The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He came out as trans. Then Texas had him investigate parents of trans kids.

After Gov. Greg Abbott in February ordered child abuse investigations of the parents of transgender children, Morgan Davis, a Child Protective Services worker in Austin, was assigned two cases.

Morgan Davis, a former investigator for Texas Child Protective Services. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Washington Post)

The day after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to “conduct a prompt and thorough investigation” of families with transgender children, the first case came up, and Morgan Davis’s name was on it.

Davis was one of four investigators on a Travis County unit tasked with reviewing claims of child abuse. Usually, he and his colleagues took cases on a rotation. Davis was next in line.

That evening, a Wednesday in late February, his supervisor called and relayed the basic facts. A mandated reporter by law, any licensed professional who works directly with childrenhad turned in a family outside of Austin because they’d allowed their teenager to live as a girl. Under the governor’s order, someone had to investigate the family for child abuse.

Davis’s supervisor told him she knew working the case might feel difficult. Nine months earlier, Davis had come out as a transgender man. He was 52, born in a generation when calling yourself “tomboy” felt daring enough, but after five decades, he’d decided he was finally ready to live as himself.

On the phone, the supervisor said she was prepared to offer Davis something she never had before.

“If you want to recuse yourself,” she said, “you can.”

Texas governor directs state agencies to investigate gender-affirming care for trans youths

Davis had taken the investigator job because he hoped to advocate for children in a way he felt no one had advocated for him when he was young. Usually, he believed in the department’s mission of removing children from abusive situations. But if he took this case, he thought, he’d be carrying out what many in his department had been calling a political stunt.

Across the country, Republican lawmakers were pushing anti-trans legislation to bar children from sports or gender-affirming health care. Abbott’s letter went further. It didn’t matter that puberty blockers and hormone therapy are endorsed by all major medical associations as appropriate treatments for gender dysphoria. If a parent allowed their child access to those medications, Abbott wrote, the state could break up the family.

Abbott said he’d written the directive because he wanted to protect children from “abusive” procedures, but Davis and his colleagues believed the governor had done it to rouse his conservative base ahead of November’s gubernatorial run against Beto O’Rourke.

It was evil, Davis thought, and he didn’t want to participate in evil. But recusing himself wouldn’t make the case go away. Another investigator would take it. Davis believed that most of his colleagues wanted to protect children from harm, but he knew that no one else had the lived experience he did. If he took the case, maybe he could tell the family he understood. Maybe he could thank them for giving their daughter the childhood he never had.

Davis pulled in a deep breath, exhaled, then told his boss he’d do it.

“If it’s got to be someone,” he said, “I want it to be me.”

‘We just cried together’

Davis already had 25 cases of abuse and neglect on his docket, a load that current and former Child Protective Services employees described to The Washington Post as “unmanageable.” His colleagues had similar amounts. According to the Houston Chronicle, nearly 2,300 employees have left DFPS this year — the highest voluntary exit rate the agency has seen since it became independent in 2017. (A DFPS spokesperson said the department has roughly 13,000 employees.) Those departures left investigators like Davis with two and three times the load they used to carry. Davis regularly worked all day, all night and into the weekend.

As Davis and his supervisor talked that Wednesday night, she told him he wouldn’t have to spend long on this one.

“She told me, ‘Just go in, do the interview, assess the safety, then we’ll close the case,’ ” Davis said.

When someone reports child abuse, investigators act immediately, Davis said — within 24 hours for the most serious cases and within 48 for others. Investigators talk to the person who made the complaint, then they go to the child’s school.

FAQ: What you need to know about transgender children

In this case, Davis’s supervisor allowed him to schedule a meeting at the family’s home for that Friday evening, roughly 48 hours after the initial report. (According to civil court filings, other families did not receive the same treatment: In at least two instances, investigators interviewed children at school with no warning.)

Davis spent that Thursday calling people for advice. He talked to his own doctor and to people from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association. Davis said the guidance they gave him echoed the statements they put in writing that same week: Gender-affirming care can be lifesaving for young trans people. The governor’s letter would put those children at even higher risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.

