Texas Court Halts Abuse Inquiries Into Parents of Transgender Children

HOUSTON — Investigations of parents with transgender children for possible child abuse were halted across Texas on Friday after a state court ruled that the policy, ordered last month by Gov. Greg Abbott, had been improperly adopted and violated the State Constitution.

The temporary injunction, issued by Judge Amy Clark Meachum in Travis County, stemmed from a legal challenge by the parents of a 16-year-old transgender girl. Her family was among the first to be investigated under Mr. Abbott’s order, which directed state officials to consider medically accepted treatments for transgender youth — including hormones or puberty-suppressing drugs — as abuse.

The ruling applied to all such investigations in Texas under Mr. Abbott’s order, which the court said could no longer be enforced pending a trial on the issue.

Though it was not clear how many inquiries had already been initiated, several parents of transgender children had come forward in recent weeks to say they had been contacted by officials from the Department of Family and Protective Services about the treatment their children had received. A spokeswoman for the department did not respond to a request for comment.

Judge Meachum this month temporarily halted the investigation of the family, which was named only as John, Jane and Mary Doe in court papers, but left the question of the policy’s broader legality open until a hearing on Friday.

The hearing brought out new facts about how investigations had been conducted since Mr. Abbott’s order in late February.

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 the hearing.

The supervisor, Randa Mulanax of the Department of Family and Protective Services, tested 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 cannot priority-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 had represented a victory for conservative groups and activists who have engaged in a new round of action in state capitals aimed at transgender Americans. Govt. 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, tested 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 began with the challenge last week by the parents of the 16-year-old transgender girl. 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 tested 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 of 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, and said that “child abuse of any kind won’t 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 tested. “These are not being treated the same,” Ms. Mulanax said during the hearing. “We had to investigate 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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