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Dreading the knock at the door: Parents of trans kids in Texas are terrified for their families

A judge halted a Feb. 22 directive that authorized child abuse investigations of parents who let their children medically transition genders. But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says they can continue.

Amber Briggle’s son at a recent protest in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) recently issued a directive for the state's child protective services to investigate parents who let their children medically transition genders. (Family photo)
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The sticky note left on Amber Briggle’s desk was scrawled with a name, a phone number and the words urgent and private.

When Briggle, a mother of two and a small-business owner in Texas, arrived at her office on Feb. 28, she felt sure she knew what the note meant: Another parent of a transgender child — perhaps one who was under investigation by the state’s protective services agency — was calling for guidance; Briggle has long been a prominent advocate for the rights of transgender children and their families. Briggle dialed the number, prepared to hear about a family in trouble. Then an investigator from Child Protective Services (CPS) answered, and she realized the family in trouble was her own.

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. She sank to the floor and felt like she was still falling. The investigator was already on the way to see her, and Briggle had half an hour to summon her husband to her office, to hire an attorney, and to prepare for the moment she had dreaded for years.

She had been braced for this possibility in the aftermath of a Feb. 22 directive written by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), instructing the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate families who provide gender-affirming care to their transgender children, describing such care as “abuse” that should be referred for criminal prosecution. Abbott’s letter to the state agency followed a Feb. 18 opinion by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) asserting that gender-affirming treatments for transgender children — including puberty-blocking medications and gender-reassignment surgery — “can legally constitute child abuse.”

There is no existing law in Texas, or any other state, that categorizes gender-affirming care as abuse. In the wake of Abbott’s directive, some county attorneys said they would not enforce it, and legal and transgender policy experts emphasized that neither the letter nor Paxton’s opinion were legally binding. Yet within days of Abbott’s letter, Texas officials began opening investigations of families suspected of providing gender-affirming care to their children — and these investigations have been conducted outside the typical protocol for child abuse cases, according to attorneys who represent the families and the testimony of a Child Protective Services investigations supervisor. As of March 11, officials confirmed that nine such cases had been opened.

Since then, Texas’s authority to launch these investigations has only grown murkier. On March 11, a judge in Austin issued a temporary injunction against Abbott’s order, calling it an unconstitutional overreach and a violation of the democratic process. The injunction blocked investigations and prosecutions of families accused of child abuse solely on the basis of providing gender-affirming care, at least until a trial in the case could take place in July. But within hours, Paxton tweeted that his office had filed an appeal — and claimed that the judge’s injunction was thereby “frozen,” and investigations would continue. Legal experts and state officials have said it’s unclear how the DFPS plans to proceed. Attorneys representing clients under investigation have said they have not yet been told whether the cases will continue or be closed, and so the uncertainty has intensified for parents who are still waiting to hear what will happen to their families.

‘Borrowed time’

Hours after their first meeting with the CPS investigator, Amber Briggle and her husband, Adam Briggle, sat down with their children — their son, who is transgender, is 14; their daughter is 9 — to explain what was about to happen.

“They were very confused. I’d ask if they were okay and they’d nod, but their eyes were dark. I could tell they weren’t okay,” Amber Briggle said. “We explained, and we could see they were anxious. I’d say: ‘Are you worried?’ And they’d say quietly, ‘Yeah.’ ”

The family rushed to hire an attorney to represent the children, so they would have an adult advocate present during their conversation with the CPS investigator. The Briggles contacted a social worker, who immediately conducted a home study to bolster the family’s “safe folder” — a collection of legal documents, letters, drawings, photographs and other materials that confirm a child’s gender identity and the parents’ capacity to care for them.

What to know about ‘safety folders,’ a tool families use to protect their trans children

Years ago, the Briggles had hoped that it would never come to this. In 2016, they invited Paxton and his wife to their home for dinner; they wanted the attorney general to meet their then-8-year-old transgender son and to see firsthand that their family was a loving and healthy one. They hoped spending that time together might prompt Paxton to rethink the lawsuit he had recently filed, seeking to prohibit transgender children from using bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity. The Paxtons arrived at the Briggles’ doorstep with a freshly baked dessert, still warm from the oven.