Davis spoke to the person who reported the abuse and, later that afternoon, called the child’s mother to set up the meeting.

“My name is Morgan,” he said. “I need to let you know there has been a report.”

Davis still believed he could make the situation better, so he told the woman she’d be safe with him.

“I’m a trans man,” he said. “I’ve been assigned to this case.”

They spoke a few minutes longer, Davis said, then “we just cried together.”

An ‘exemplary’ family

Davis often wore jeans and a button-down when he visited families or children. That Friday, he put on what he described as his Sunday best — a wool blazer, a pair of cowboy boots and his favorite bow tie.

He spent the morning investigating a different family for physical abuse and sexual assault, then, on his way to the suburbs to interview the family who’d allegedly allowed their child to transition, he stopped to buy empanadas and tartlets to give the visit a homier feel.

They had set the meeting for 6 p.m., but Davis arrived 20 minutes early, so he drove around the block 12 times before he forced himself out of his Jeep. He stepped into the street, then threw his DFPS badge into the vehicle. He’d seem less threatening, he thought, without it.

Davis strode toward the house, and his arms and legs shook. He’d done all he could to appear non-threatening, but he knew a good bow tie and a box of pastries would go only so far. Ultimately, the child would see a state investigator.

Davis gripped the box. He rang the doorbell. The child’s mom opened the door immediately.

“Hi,” Davis said, holding up the pastries. “These are for you.”

The family had hired two lawyers: one for the parents, one for the child. Davis knew both of them because he’d previously worked as a clerk and judicial aide in the county CPS court.

One of the lawyers, Michael Ludvik, had taught Davis how to shave after he started taking testosterone. The other, Tracy L. Harting, had worked CPS cases for 25 years, and at first, she told The Post, she felt relieved that Davis would be the one investigating.

“When I looked at it initially, it was like, ‘Great. We’re not going to have to explain so many things because there’s just going to be some understanding there,’ ” Harting said.

Everyone, including the child, settled in the living room, and Davis noticed that the parents sat on the couch together. He’d been on the job only for a year, but he’d never seen parents sit together. Usually, he visited young people at school, but when he did go to homes, the mood tended to be chaotic.

Davis began by asking the parents to sign a release form that would allow him to review their child’s medical records. The parents declined, and Davis exhaled with relief. If they didn’t turn over the records, he thought, he had no proof that they were allowing her to seek gender-affirming care. Without proof, he had no case.

Next, Davis asked the roughly 20 questions he asks every parent he investigates. How do you discipline your child? When is the last time they went to the doctor? How would you describe your relationship with your child?

5 percent of young adults identify as trans or nonbinary, survey says

The parents declined to answer most of Davis’s questions, and after 20 minutes, he told them he needed to interview their daughter separately, so Davis, Ludvik and the child moved to another room.

Again, Davis read from a list of required questions. Most were basic — what are your chores, who’s the better cook, your mom or your dad — but some are so intimate, Davis blushes every time he interviews a kid. He’s the kind of guy who says “golly” a few times a conversation, and he’s more likely to spell out s-e-x than say the word itself.

But the questions are designed to determine whether a child is being abused, and investigators have no leeway, so Davis forced himself to ask them that evening.

“Do you know where your privates are?” he asked the girl. “Has anyone touched them?”

They talked for a little more than 20 minutes, then Davis looked around the house. The pantry held several boxes of name-brand cereal. The family had hung art on most of the walls. Davis made small talk with the mom as they toured the kitchen, then the girl asked, “Do you want to see my room?”

Davis knew he had to appear official, but he wanted to cry. The question was so innocent. He was there to investigate her for being herself, and like any kid, she wanted to show off her room.

“Yeah!” Davis said, trying to mask his heartbreak with an enthusiastic grin.

He followed the girl down the hallway and into her room. She had an impressive collection of Lego sets, two bookshelves and at least 40 books. She told Davis “The Odyssey” was her favorite. Her parents had even taken her to Greece so she could see some of the places mentioned in the Homeric epic.

