, there will be an admit/deny hearing (it takes place so soon because the child was removed from his parents).  At this hearing, the parents will admit or deny the allegations contained in the CHIPS complaint.

This is the point at which a settlement will be worked out (I’m not saying that a settlement is always worked out in CHIPS cases, but considering the attitudes of the parents, who seem to actually want outside help in managing the boy, it seems very likely).  The parties will meet before the hearing and discuss a case plan that will likely include therapy and continued court supervision.  Unfortunately for the parents, this will also mean admitting to at least one of the statutory grounds listed in the complaint – which can have significant repercussions if the parent has any professional licensures that are at all related to children (e.g., social work licenses or teaching certifications).

If, for some reason, the parties can’t come to an agreement, the case moves into discovery, pre-trial, and finally trial.  It is very difficult to defeat the state in a CHIPS trial because the burden of proof is a much lower standard than in criminal law (wherein all elements of a crime must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt).

In this case, however, a settlement seems all but certain.  If the court-ordered therapy proves effective and the boy is able to turn over a new leaf, the state will (eventually) close the case and supervision will end.

On the other hand, if the boy commits another crime in the future – specifically, once he turns ten years old (in less than a year) – he won’t be so lucky as to land in child protection court; he’ll be in juvenile (criminal) court instead.

For the boy’s sake, though, hopefully the therapy will see results.  After all, despite their being gross errors in judgment, the boy’s actions nonetheless reflect a substantial resourcefulness and wit.

These traits could open up a bright future to the boy, should he learn to use them for constructive purposes.