Parents and youth advocates have long watched as Texas politicians used vulnerable transgender children to deflect from scandals and score political points. But recent days and weeks have stunned even the most hardened among them.
As Tuesday’s election night drew nearer, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — who has won his party’s nomination to seek a third term with backing from former President Donald Trump — ordered child welfare investigators to knock on the doors of parents whose trans children are undergoing medical treatment. The governor says such health care constitutes child abuse and warrants a removal into foster care, an explosive determination the state Legislature failed to approve last year.
Abbott’s directive was quickly followed. And among the first homes investigated last week was that of a state employee — herself a CPS worker for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
The woman identified as Jane Doe in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Travis County Tuesday is also the mother of a 16-year-old transgender girl identified as Mary. From a very young age, court records show, Mary “has expressed herself and behaved in manner that does not conform with the stereotypes associated with the sex she was designated at birth.” Under the care of pediatricians and her parents, a once-distraught Mary has since thrived, living as a girl in her family home.
For that, the Texas governor wants her parents investigated for child abuse and neglect that could see their child forcibly removed from home.
“Mary has been traumatized by the prospect that she could be separated from her parents and could lose access to the medical treatment that has enabled her to thrive,” the lawsuit states. “The stress has taken a noticeable toll on her, and her parents have observed how their daughter who is typically joyful and happy, is now moodier, stressed, and overwhelmed.”
Today, Travis County Judge Amy Clark Meachum issued a temporary restraining order to stop the Department of Family and Protective Services from investigating the plaintiffs. But she did not extend that protection to other families undergoing or at risk of similar investigations. In court, plaintiffs’ attorney Paul Castillo, legal senior counsel for the LGBTQ rights group Lambda Legal, said at least two other families are also being investigated for providing gender-affirming care to their children. He has called the moves “politically motivated” and cruel. The issue will be back in court on March 11.
Last year, Texas state lawmakers debated more than 30 anti-trans bills — attacking everything from restroom access to participation in sports. But Texas is only one of a growing number of states nationwide targeting transgender children and adults.
LGBTQ rights advocates say the wave of anti-trans legislation sweeping the country is being coordinated by national organizations through state affiliates and legislators. Bills to ban medical care and other protections for trans youth are now pending in states including Alabama and Arizona.
The Lone Star State’s investigations of parents obtaining health care from pediatricians, in violation of no laws or medical standards, stands out as extreme.
“What people need to understand is that they are, literally, talking about taking kids away from loving, supportive families,” Adam Briggle, the father of a transgender son, told The Imprint. “It’s an upside-down sort of 1984 reality, where somehow the real abuse is the actual love and support from parents and families, and stripping kids from that and putting them into a broken system would somehow not be the abuse.”
Gov. Abbott — who will face off in the general election in November with former congressman Beto O’Rourke — bypassed the Legislature last week when he ordered child welfare agencies to investigate reports of children being treated for gender dysphoria.
The condition is diagnosed as psychological distress resulting from a mismatch between a person’s sex assigned at birth and their gender identity. The most common treatments include hormone therapy and delaying some effects of puberty. The proper medical treatment for gender dysphoria in trans and nonbinary youth has been found to decrease depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, and is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association.
Gov. Abbott is now ordering mandated reporters and state residents to report parents to the child abuse registry who they suspect are allowing their kids to receive such medical care. Licensed physicians who fail to do so could face criminal penalties, under Abbott’s orders.
The governor’s solution is to move the children from their homes into the state’s foster care system, which remains under federal court order for systemic failures that have left hundreds of youth sleeping in hotels and offices.
Abbott’s orders came after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion classifying gender-affirming medical care as child abuse. While it remains unclear if Abbott’s order is legally enforceable, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is already complying, the “Family Doe” lawsuit states.
In contrast, prosecutors in some of the state’s largest counties have called Abbott’s move “political theater” and promptly announced they would not enforce the governor’s order.
And there have been no changes to the social work code, licensing rules or mandatory reporting guidelines, said Alison Mohr Boleware, a representative for the National Association of Social Workers’ Texas chapter. “Social workers are under their professional discretion when they are making a report of abuse or neglect,” she said, adding that the order is contrary to the code of ethics for mental health workers and social workers.
Boleware also said her organization is not aware of any legal changes to rules, policies or laws following Abbott’s directive and that they seem to be acting from the governor’s letter.
Politicians advancing legislation or mandates restricting access to gender health care are not following science, said Dr. Joshua Safer, speaking for the Endocrine Society. Safer, who is executive director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York described access to relevant health information, supportive environments and gender-affirming medical care as critical to the emotional well-being of transgender youth.
