The incident has been garnering increasing media and online attention since the child's mother, Michelle Brademeyer of Montana, detailed the ordeal in a public Facebook post last week. The Transportation Security Administration is defending its agents, despite new procedures aimed at reducing pat-downs of children.
The child's grandmother, Lori Croft, told The Associated Press that Brademeyer and her daughter, Isabella, initially passed through security at the Wichita airport without incident. The girl then ran over to briefly hug Croft, who was awaiting a pat-down after tripping the alarm, and that's when TSA agents insisted the girl undergo a physical pat-down.
Isabella had just learned about "stranger danger" at school, her grandmother said, adding that the girl was afraid and unsure about what was going on.
"She started to cry, saying 'No I don't want to,' and when we tried talking to her she ran," Croft said. "They yelled, 'We are going to shut down the airport if you don't grab her.'"
But she said the family's main concern was the lack of understanding from TSA agents that they were dealing with a 4-year-old child, not a terror suspect.
"There was no common sense and there was no compassion," Croft said. "That was our biggest fault with the whole thing — not that they are following security procedures, because I understand that they have to do that."
Brademeyer, of Missoula, Mont., wrote a public Facebook post last week about the April 15 incident, claiming TSA treated her daughter "no better than if she had been a terrorist." The posting was taken down Wednesday. Another post said the family had filed formal complaints with the TSA and the airport.
The TSA released a statement Tuesday saying it explained to the family why additional security procedures were necessary and that agents didn't suspect or suggest the child was carrying a firearm.
"TSA has reviewed the incident and determined that our officers followed proper screening procedures in conducting a modified pat-down on the child," the agency said.
The statement noted that the agency recently implemented modified screening procedures for children age 12 and younger to further reduce the need for pat-downs of children, such as multiple passes through a metal detector and advanced imaging technology.
"These changes in protocol will ultimately reduce — though not eliminate — pat-downs of children," the statement said. "In this case, however, the child had completed screening but had contact with another member of her family who had not completed the screening process."
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, pressed the TSA for more information Wednesday. Tester, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he was concerned the TSA went too far.
"I am a staunch advocate for effective transportation security, but I'm also a strong advocate for common sense and the freedoms we enjoy as Americans," Tester wrote to TSA Administrator John Pistole. "Any report of abuse of the power entrusted to officers of the TSA is especially concerning — especially if it involves children."
In a phone interview from her home in Fountain Valley, Calif., Croft said Brademeyer tried to no avail to get TSA agents to use a wand on the frightened girl or allow her to walk through the metal detector again. She also said TSA agents wanted to screen her granddaughter alone in a separate room.
"She was kicking and screaming and fighting and in hysterics," Croft said. "At that point my daughter ran up to her against TSA's orders because she said, 'My daughter is terrified, I can't leave her.'"
The incident went on for maybe 10 minutes, until a manager came in and allowed agents to pat the girl down while she was screaming but being held by her mother. The family was then allowed to go to their next gate with a TSA agent following them.
Croft said that for the first few nights after coming home, Isabelle had nightmares and talked about kidnappers. She said TSA agents had shouted at the girl, telling her to calm down and saying the suspect wasn't cooperating.
"To a 4-year-old's perspective that's what it was to her because they didn't explain anything and she did not know what was going on," Croft said. "She saw people grabbing at her and raising their voices. To her, someone was trying to kidnap her or harm her in some way."