A white mother who was traveling with her Black daughter is demanding an apology from Southwest Airlines after being suspected of human trafficking.
On Saturday, 42-year-old Mary MacCarthy spoke to PEOPLE about the Oct. 22 incident that left her and her 10-year-old daughter Moira “traumatized.”
After learning that her brother Michael, who served as a father figure to her daughter, died unexpectedly at the age of 46 from a blood clot, the pair took a plane from Los Angeles to Denver with a layover in San Jose, Calif.
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At first, the single mom explained they were unable to find seats together on the flight from San Jose to Denver.
She asked flight attendants if they could help her and her daughter find a pair of seats next to each other. “I said to the flight attendants, ‘We’re traveling for a funeral, my daughter’s just 10.'”
MacCarthy, a former TV reporter, said the flight crew told her to “just find two open seats.” She said she took it upon herself to see if anyone was willing to trade seats and the other passengers were accommodating.
After that minor hiccup, the flight seemed routine. However, upon touchdown in Denver, MacCarthy revealed she was caught off guard when a Southwest Airlines employee and two police officers were waiting for the pair on the jet bridge.
“I was confronted by two armed police officers. One started speaking to me, the other to my daughter. I was really confused because they seemed to know our names,” she recalled.
At first, MacCarthy explained that she thought another member of her family had died, and that police were there to break the news.
Instead, they said: “‘We’re here to talk to you because you and your daughter were reported as having suspicious behavior.’ At that point in my mind, it clicked that we had probably been profiled. I’ve been raising this girl for 10 years; she’s my biological daughter, and I knew things like this could happen.”
MacCarthy recorded the nearly three-minute interaction with police and the Southwest employee, in which she and her daughter sound noticeably shaken up. Moira can also be heard crying.
In the video, the employee told MacCarthy, “The flight attendants were just concerned about the behavior when you boarded the aircraft,” and that it was company policy to follow up on the claims.
The employee explained a flight attendant had alerted police of suspicious activity between the mom and daughter because they were the last people to board the flight and asked other passengers to switch seats.
MacCarthy said if she and Moira had the same skin color, this never would have been an issue. “I was upset about it because I was certain we had been racially profiled,” she recalled.
Southwest Airlines did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
MacCarthy told PEOPLE that 10 days after the incident, she got a call from the police saying that they were “following up on suspicions that I’m a human trafficker.”
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According to police reports, the employee suspected her of human trafficking because the pair boarded the flight last-minute, and MacCarthy demanded that they sit next to each other. The employee also claimed, “the mom and daughter did not talk during the flight” and the mother “did not allow the child to talk to flight crew.”
MacCarthy said these claims were untrue and that the human trafficking suspicion completely blindsided her, as police at the time weren’t transparent about the suspicious activity she was being accused of. Now, she said she’s pursuing legal action.
“I want Southwest Airlines and the Denver police to be held accountable for what is undoubtedly a case of racial profiling involving a 10-year-old black girl who was already suffering the worst day in her life — a death in her family,” MacCarthy stated.
“An incident like this can scar a child for life,” said MacCarthy, who is currently looking into getting her daughter a therapist. She vows to “never set foot on a Southwest plane again.”
In a statement issued to PEOPLE, attorney David Lane explained, “Had the child been white, there is absolutely no doubt that this would never have occurred. Thus far, my investigation reveals no misconduct by the police as they were merely making an inquiry based upon a Southwest Airline’s complaint and they are allowed to investigate. It is the ‘Corporate Karen’ who is to blame for this. I have reached out to Southwest legal counsel and have heard nothing. This is a civil rights violation and absent some appropriate response by the airline, we will proceed to file in federal court.”