Puberty blockers have been used for many years to treat conditions such as “precocious puberty,” and studies have shown no impact from such treatment on fertility, nor any other significant concerns. The use of puberty blockers is considered a conservative approach, allowing time for young people and their families to work with therapists and doctors to better understand what the child is going through and to determine if further medical intervention, such as chest surgery, should be pursued. Safer said established protocols, however, discourage surgeries for youth younger than 18.
Abbott’s move in Texas is “very anti-family, to my way of thinking,” no different than if politicians denied access to approved diabetes care, using the foster care system to force parents to comply, Safer said. “It’s already stressful for parents to imagine how they are going to protect their transgender child, but to have the state actively stepping in to make things worse and create harm? What’s the governor doing? It’s crazy.”
Rachel Gonzales, a Dallas mom whose 11-year-old daughter is transgender, said she’s deeply troubled by the latest rounds of attacks on trans kids in Texas.
“I don’t personally understand why other people should weigh in on another person’s life experience without any knowledge of it,” said Gonzales, who serves on the Human Rights Campaign Parents for Transgender Equality National Council. “I don’t really know where we’re going if the Republicans in this state — who claim to be all about small government — are enforcing this extreme level of government overreach and refusing to believe the people who actually specialize in this kind of care. It really should scare every single person in this state, not just the parents of transgender kids.”
This week, a flurry of children’s rights groups issued urgent appeals to fight the Texas governor’s action.
The national advocacy group Children’s Rights called Abbott’s directive a “calculated political ploy” and “deeply hypocritical.” If Texas leaders “really cared about children,” they’d fix the troubled child welfare system, the group said, “rather than cruelly penalizing transgender children and their families for seeking affirming healthcare.” The move “would devastate families,” and represents “an attempt to weaponize the child welfare system for political gain,” the National Center for Youth Law stated.
Even The White House weighed in, stating last week: “Families should have the right to seek health care that will enable young people to live healthy and fulfilled lives.”
The group of children being targeted are among the nation’s most vulnerable. According to a 2019 study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, transgender students were more likely than cisgender peers to report violence, victimization, substance use and suicide risk. And according to a survey by the nonprofit Trevor Project, LGBTQ foster youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than peers with no foster care experience.
“This is really a low point,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood and one of the attorneys whose lawsuit against the Texas child welfare system has led to court oversight since 2015.
Children as young as 5 are allowed by Texas Department of Family and Protective Services caseworkers to decide whether to get a COVID-19 vaccination, Lowry noted, but under Abbott’s orders, parents and teenagers could not seek medical treatment approved by leading medical associations. Lowry called that contrast “quite extraordinary.”
Even a senior policy analyst with Texas Values — an organization pushing to end gender health care for transgender youth — said she would prefer the state not target families. Mary Elizabeth Castle said while she agrees with Abbott in principle, efforts should not include the threat of putting youth in foster care.
“I do not find it ideal that we would take a child away from their home,” said Castle, noting that the state’s foster care system is already unable to provide appropriate housing for all the kids in its care.
The Texas foster care system has long been troubled. Caseworkers continue to be overburdened and children have been sent to dangerous facilities in other states with little or no oversight. There were some months in the past several years that more than 400 children in state custody slept in unlicensed facilities because they had no formal or appropriate placement.
There is no indication trans children taken from their parents would be better served in the Texas foster care system — on the contrary.
LGBTQ youth are over-represented in foster care, as a percentage of the population, making up roughly 30% of older children, recent studies have shown. They are more likely than their peers to be moved around repeatedly, end up in group homes and end up hospitalized or in emotional distress. And they are less likely than their peers to find a supportive adult in foster care.
In Texas, LGBTQ foster youth have long been singled out for attacks.
In 2017, the state child welfare agency rewrote the Foster Care Bill of Rights to remove references to LGBTQ youth. In 2020, the agency removed a section of its website with LGBTQ resources for caseworkers and caregivers that included included information about suicide prevention.
And in 2021, Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters joined Abbott in erroneously referring to gender reassignment surgery as “genital mutilation.” Masters said the agency considers the surgery child abuse, setting the stage for the recent round of CPS investigations.
Backed by legal powerhouses, the Family Doe and their psychologist want the governor’s order suspended. The unidentified CPS worker states in court documents that she is “terrified” for the health and well-being of her 16-year-old daughter Mary, and for her family. She says she feels “betrayed by my state and the agency for whom I work,” an agency charged with caring for children and supporting families.
Jane Doe referred to Mary in the court documents stating: “We love and support her and only want what is best for her.”
Sara Tiano contributed to this report.