After an hour or so, Davis asked if he could snap a portrait of the child to show she was “height- and weight-appropriate.” Ludvik and the girl’s parents agreed Davis could take one outside near the front door.

The girl smiled, sweet and shy. Davis took one shot with his state-issued phone, then he relaxed. They were done. The family was “impeccable,” and he was going to close the case.

He stepped outside. He called his supervisor and described the family as “exemplary.” The fridge was stocked. The books on the girl’s shelves were above grade level. There’s no abuse, Davis told his supervisor. We can shut this down.

“Unfortunately,” the supervisor said. “We have to wait.”

Davis still doesn’t know when or why the higher-ups decided they wouldn’t heed his report, but he said his supervisor told him it was beyond her control. One of her bosses had to join the investigation.

Davis returned to the living room, and he tried to frame his boss’s words as no big deal, but the lawyers realized then, and the family did, too, that it didn’t matter if the investigator was trans or kind. Something inextricable and horrible was beginning, and Davis couldn’t stop it.

The parents’ lawyer walked Davis out. Maybe Davis did understand the family in ways other investigators couldn’t, Harting thought, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Maybe the family had trusted Davis and told him things they wouldn’t tell other investigators, things the state could eventually use against them.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Harting told Davis in a tone that was firm but kind. “I know you meant well, but this is wrong. You shouldn’t do this.”

An exodus

Davis spent much of that weekend working and crying. He stayed up past midnight typing notes for his boss, and his stomach tightened as he uploaded the photograph of the girl. He woke up the next morning at 6, and he scrutinized his report until he was sure he’d written the best version he could.

Still, Davis felt “sunk.” He’d watched for months as lawmakers in other states had moved to restrict transgender rights. Lobbying didn’t seem to sway them, and neither did a broad medical consensus. The only tactics that seemed to work, Davis thought, were lawsuits. He spent most of that weekend hoping someone would sue, and on Tuesday, a week after Abbott published the order, one family did.

Davis read the civil court filing on his phone at the office the next morning. The family had a 16-year-old transgender daughter, Davis read, and the mother worked for CPS. After Abbott released the order, the mother, identified only as Jane Doe, asked her supervisor how it would affect her family. A few hours later, the agency placed Jane Doe on administrative leave. An investigator called the next day.

Davis winced as he read the family’s affidavit. They wrote that they now live in “constant fear.” Jane Doe is unable to sleep, and her daughter “has been traumatized by the prospect that she could be separated from her parents and could lose access to the medical treatment that has enabled her to thrive.”

He imagined other families with trans kids must feel the same way.

“I did this,” Davis thought. “I hurt a child. I hurt a family, a family I would have wanted.”

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

Department supervisors mostly kept the cases “hush-hush,” Davis said, but he learned that first week that other colleagues had cases, too. By March, agency officials later said in a public meeting, the state had opened nine investigations. In early March, one of Davis’s colleagues quit in protest.

Randa Mulanax was a supervisor over the removals unit, and she’d worked for the department for nearly six years. When the first lawsuit went to court March 11, the plaintiffs subpoenaed Mulanax.

The hearing was broadcast online, so Davis watched on his phone, alone, at the office. He felt “electric” as Mulanax took the stand. She was a straight, cisgender woman, and she was willing to give up a good job to fight for transgender children.

“I’ve always felt at the end of the day, the department has children’s best interest at heart and families’ best interest at heart,” Mulanax testified. “I no longer feel that way with this order.”

A district court judge granted the Doe family a temporary restraining order, a ruling that meant the state could not investigate them further, but the state appealed, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton vowed to keep investigating families.

Harting declined to discuss the case Davis investigated, but the lawyer represents multiple families who are either being investigated or remain at risk of investigation, and she said they all feel traumatized.

