Texas’ child welfare agency ordered to investigate trans kids’ families has been in crisis for years

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has been struggling for years to properly handle cases of child abuse, neglect and removal. Now the overtaxed agency is also responsible for investigating families who provide gender-affirming care to their children. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

For LGBTQ mental health support, call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

Every day, when the caseworkers at Texas Department of Family and Protective Services come to work, they’re confronted with the worst this world has to offer — an ever-mounting pile of cases of sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect of vulnerable children.

Recommended Videos

What keeps them going, one investigative supervisor said, is the hope they’re making a difference in children’s lives.

“You’re filled with a lot of passionate anger that this is what has happened to this child,” she said. “But you know that what you’re doing, at the end of the day, [will] help.”

That’s been her guiding principle for the four years she’s worked at DFPS. But since Gov. Greg Abbott directed the agency last month to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming medical care to their transgender children, her faith in the mission has been shaken.

“In these new cases, I can’t see that hope,” she said. “I just cannot see what I’m going to do to improve their life. All I can see is I’m going to disrupt, disrespect and just cause nothing but pain to that child.”

Late Friday, a state judge temporarily halted the investigations until a trial can be held in July, calling Abbott's actions “beyond the scope of his duty and unconstitutional.” The supervisor, who spoke to The Texas Tribune on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, said her regional office had already received two reports prompted by Abbott’s directive, both from medical professionals, and very little guidance into how caseworkers are supposed to handle them beyond the content of the governor’s directive to the DFPS commissioner.

“It’s really challenging … to get a case that not anyone in leadership can 100% answer your questions on,” she said. “And then even worse on a worker because they’re going to be the face of the situation.”

She feels that they were letting kids down — both the transgender children targeted by the new directive and the vulnerable kids caseworkers are supposed to be looking out for.

Even before Abbott’s directive, Texas was struggling to properly handle cases of child abuse, neglect and removal. In 2015, a federal judge ruled that Texas was violating the constitutional rights of foster children to be free from an unreasonable risk of harm, and that children “often age out of care more damaged than when they entered.”

The same judge recently said the situation has gone from “bad to worse” as the state fails to deliver on promised reforms.

Texas’ foster care system doesn’t have enough caseworkers or beds for the kids it has taken custody of, with particular gaps in care for older teens, children with mental health issues and LGBTQ kids.

In a separate court hearing Thursday, a federal judge revealed that sex trafficking victims were abused again while in the care of a Texas-licensed foster care facility.

It’s this overtaxed agency that Abbott has directed to become the face of his highly politicized new order, with potentially far-reaching consequences for parents, kids and the child welfare system itself.

The supervisor said she’s considering leaving the agency — which is already understaffed and suffering from high turnover rates — in the wake of the new policy. And she said she’s not alone.

“If you know it’s wrong, it’s wrong,” she said. “And, if you know, you can’t support it.”

LGBTQ children in a troubled agency

Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that equated certain gender-affirming medical care with child abuse. He specifically targeted puberty blockers, which are completely reversible, and surgeries that are rarely performed on children.

Paxton’s opinion is a nonbinding interpretation of state law, but just a few days later, citing the opinion, Abbott directed DFPS to open “a prompt and thorough investigation of any reported instances of these abusive procedures.”

DFPS confirmed Thursday that the agency had launched nine investigations into parents of transgender teens since the directive went into effect.

Advocates who have been working for years to improve Texas’ troubled child welfare agency are shocked that the state would even consider bringing more kids into a system that is ill equipped to take care of the children it’s already responsible for.

“We have a crisis of children without placement,” said Kate Murphy, senior policy associate at the nonprofit advocacy group Texans Care for Children. “We don’t want to be driving more kids into a system where we don’t have enough safe, appropriate homes for the children in foster care.”

The Department of Family and Protective Services is in the midst of a yearslong overhaul after a federal judge found kids often left the state’s care “more damaged than when they entered.”

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi ruled in 2015 that Texas routinely violated the constitutional rights of kids in the foster care system and issued a slew of reforms the state was required to implement.

The state has twice been held in contempt of court for not complying with the ruling in a timely manner.

In response to problems identified by the ruling, Texas increased inspections of foster care facilities and subsequently shut down many of them for not meeting standards. That shrunk the number of available beds for kids in foster care and created a surge in the number of children without placement. Last summer, Texas had more than 400 children staying in unlicensed and unregulated spaces, including motels and offices, most of them for more than a week at a time.

