Texas Child Abuse Investigators Told to Make Transgender Cases a Priority

HOUSTON – Child abuse investigators in Texas have been told to prioritize cases involving the parents of transgender children and to investigate them without exception, after the state’s governor ordered certain medical care to be treated as abuse, an investigations supervisor said during a court hearing on Friday .

The supervisor, Randa Mulanax of the Department of Family and Protective Services, testified in an Austin courtroom that the agency was not given the freedom to determine that a given report involving a transgender child was quite likely not in fact a case of child abuse – known as “priority none” status – and that investigators were not able to close the cases.

“I’ve been told about that directly,” said Ms. Mulanax, who has submitted her resignation to the department. “You can not prioritize-none these cases.”

Ms. Mulanax’s testimony came at the start of a hearing on Friday over whether investigations into families with transgender children should be halted statewide.

The abuse investigations represented a victory for conservative groups and activists who have engaged in a new round of action in state capitals aimed at transgender Americans. Gov. Greg Abbott’s order – the first of its kind, according to transgender advocates – has placed medical providers and families of transgender children in the sudden position of fearing state investigations and possible criminal penalties for providing what is seen as medically accepted treatment.

There has been “outright panic,” Dr. Megan Mooney, a licensed psychologist whose clients include transgender children, testified on Friday. “It puts medical professionals I work with in a horrible position.” At least one major hospital, Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, has restricted its care for transgender children.

The hearing took place on the same day that more than 60 major businesses, including Johnson & Johnson, Google and Levi Strauss & Co., began an advertising campaign in Texas protesting Mr. Abbott’s order and the abuse investigations.

The case, in front of Judge Amy Clark Meachum in Travis County, began with a legal challenge last week by the parents of a 16-year-old transgender girl. The parents were among the first to be investigated under Mr. Abbott’s order, which directed state officials to start abuse investigations into parents who provide hormones or puberty-suppressing drugs to their transgender children. Dr. Mooney, who is required to report suspected child abuse under Texas law, is also a plaintiff in the case.

The teenager’s mother, an employee of the state’s family protective agency, has remained anonymous in court filings, and is referred to only as Jane Doe.

Wearing a wig and glasses, the mother testified on Friday about the details of the investigation into her family and its emotional toll. Her testimony, unlike that of the other witnesses, was not shown on the video stream of the hearing.

In a declaration filed with the suit, Ms. Doe said that she was “terrified” for her daughter’s health and well-being, and that she felt “betrayed by my state and the agency for whom I work.”

Judge Meachum temporarily stopped the investigation into the family last week, but allowed others in the state to continue while she considered broader action.

The plaintiffs in the case, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, sought a statewide injunction against the new investigations, arguing that the governor’s order was improperly adopted and violated the State Constitution, as well as the rights of the parents and their transgender children.

Ms. Mulanax, a witness for the plaintiffs, described a virtual meeting of senior leaders last month in which they discussed the handling of investigations under the governor’s order, which was issued on Feb. 22. She said she and others were told not to put information about the cases in email or text messages – instructions that she said were highly unusual in her years of experience at the agency.

“Have you ever been told not to put information on cases in writing?” asked Brian Klosterboer, a lawyer with the ACLU

“No,” she said.

“What did you make of the instruction to not put anything in writing?”

“It was very unethical,” Ms. Mulanax said.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has struggled for years to care for children in its foster care system and to conduct investigations into child abuse.

The agency has been the subject of a decade-old federal lawsuit over its foster care system, in which children faced abuse as well as long waits to be adopted or placed in safer homes. Federal monitors have been overseeing the process of carrying out judicial orders since 2019, among them a directive to improve the handling and investigation of reported child abuse.

A federal court held an emergency hearing on Thursday, unrelated to the fight over transgender children, regarding a report by an agency employee who has been accused of sex trafficking, abuse and neglect of children at a foster care facility in Bastrop that is under contract to the state. Mr. Abbott called the report “abhorrent” in a statement, saying that “child abuse of any kind will not be tolerated in the state of Texas.”

But the bounds of what constitutes child abuse was the question being wrestled with at the hearing on Friday in front of Judge Meachum.

Ms. Mulanax, the state investigations supervisor, said that she disagreed with the governor’s order and with her agency’s response to it, and that she had decided to resign because of it. “I have always felt that the department has the children’s best interest at heart,” she said. “I no longer feel that way with this order.”

Reports of parents possibly providing puberty-blockers, hormones or other medically accepted treatments to their transgender children were being handled differently from other reports of child abuse, she testified. “These are not being treated the same,” Ms. Mulanax said during the hearing. “We had to be investigating these cases.”

A spokeswoman for the agency did not respond to a request for comment about Ms. Mulanax’s testimony.

During cross-examination, a lawyer for the state said that Ms. Mulanax’s job at the agency was to apply the law regarding child abuse, which the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, had determined in a nonbinding legal opinion included medical treatments for transgender youth.

The state’s lawyer, Courtney Corbello, asked whether any major steps had been taken as a result of the investigations into parents of transgender children. She asked whether any children had been taken away from their parents.

“To my knowledge, no,” Ms. Mulanax responded.

Had a child been taken off medication prescribed by a doctor?

“I’m not aware of that,” she said.

At the end of roughly 75 minutes of testimony, Judge Meachum had a question for the witness: “Once an investigation is opened into a family for abuse and neglect, is there a way for that to ever go away in the system, or does it stay in the database forever? ”

Ms. Mulanax said that if abuse is ruled out, most of those cases are eventually removed automatically from the system. But if investigators are unable to rule out abuse, she added, those “never get purged.”

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