“They were lovely dinner guests,” Amber Briggle recalled. “They were very kind, they were very polite, they gave us their undivided attention. No one ever checked a cellphone or stepped away for a call. They never misgendered my son.” She exhaled. “Adam and I really thought, ‘We did it! We fixed it! We changed his mind!’ ”

A spokesperson for Paxton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Briggles and other trans-inclusive Texas families have spent years fighting for the freedom and safety of their children. A historic wave of anti-trans legislation was introduced to the Texas legislature in 2021, with dozens of bills that aimed to strip rights from transgender children and their families — including by prohibiting medical treatment for transgender children and banning transgender children from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. The Briggles have no way to know who filed the complaint against their family — but as vocal advocates who have testified before the legislature and appeared in the media before, they say their activism has made them a highly visible target.

On March 2, the CPS investigator came to their home. “Adam let her in,” Amber Briggle said. “I was really concerned that I was just going to break down in front of my kids. I prayed in the bathroom, and then I came out and put on a brave face.”

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.”

As the investigator was leaving their home, she glanced over at their son, who had started practicing his cello. “She said, ‘Clearly you’re doing something right,’ ” Briggle said. “And she left.”

Since then, they’ve remained in a state of unsettled suspension. There has been no word about their case since the injunction, which they thought would give them a momentary break, Briggle said, “a chance to catch our breath.”

“But there is no relief,” added Adam Briggle. “It’s just a pause. It’s borrowed time.”

FAQ: What you need to know about transgender children

‘Extremely unusual’ procedures

Adding to the stress faced by families under investigation is the fact that their cases have not been conducted normally, according to attorneys who represent the families and the testimony of a Child Protective Services investigations supervisor at the March 11 hearing in Austin.

In a typical child abuse investigation, explained Ian Pittman, the Briggle family’s attorney, a field investigator in a local CPS office conducts the inquiry and then works with their direct supervisor to reach a disposition, or conclusion in the case: Either they rule out abuse, are unable to determine whether abuse occurred, or find reason to believe that abuse occurred. They also have discretion to decide not to investigate if they determine a complaint is not credible. But in the Briggle family’s case, he said, the investigator who came to their home was herself a supervisor, and she told Pittman that she would be coordinating with officials at the regional level. “That’s extremely unusual,” he said. “Normally there is more autonomy. This is not how the CPS handbook says investigations are supposed to be conducted.”

CPS’s methods also came under scrutiny at the March 11 injunction hearing. Lawyers from the ACLU and Lambda Legal, which had asked for the injunction on behalf of a family of a transgender child and a psychologist who works with transgender children, called a CPS investigations supervisor named Randa Mulanax. Mulanax testified that she and other managers were summoned to a virtual meeting two days after Abbott issued his directive and were told not to document anything about the investigations in emails or text messages. The staff was also told that they no longer had discretion to designate cases involving trans children as “priority none” — meaning unnecessary to investigate — nor could they opt to use less intrusive procedures to carry out the investigations, she said.

The only other cases handled in such a way, she testified, were those involving a conservatorship or the death of a child. Mulanax said she had submitted her resignation because she objected to Abbott’s order.

Following that hearing, Pittman said he emailed a copy of the injunction to the investigator for the Briggles’ case and said the family would no longer be participating in the process. But as of Wednesday, he said it still wasn’t clear whether investigators had been directed to halt their work, in accordance with the judge’s order, or whether they intended to proceed, as Paxton had claimed they would.

Tracy L. Harting, an attorney in Austin who represents two families who are under investigation, said she had similar trouble getting a clear answer on the status of her clients’ cases.