Court documents filed as part of two lawsuits support that. One 16-year-old trans boy said he “felt his world cave in” when he was pulled out of class in late February and questioned by a CPS investigator at school. Another 16-year-old trans boy took a bottle of aspirin and attempted to die by suicide the day the directive came down.

As Davis learned about those cases, he told himself he should quit. But every time he considered leaving, he thought of the girl he’d investigated. If he left, someone else would interview children like her. Though Davis said many of his colleagues support trans children, court records show that some used tactics the children found harmful. In at least one instance, an investigator addressed a trans boy by the name and sex he was assigned at birth, even though his family had applied to legally change both. Afterward, the mother wrote in a legal filing, the boy had a “meltdown” and has since felt too anxious to return to school.

Maybe Davis couldn’t stop the investigations, but he could at least try to make them less painful.

A few weeks after the hearing, Davis was assigned a second case. This time, a teacher told CPS officials that she had seen something on a child’s Instagram page. Davis thought the teacher shouldn’t be patrolling teenagers’ social media, but it was his job to investigate, so he called the family. The mother didn’t answer, but eventually, she called Davis back and told him they’d moved to Colorado two days after Abbott published his letter.

“Oh, thank God,” Davis told her. “I’m so happy for you.”

By the end of March, all of the other investigators on Davis’s unit had quit. Still, he tried to hold on.

Then, Davis said, in early April, his supervisor told him the agency would no longer consider gender dysphoria a medical diagnosis, even though it’s in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (The agency has not made this guidance public, and the claim does not appear in legal filings. A spokesperson for DFPS declined to comment.) And in early May, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the temporary restraining order applied only to the family that sued. Without a statewide injunction, Davis realized, the agency might keep investigating other families. Three days later, he left CPS.

“I was complicit,” Davis said. “I thought I was doing good, but I should have resigned that first night. The only way to do good, I realized, was to get out and go public.”

Making amends

When Davis transitioned in the spring of 2021, he planned to do so quietly. He didn’t know any other trans adults, and he worried some people wouldn’t support him.

The investigations changed him. This summer, he decided to trade his privacy for advocacy. Late last month, he and 15 former colleagues signed an amicus brief condemning the policy, and when Davis signed it, he came out publicly.

“Davis resigned in May 2022 after about one year as a CPS Investigator for DFPS,” his lawyer wrote. “Mr. Davis is an openly transgender man.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Texas has investigated at least 13 families this year, and parents say the state continues to open new ones.

On the morning of Aug. 30, a 13-year-old transgender boy was pulled out of class and interviewed by a CPS investigator for nearly an hour, according to court records filed this month. Since then, the boy has experienced frequent panic attacks, his mother testified.

Stories like those gnaw at Davis. In the months since he left CPS, he has struggled — both personally and professionally. He cries often when he thinks about the night he interviewed the family. They and other families deserved better, he thought.

“We walked into their homes and their schools,” he said, “and we scared the garbage out of them.”

Virginia governor’s rules for trans students leave many teens fearful, despondent

After he left CPS, Davis applied for several dozen jobs, but no one would hire him. He went a few months without work and, eventually, took a temporary job at a supermarket. Mulanax, the supervisor who quit and testified in March, works part time at Target and is back in school. Davis said he knows others remain unemployed.

In September, a few weeks after Davis and his colleagues signed the amicus brief, a Travis County district court judge ruled that CPS cannot investigate members of PFLAG, a national LGBTQ organization with 18 chapters in Texas. Investigators have not returned to the home Davis visited in February, but Harting said this week that all of the cases she represents remain open. A DFPS spokesperson said Wednesday that the state has closed all but four cases and that no children have been removed.

A law firm finally hired Davis as a paralegal last month, but even if he hadn’t found work, he said, he is proud that he left the position that he once thought of as his dream job.

“It took me 52 years to be brave,” he said. “I never had somebody stick up for me. I came from a really religious family. I was called all the names you can think of. I still don’t know anybody who would stick up for me. If even just one person sees that they have someone to stick up for them, maybe I can make amends for what I did that night.”

Loading...