Ever since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott decided to wage war against transgender children there have been stories about the fear and anguish these children and their parents are enduring. For me, a front-page story in The Washington Post stood out. This excellent story ran under the headline “Dreading the knock at the door: Parents of trans kids in Texas are terrified for their families.”
The story focused primarily on the family of Amber Briggle, an activist for the rights of trans kids. In 2016, the family even had Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over for dinner. Briggle thought they’d changed Paxton’s mind. She was mistaken.
The Post story stood out because, for me, that framing was so familiar. Indeed, the headline echoed, almost word for word, an essay by a 14-year-old girl in New York City, written in 2006. Referring to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, the essay is called “I am scared of ACS”:
I’m scared when I hear a hard knock at the door. I think they are coming. I was scared to go to school because they will come to the school and remove me and put me in a foster home. … I failed a test I had to take for my new school on purpose because I’m scared ACS will come to the school and take me.
There are three crucial differences between the experiences of the Briggle family and this teen essayist. First, and I mean no disrespect to the Briggles or any other parents like them enduring the same nightmare, what this 14-year-old endured was even worse. She dreaded the knock at the door because she’d already been taken from her parents once and thrown into foster care where she endured “night after night of sexual abuse.”
Second, though her essay was read aloud by her mother at a news conference, her story generated no interest from the news media.
And third — and you’ve probably guessed this one — the Briggles are a white, middle-class family. The girl who wrote that essay is Black, and grew up in poverty.
The entire process experienced by the Briggle family was unlike anything the overwhelming majority of children in such cases are forced to endure. It began on Feb. 28, when Briggle found a phone message at her office from child protective services. According to the story:
What followed, Briggle said, was a sickening, surreal blur: She ran down the hallway, collapsed in the arms of a co-worker, and tried to explain through sobs: It’s happening. CPS has opened an investigation on my family. I’m so scared they’re going to take my kids away.
So the visit was announced in advance, the worker would speak to Briggle and her husband at Briggle’s office before seeing the home or speaking to the children, and Briggle hired not one but two private attorneys — one for themselves and one for the children.
Then they went home to prepare their children for the home visit — which would happen two days later. By then, they’d also hired their own social worker “who immediately conducted a home study to bolster the family’s ‘safe folder’ — a collection of … materials that confirm the child’s gender identity and the parents’ capacity to care for them.”
When the caseworker arrived, the Post reported:
They showed the investigator the pantry full of food, the bathrooms fully stocked with toiletries, the family room brimming with toys and books and art projects. They answered some of her questions, and declined to answer others. They did not let her step beyond the doorway of their children’s rooms.
“It was such a violation to have her in my space at all,” Briggle said, “and I did not want her violating the rooms of my children.”
In a second case discussed in the story, another middle-class mother ultimately slammed the door in the caseworker’s face.
How does that compare to how CPS works with poor families? Well, for starters, the home may not be as well-stocked with toiletries. A 2017 story in The New Yorker described what is far more likely to happen to those families — far more than a child’s room being violated:
You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks.
In the vast majority of child welfare investigations, the family can’t afford even one private attorney, much less their own social worker. As for refusing to answer questions, in the only story I’ve seen to make the connection between families like Amber Briggle’s and families like that 14-year-old, Roxanna Asgarian writes that a Parents Resource Guide from the Supreme Court of Texas Children’s Commission has what amounts to an anti-Miranda warning:
“If you say ‘yes,’ the investigator will appreciate that you are cooperating,” the guide says. “If you say ‘no,’ the CPS caseworker may think you are trying to be difficult and could hold it against you.”
According to The New Yorker story, for poor families — especially poor nonwhite families — slamming the door in the worker’s face isn’t really an option either:
You must be as calm and deferential as possible. However disrespectful and invasive she is, whatever awful things she accuses you of, you must remember that child protection has the power to remove your kids at any time if it believes them to be in danger. … If you get angry, your anger may be taken as a sign of mental instability, especially if the caseworker herself feels threatened.
None of this means what happened to the Biggles was trivial. And, as professor Dorothy Roberts, author of “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World” points out in an op-ed, when children are taken, LGBTQ children are at even more risk in foster care than others.
But so far, what the Briggles endured could be called CPS-lite. It didn’t feel that way, of course. Briggle described enduring sleeplessness, a loss of appetite, even hair loss.
That 14-year-old in New York City would have understood. As she wrote in 2006, “My head started to hurt every time it came time to leave the house. Every morning I was sick throwing up and diarrhea.”
As they ponder how to fix the system Roberts and others call “family policing,” I hope readers finding out for the first time what a child abuse investigation is really like, and those who are writing stories about it for the first time, will remember something. While it is new to them, poor parents, especially poor parents of color, have known it all along, just as they know they will have to give their children “the talk” and fear that their children will be stopped and frisked. For more than half of all Black children, a child abuse investigation will be part of their childhoods. Occasionally we see such stories, as when The New York Times examined foster care as the new “Jane Crow” and just last month, when USA Today looked at how children and families suffer when poverty is confused with neglect.
Perhaps now, we’ll see more such stories. And perhaps they will lead to fewer children traumatized like the Briggles children or that 14-year-old, who spoke of her fear all those years ago.