In a January report, a court-appointed panel of experts found that older kids and kids facing mental health issues were most likely to lack access to consistent, safe placements within the state’s foster care system.

Judge Aurora Martinez Jones, a district court judge who oversees child welfare cases, said she sees an overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth who end up without a placement coming through her Travis County courtroom.

“That’s not something that’s being tracked, and quite honestly, I don’t know that it’s safe to track that information right now,” she said, referring to the politically hostile climate toward LGBTQ people in Texas right now. “But I worry about making sure that we are taking as best care of our LGBTQ children as possible.”

LGBTQ children enter foster care at a much higher rate than their heterosexual peers, and within the system, they face much greater challenges.

“LGBTQ+ youth in foster care tend to experience more bullying, more physical violence, more sexual violence,” Murphy said. “We’re not doing these kids any favors by bringing them into a system where they might continue to experience trauma.”

And many of these issues intersect: Transgender children, whether or not they’re in the foster care system, are also particularly susceptible to mental health issues.

More than half of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to a 2021 national survey by the Trevor Project, an organization aiming to prevent suicide in LGBTQ youth.

But studies show that transgender teens who have access to gender-affirming health care see a marked decline in mental distress and suicidal ideation.

Gender-affirming care can often just mean social transition — allowing a child to express themselves as their gender, rather than the sex they were assigned to at birth. Some teenagers are given puberty blockers, which are completely reversible; hormone treatment; or, in extremely rare cases, surgeries.

Researchers at the University of Washington recently found that transgender teens were 60% less likely to be depressed and 73% less likely to have thought about self-harm or suicide after one year of using puberty blockers, compared with those who didn’t start the medications.

The DFPS investigative supervisor in Houston said she is haunted by the high rates of suicide among transgender children who don’t have access to these medical treatments.

“What’s gonna happen if I [were] to tell this parent to remove this medication? And what if what I did caused so much damage that they dropped into this statistic? I’m not going to be OK with that,” she said.

Lasting consequences of a child welfare investigation 

The DFPS supervisor said things have grown tense inside the typically friendly office she works in. Some employees, like her, were outraged by Abbott’s directive. Others are supportive, based on personal religious beliefs or a mindset that they should follow the rules.

She feels like she’s letting her employees down by sending them to perform these investigations that she herself does not support, and worries about the consequences for the families that are getting caught in this net.

Most families that DFPS investigates do not end up having their children removed from their custody or placed in foster care, which requires a judicial order. But these investigations can still have far-reaching consequences for parents and children.

Child welfare investigations can be — and are often designed to be — invasive. Amber Briggle, the mother of a transgender boy who once invited Paxton for dinner and is now being investigated under Abbott’s directive, described in a statement the experience of having a case worker interview the family and inspect the home.

“We showed her all the food in our cabinets, the kids’ artwork on the walls, the toys, books, and games in the family room,” she said. “We did not allow her in the kids’ bedrooms. She had violated our home by entering it. We didn’t want her violating their sacred spaces, too.”

Once an investigation is opened, there are three typical outcomes: The investigator can determine they have “reason to believe” that abuse or neglect occurred, they are “unable to determine” what happened or the case is “ruled out.”

If there is “reason to believe” the allegation, the parent is placed on the state’s child abuse registry, which prevents them from working with children and vulnerable populations.

“They make a finding that there’s reason to believe that you abused your child, and they can keep you from getting all kinds of professional licenses or employment,” said retired state District Judge Mike Schneider. “You can’t teach school. You can’t work in a Sunday school. You can’t work in a day care facility, all kinds of stuff.”

Even if a judge dismisses DFPS’ allegation of abuse, the parent will remain on the registry unless they appeal directly to DFPS. If that appeal is not granted, they can also appeal to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, an administrative law court operated through the executive branch.

Currently, it takes 1,644 days — or four and a half years — to get a DFPS appeal heard by that administrative court, according to a state report from November. And parents who receive the “reason to believe” designation remain on the child abuse registry that entire time.

“I don’t think most [parents] realize that they’re in a lot more potential jeopardy than they could ever even imagine,” said Schneider, who is suing the state in federal court on behalf of a Beaumont-area woman who has been on the registry for more than a year, even after a judge determined there was no merit to the child abuse allegation.

Schneider is also representing families with transgender children who are preparing for potential investigations.

“I told my clients, I’m really not trying to scare you,” he added, “but I just want you to know that there’s this shadow system that exists that’s maintained by the same branch of the government that Ken Paxton and Greg Abbott are in.”

Disclosure: Texans Care for Children has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Recommended Videos