In May, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the reopening of more Texas businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic at a press co...

As families of trans kids live with fear of state investigation, advocacy groups sue Texas

This story was originally published by The 19th on March 1, 2022.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) has received at least three reports alleging abuse or neglect based on gender-affirming care for minors, agency spokesperson Marissa Gonzales told The 19th in response to a records request.

The reports came after Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion February 18 saying that transgender medical care for minors, such as puberty blockers and hormone treatment, is child abuse, and Gov. Greg Abbott told DFPS to investigate parents of trans children. Abbott also directed other state agencies to investigate licensed medical facilities prescribing gender-affirming treatment for trans youth, saying that doctors, nurses and teachers should report instances of trans kids receiving such care.

READ MORE: Texas AG Ken Paxton once joined this family of a trans kid for dinner. They now feel under attack

The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Abbott and the state’s child welfare agency to halt investigations into parents seeking gender-affirming care for their children.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a DFPS employee with a 16-year-old transgender daughter, the ACLU said in a news release. The family alleges in the lawsuit that an investigator arrived at their home last Friday to interview the family and that the investigator asked for the teen’s medical records.

DFPS had already received at least three reports alleging abuse or neglect based on gender-affirming care for minors. The agency declined to comment on those reports further, as well as on the ACLU and Lambda Legal lawsuit, and has not yet responded to additional records requests.

Ian Pittman, a Texas-based family attorney, said he was representing two families being investigated by DFPS and knew of at least three others in the state.

“One of my clients who I was actually in the investigation with was crying uncontrollably because she is living every parent’s worst nightmare: that the state is somehow going to put themselves between them and their child for being a normal, good parent,” Pittman said.

In the medical community, gender-affirming care for kids is not controversial. Every major medical association including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics backs gender-affirming care, citing studies that such care reduces suicidality and depression in youth. 

Multiple parents of trans children told The 19th they had started gathering testimony from friends and family in case they were sued. Parents, many of whom had spoken to media in recent weeks, declined to be interviewed by The 19th, citing fears that doing so would draw attention to them. A mother sobbed on the phone as she reiterated that she was unable to talk.

“It’s as bad as it’s ever been,” said Angela Hale, a spokesperson for Equality Texas. “We have fended all of this off for a decade.”

Hale said Child Protective Services has been arriving at the homes and schools of a handful of transgender children across the state.

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) who has been representing LGBTQ+ rights cases for nearly 30 years, told The 19th that families of trans kids in Texas should find an attorney who is ready to represent them.

“Do not wait until you’re investigated or you learn that you are being investigated,” he said. He encouraged families to call the NCLR helpline or reach out to Lambda Legal or the ACLU of Texas. Minter also advised parents to tell their children that if they are approached by a state official at school who wants to talk to them about being transgender, the student can say they are not comfortable having that conversation without their parents around.

District attorneys representing five populous Texas counties — Dallas, Travis, Bexar, Nueces and Fort Bend — announced last week that they would not enforce Paxton’s legal interpretation or interfere with families pursuing gender-affirming care for their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Texas Pediatric Society also came out in strong opposition to Paxton’s announcement.

Minter, who grew up as a trans kid in East Texas and still lives in the area, said Paxton’s legal opinion and Abbott’s directive for DFPS to enforce it are “the worst anti-LGBTQ thing I have seen in my career.”

He is concerned that the order could worsen feelings of hopelessness and suicidality among trans youth, who already face dispropriate rates of suicide, anxiety and depression compared with their peers. As of last week, trans youth and their families had already begun reaching out to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention organization, to understand what the directive means for them, CEO Amit Paley said in a statement.

Adri Pérez, policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, said they are worried about transgender youth in the state being taken out of supportive and loving homes.

“I’m worried that the Department of Family and Protective Services is going to cause irreparable harm to trans families across Texas by exploiting their lack of familiarity with the system,” they said.

The state legislature rejected a bill that would criminalize gender-affirming care for youth last year and federal protections for trans Americans would likely supersede the Texas opinion.

Tuesday is primary day in Texas, and both Paxton and Abbott are up for reelection. Abbott has been polling comfortably ahead of challengers, but Paxton, who has been accused by former employees of abuse of office and also has been charged with securities fraud, is facing multiple challengers in a race that appears likely to go to a runoff. Advocates saw the February opinion from Paxton as aimed at energizing his supporters.

Now, advocates are watching to see if the Biden administration will intervene.