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Investigating gender-affirming care as child abuse pushing state agency to ‘brink of collapse,’ staff warns

Demonstrators rally to show support to the transgender community at the state Capitol on Trans Day of Visibility, April 2, 2022.
Sheryl Wong
Demonstrators rally to show support to the transgender community at the state Capitol on Trans Day of Visibility, April 2, 2022.

Almost two weeks ago, The Dallas Morning News reported that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services told employees to avoid written communications about any of the state’s investigations into families providing gender-affirming care to transgender teenagers.

Back in February, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state agencies to open investigations into parents and licensed facilities providing such care, and it triggered lawsuits and considerable media attention as well. The order not to communicate about the investigations appears directed at tamping down criticism – but internal documents also shows some DFPS employees revolting against the directive.

Now, as Lauren McGaughy of the Morning News reports, the department could be on the brink of collapse, with widespread resignations at an agency already troubled by staffing shortages and ongoing concerns about the welfare and safety of kids in the state’s care. She joined The Texas Standard to share the latest.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about this new filing that The Dallas Morning News has obtained and how that fits into this aspect of the story.

Lauren McGaughy: Sure. Just a hat tip to the Austin American-Statesman for breaking the news on this filing. It’s an amicus brief filed in one of the lawsuits that you mentioned, suing the state over this change in policy at DFPS. And it was filed by a number of current and former employees, some of whom remained anonymous because they actually still work at the agency. And it was a pretty dire warning, raising concerns about the agency being able to continue some of its basic functions because of what the filing described as a drain of employees away due to various considerations, but in particular, this decision to investigate parents of trans kids.

This idea that the agency might be on the brink of collapse already – I mean, it’s been troubled; there’s a long history of the agency being in the courts. But with this new directive on investigating parents and others providing gender-affirming care for transgender youth, how has that affected the agency? And is it clear how many employees have actually left because of it?

We know that The Houston Chronicle reported just earlier this month that more than 2,000 employees have departed the agency this year alone. So not even a full year. And, you know, to be clear, this is a massive, massive agency, so there are a lot of employees that work there. But as you mentioned, there’s already been concerns about capacity, especially for CPS caseworkers – you know, them having to take on a lot of work, you know, needing to hire more. And the fact that they’re losing so many people is a problem, according to these current and former employees. I think we have to wait to see whether we see any specific effects from this rush of people away from the agency. But at least right now, there is a handful of people warning that they think there could be a real problem here.

In fact, I think you had reported that an employee was actually being investigated for providing gender-affirming care for that employee’s child, right?

That’s right. This filing was actually made in that case. This is a case of a mother who allowed her transgender teenage daughter to receive gender-affirming care. She was then investigated by her own employer for allowing her doctors to seek those medical treatments. So, you know, this is affecting people within the agency. We’ve also seen transgender CPS caseworkers leave the agency in protest. So, you know, this isn’t just affecting the wider public, but, you know, our government employees inside the agency that are tasked with undertaking this directive.

I think that the immediate concern would be for the kids, right? I mean, with people resigning and already with the system under considerable stress and lower staffing levels than many have said the agency needs. What does that mean for children in their care?

Well, I think we’re going to have to wait to see whether it becomes a part of the ongoing legal battle over the agency. You know, there’s been an ongoing discussion in the courts about what the agency needs to do to properly care for kids. But we are, just within the cohort of families with transgender minors and children, we are seeing people starting to leave the state to, you know, avoid having to potentially come into contact with CPS.

I do want to make one thing clear: We did get updated numbers from the agency; we know that 11 cases were opened into reports of potential parents allowing their minor children to get gender-affirming care. We know that eight of those cases have been closed and there have been no children removed from the homes due to those allegations.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.