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Greg Abbott’s anti-trans order has helped destroy Texas’ child abuse agency

Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks to the media before the 2016 Republican National Committee debate.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott Photo: Shutterstock

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has helped destroy his state’s child abuse agency by forcing its workers to investigate the parents of transgender children. Its workers are now speaking out about the unethical secrecy, internal strife, and staff resignations caused by his order — and how it has interfered with the department’s ability to help victims of actual abuse.

In February, Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate for child abuse any parents who allow their trans children to access gender-affirming medical care prescribed by their doctors. Abbott’s order was based on a non-binding opinion issued by the state’s Attorney General Ken Paxton earlier in the month calling gender-affirming health care a form of child abuse.

Paxton’s opinions and Abbott’s order both went against the best practices of pediatrics outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association. These organizations consider gender-affirming medical care as necessary in many cases, noting it reduces mental anguish and suicide risk among trans youth.

Soon after issuing his order, several DFPS employees quit and some state attorneys refused to enforce it. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that neither Abbott nor Paxton had the authority to issue the order. Several families with trans children also filed a lawsuit against Abbott. The presiding district judge in the lawsuit issued a temporary restraining order, effectively stopping DFPS’s investigations while the court prepares to consider the order’s legality in December.

Department officials were told to hide their transphobic investigations from the public

In an August 25 amicus brief, 16 current and former DFPS workers spoke against Abbott’s order and in support of the suing parents.

The employees said that Abbott’s order represented a “radical departure” from the state’s legal definition of abuse, forcing DFPS employees to interfere with family medical decisions. In the past, DFPS workers had been taught to trust that medical professionals’ advised care — when given in good faith with fully informed consent — was in “the best interest of the child.” Not anymore.

DFPS employees were told that they had to investigate any trans-related cases, whether they thought there was reason to or not. Workers were also instructed not to comment on Abbott’s order on social media in order to appear neutral, the Texas Tribune reported.

“Everyone you need to stay off social media with any opinions,” one worker instructed employees. “We will be investigating these cases. This will get messy.”

Abbott issued his order without following the requirements for creating new departmental rules, as outlined in the state’s Administrative Procedure Act, the brief added. If allowed to go into effect, the order would “irreparably harm morale and effectiveness at DFPS, which are already in crisis,” the brief said.

Furthermore, DFPS employees were instructed “not to discuss these cases in emails, text messages, or any other form of writing that could provide a record of the investigation or ‘be pulled by media if requested,’” the brief added. This order essentially directed the DFPS to hide any paper trail of their persecution of trans-supportive families. As a result, the press, other government agencies, and even the families being investigated couldn’t examine the department’s work.

According to Randa Mulanax, an investigations supervisor who resigned over Abbott’s order, the instructions were an “unprecedented level of secrecy” that she’d never seen in her six years of working there. The instructions were particularly bizarre because department investigators regularly depend on other such documented notes to aid in their work.

The secrecy “shows consciousness of guilt by DFPS leadership that their actions are controversial, political, and based on a tenuous and novel interpretation of the law,” the brief stated.

Experienced DFPS workers quit over Abbott’s directive

In response to Abbott’s order, DFPS employee Emma Menchaca, expressed her disbelief in an email, writing, “This is Texas now? Because this is BS. Sorry not sorry. Really???”

Shaun Santiago, another DFPS employee, expressed outrage that workers would be forced to follow Abbott’s order. “We have trans workers here at DFPS, what kind of message are we sending to them?” he wrote in one email. In other emails, he said he’d resign rather than ever investigate a family over gender-affirming care, the Tribune reported.

The amicus brief also noted that nearly 2,300 DFPS employees have left the department this year alone, including ones who have departed over their disagreement with Abbott’s order. The departures have included a transgender investigator of child abuse as well as other “passionate workers who carry decades of experience and knowledge,” the Houston Chronicle noted. These resignations have made it hard for DFPS to perform its basic functions.

DFPS already had a high turnover rate with employees quitting over “safety concerns, lack of communication, low pay, problems with their bosses,” the Chronicle added. Many employees are required to oversee unhoused foster children despite having no training to do so. Others are assigned too many cases and pressured to close them before they’re properly investigated.

Shelby McCowen, a former DFPS child abuse investigator, said Abbott’s order was the “last straw” for many employees.

“There are a ton of social workers who do already identify with the LGBTQ community, me being one myself,” McCowen told the Chronicle. “It kind of feels like we’re turning on family members at this point.”

Child abuse in Texas is getting harder to investigate, thanks to Abbott

In the amicus brief, DFPS workers condemned Abbott’s order, saying, “[We] did not enter the child protection profession to remove children from loving homes with parents or guardians merely because they follow medical advice and a doctor’s care, only to place them in a foster care system that is riddled with actual abuse, sexual assault, and even sex trafficking.”

“The public statements of the Governor’s staff have made clear that the February 22 Directive was not motivated by any concern for the welfare of Texas’s vulnerable children but by the desire to create a political ‘wedge issue’ for electoral purposes,” the brief continued.

“DFPS [is] an agency that is already ‘failing children,’” the brief concluded. “[The department] cannot withstand the division, attrition, and harm to children and families wrought [by Abbott’s order].”

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