The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The child welfare system already hurts trans kids. Texas made it a nightmare.

The state seeks to punish parents for affirming their children’s gender identities

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) speaks during a campaign stop on Feb. 17 in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)
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Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered Texas’s child welfare agencies to investigate parents whose children receive gender-affirming health care, and threatened them and professionals who fail to report it with criminal prosecution. This contradicts the position of the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical associations, which strenuously oppose government restrictions on children’s access to these services. In some respects, Texas follows a nationwide trend: Republican lawmakers in at least 27 states have introduced legislation to limit transgender and gender-diverse youth from accessing gender-affirming medical care, participating in school activities and using restrooms that align with their gender identity.

In Texas, several bills to ban medical care for transgender children have failed, and so the government has turned to a more sinister tactic: interpreting the definition of child abuse to encompass gender-affirming medical treatment, and exploiting the child protection system to intimidate and control families. Though state officials claim to be acting to protect the health and safety of children, throwing them into the child welfare system only would endanger them. Child welfare authorities largely stand indifferent to the dehumanizing practices that endanger gay and transgender children in their care, and even implement rules that encourage those practices.

National and state surveys show that LGBTQ children are more likely to be housed in congregate settings like group homes and prisonlike “therapeutic” treatment facilities than their non-LGBTQ peers, because child welfare agencies find it harder to locate foster homes for them. “I had to be placed in a residential facility under emergency shelter because there weren’t any affirming placements available that would want to take a gay Black teenager,” recalled Weston Charles-Gallo, testifying before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee in 2021.

Some states’ laws segregate foster children by gender or require that homes and facilities provide separate bedrooms and bathrooms for boys and girls. In these settings, it is typical for transgender children to be misgendered and placed according to their sex assigned at birth, not their gender identity. State child welfare agencies’ attempts to protect cisgender girls in foster care by separating them from men and boys can fail to protect transgender girls (who are grouped with boys and male staff).

Group-home staff routinely use rewards and punishments to force gender nonconforming children to dress and act in ways that don’t match their identities, penalizing them for behavior that violates gender norms. “When I was in a group home, I lost points because I didn’t have long hair or wear dresses,” a former foster child named Captain told the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Another transgender young woman, Kira, reported, “One time I was grounded for two weeks for wearing eyeliner to school.”

Foster caretakers frequently subject LGBTQ youth to inhumane isolation, discipline or rejection for behavior they perceive as offensive; some even attempt to “cure” their sexual or gender identity. State-accredited foster caretakers in a focus group that was part of a 2008 study described bisexual foster youth as “confused” because of assumed sexual abuse, and gay youth as sinful, dangerous and prone to committing sexual abuse.

Youth placed in congregate housing commonly report horrendous accounts of daily harassment and violence — bullying that agency staff ignore, encourage or in some cases inflict. “I had at least two fights a day. The boys used to do stupid things because I was gay, like throw rocks at me or put bleach in my food,” Mariah Lopez, a transgender woman who lived in multiple group homes beginning at age 8, recounted in a story for Represent Magazine. “Once I was thrown down a flight of stairs and I’ve had my nose broken twice. They even ripped up the only picture of my mother that I had.” The staff did nothing to protect Mariah from the violence. “Sometimes the staff would stand there while the kids jumped me. One time a staff member jumped me with the kids,” she recalled. Another LGBTQ youth stated in a 2016 report about his experience living in a group home: “I would always have a butcher knife inside under my pillow because I didn’t trust people. I always felt that someone was going to try to attack me, so the only way I felt safe was with weapons.”

The routine violence and discrimination against LGBTQ children in foster care results in catastrophic harm. A 2015 study of foster care in Los Angeles County reported that LGBTQ youth “are less satisfied with their child welfare system experience, are more likely to experience homelessness, are moved around to more placements, and are experiencing higher levels of emotional distress compared to their non-LGBTQ counterparts.” Many try to escape foster care by running away — either back to their families or to the streets — and, even more tragically, by taking their own lives. A subsequent 2018 analysis of a nationally representative sample of youth in foster care found that those who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual had a substantially higher risk of mental health and substance abuse problems and were more than three times as likely to have run away in the prior six months.

Even if Texas child protection agents never remove trans children from their homes, state investigations can traumatize them and their families. Child welfare investigations can be terrifying experiences in themselves. Identifying children as at risk for abuse gives child protection agencies the authority to probe into every aspect of their family’s life: Caseworkers can make multiple unannounced home visits at any time of day or night, interrogate all household members, strip search children and request personal information from teachers, doctors, therapists and other service providers. Indeed, the threat of investigation is already sending shock waves of fear through the families of trans children, deterring parents from seeking health care for their children and pressuring children to hide their identities. On Tuesday, a 16-year-old transgender girl, her mother and her doctor filed a lawsuit to stop enforcement of the directive, alleging that an investigation that has already begun against them, and has taken a noticeable toll on the family’s physical and mental health. (A state judge has temporarily blocked the investigation.)

Abbott’s move to punish parents who violate the state’s prescribed gender norms reflects the overall design of child protective services and its regulation of families. The directive’s veneer of benevolence, covering for its harmful objective, is not an aberration. Rather, it is a central feature of the child welfare system — a multibillion-dollar apparatus that controls marginalized families, especially those that are Black and Native, by taking their children away. Relying on vague state child neglect laws, investigators often deem conditions of poverty — lack of food, insecure housing, inadequate medical care — as evidence of parental unfitness. Only 17 percent of children enter foster care based on allegations they were physically or sexually abused. With the Texas directive, and in the child welfare system generally, what constitutes child abuse is subject to the interpretation of mandated reporters and caseworkers whose perceptions are influenced by racial and class biases.

Abbott’s deployment of the child welfare system will punish parents for affirming their children’s gender identities, not protect children. And this tactic should cause the public to question more broadly how other struggling families are harmed by a system that polices rather than supports them.

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