“One investigator has called me back and let me know that he has no idea what’s going on, that he was waiting on further direction,” she said. “We have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Asked how the agency plans to proceed, a spokesperson for DFPS said in an emailed statement: “The best way to describe our posture on these investigations is that we are continuing to follow the law.” The spokesperson declined to offer any further clarification.

One mother in Austin, a social worker — who agreed to speak only if she could be identified by her first initial L. to protect her and her child’s identity — is among those caught in this legal limbo. She learned that she was being investigated for child abuse when an investigator arrived at her home on March 1. As they spoke, L. said the investigator repeatedly misgendered L.’s son — referring to him as “your daughter” despite L.’s corrections — and, at first, disputed L.’s assertion that her son was 18 years old.

“Then she said they could investigate me retroactively, even if my son was 18 years old,” L. said. “She said, ‘If we go inside, I can talk to your daughter and we can get this taken care of,’ and I said, ‘He doesn’t live here, and you can’t come in.’ … She finally gave me her card, and I just stepped back into my house and slammed my door in her face.”

Like Briggle, L. believes the complaint against her originated with her and her son’s activism — they testified repeatedly before the state legislature in 2019 and 2021.

“When we finally got the list of accusations, most of it was direct quotes from my testimony at the [Texas] Capitol … about the gender-affirming care that my son was provided,” she said. “And then there are also a couple of bogus reports of physical abuse — witnesses said I hit him at the Capitol and in the Capitol parking lot. Which is just ridiculous.”

Because her son is a legal adult who attends college in the Midwest, L. said, “I’m not worried about them taking my child away, like they could do to other families. What I’m worried about is my career.” As a social worker, she explained, she would lose her job if she is charged with child abuse.

The investigator later showed up at a co-worker’s home, she said, and at her workplace.

When the injunction was issued, L. was relieved, she said — she hoped she would soon receive a case-closure letter. But as of Wednesday, she said her attorney was still waiting for a clear answer from CPS about what to expect: “My understanding is that, as of now, my case is still open,” L. said.

The whiplash of these latest developments, she said, is exhausting.

“We have spent so much time fighting for my son’s humanity,” she said. “If you met him, and you didn’t know he was trans, you’d think he’s a typical 18-year-old boy. He’s a great kid. He really wants to change the world and do good. He’s studying to become a pediatric oncology nurse. These people hate him for one adjective that describes him, when there are so many others — funny, shy, caring, kind — that are so much more important.”

‘A heaviness’

In the brief window of borrowed time, the interlude between emergencies, these families are left to face the cumulative toll of being targeted. Amber Briggle wants her family to see a therapist together, to begin to process what they’ve been through — what they’re still going through — but even finding the energy to research the right therapist feels overwhelming.

Meanwhile, she said, her hair has been falling out, and she often has to remind herself to eat. She and Adam aren’t sleeping well, and they suffer from frequent headaches. L. describes similar symptoms of stress, and said she’s lost 10 pounds since the CPS investigator came to her door.

At first, L. said, her son believed he could resolve the problem himself. “He said, ‘I’ll call, I’ll tell them it’s not true, and it’ll be done,’ but I told him I’d handle it as much as I can,” she said. “He needs to concentrate on midterms, on school.”

Amber and Adam Briggle try not to talk about what’s happening in front of their children.

“We don’t want to worry them. We want this to be our fight, not theirs,” she said. “But kids are really intuitive, they pick up on a lot. And there is definitely a fog, a shadow — just a heaviness that’s settled over our house.”

Still, they have no plans to leave Texas. Adam Briggle said he doesn’t believe his family, or any other family, should have to flee their home in order to secure their civil rights. “We both have jobs,” he said. “I would lose my health insurance. How would we provide for the kids? How would they cope with the loss of their friends?”

So they will stay and defend themselves and other families like theirs, he said, even knowing there is no certain end in sight.

“Even if we beat this round of attacks, we know they are coming for us again in the next legislative session, in 2023,” he said. “I measure my life in those terms now: Beat this first. Then armor up for the next fight. How is this happening in our country?”

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