Texas Trans Kids’ Families Fear Child Abuse Investigations

PTexas transgender youth are still in limbo following a Department of Family and Protective Services’ (DFPS), Thursday statement that suggested the Department would continue its investigation into parents who provided gender-affirming support to their children.

On May 13, the Texas Supreme Court narrowed a statewide injunction to stop the DFPS probes only into one family and one doctor named as plaintiffs in a ongoing lawsuit—seemingly unfreezing the at least eight other known investigations that were opened this year after Republican Governor Gregg Abbott directed the Department to investigate gender-affirming medical care as child abuse. But the court also ruled that neither Abbott nor Attorney General Ken Paxton has the authority to direct DFPS investigations, and left in place the lower court’s decision that stopped the investigation of the plaintiffs while noting that the probe would cause “irreparable harm.”

The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling seemingly left it up to the discretion of DFPS whether to continue its other ongoing investigations of minors receiving gender-affirming health care. After a week of uncertainty, DFPS issued a statement Thursday stating: “DFPS treats all reports of abuse, neglect, and exploitation seriously and will continue to investigate each to the full extent of the law.”

This vague statement made it difficult to know if the ongoing child abuse investigation will be continued. But one source familiar with internal discussions at the Governor’s office, the Texas Attorney General’s office, and DFPS tells TIME that DFPS is resuming those investigations into the families who are not plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Neither the Governor’s office nor the Attorney General’s office responded to TIME’s request for comment on whether the investigations are resuming.

Family members are concerned about the status of any remaining abuse investigations. “Ever since Friday, I’m just waiting for someone to knock on the door,” says Amber Briggle, a mother of a 14-year-old trans son in North Texas who tells TIME she and her husband are under a DFPS investigation that was opened in response to the Governor’s directive. “This is an emotional trauma that we will all carry with us, probably forever.” Briggle compares the adrenaline she’s felt over the past week since the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling to the aftermath of a car accident.

Ian Pittman is an attorney who represents the Briggle family during their DFPS investigation. He said they were considering their legal options. Pittman represents an anonymous family also being investigated. “If the Department follows the law in Texas… they will close any active investigation and rule out the allegations of abuse and neglect,” argues Pittman. But the source familiar with internal discussions at the Governor’s office, the Texas Attorney General’s office, and DFPS tells TIME the Department doesn’t plan to close those investigations.

“It would be quite foolish for DFPS to actually try to reopen or push forward these investigations when there’s already a court order in place that what they’re doing is likely illegal,” says Brian Klosterboer, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, which brought the lawsuit with Lambda Legal challenging the Governor’s directive on behalf of the anonymous Doe family and a doctor—the investigations that remain halted by the lower court’s order. “And if they do try to push forward any other investigations, any of those families could do the same thing that the Doe family did, potentially bringing a lawsuit,” he adds.

The ACLU of Texas’ lawsuit is currently pending before an appeals court that will review the lower court’s decision. The litigation could be decided in the future over a lengthy period of time. The injunction does not protect the family from being probed again while the parents seek to care for trans and gender-inclusive children.

Learn More Transgender pediatricians are subject to increasing harassment. You Could Receive Lifesaving Care

Gender-affirming care can treat gender dysphoria, which is often described as the discomfort or distress that might occur when a person’s gender identity is inconsistent with the sex they were assigned at birth. Such care can include medication that stops the continued development of a puberty incongruent with a young person’s gender identity, and the taking of gender-affirming hormones, such as testosterone or estradiol, when a young person reaches adolescence. The American Academy of Pediatrics (the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association) support the treatment. Research has shown that affirming care can help young people have less mental health issues.

Prior to the February Abbott directive, DFPS had not investigated gender-affirming child abuse. Although the Texas Family Code does not mention gender-affirming services, bills that would have expanded the definition of child abuse were introduced during the legislative session. Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas and Arizona have all passed laws that prohibit medical professionals providing gender-affirming services to minors for the past 14 month.

“We’re dreading the next session,” says Amber Briggle. “We just want to be left alone.” Her husband Adam compares the feeling to the ending of Star Wars: A New Hope, when the movie’s protagonist Luke Skywalker is racing to escape the Death Star before it blows up. That’s how Adam says he feels about trying to get his trans son through high school before the state passes a law banning his medical care.

Amber Briggle says President Joe Biden and other Democratic politicians she supports aren’t taking enough action to protect the families of trans kids in Texas. The Equality Act would allow for greater protections from sex-based discrimination, including discrimination based in sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the U.S. Senate did not pass it.

“Parents like us are stuck fighting by ourselves, with mounting legal bills, with health care being taken from our kids,” she says. “People need to wake up to this reality and make this a priority. Because we can’t do it alone.”

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