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Transgender kids and families are being policed by agencies that should be protecting them
We are two journalists writing about family and caregiving from a feminist perspective. Research, interviews and personal stories connecting systemic issues and family life; also, 40+ mom humor. You can read past issues here. follow us on Instagram here. Click below to get this newsletter in your inbox, free.
I worked briefly at a foster care agency in Brooklyn when I was just out of college. I did fundraising, and helped set up the annual benefit dinner, and every year at Christmas, I would run around Toys-R-Us at closing time on December 24, scooping up as many toys under $20 as I could, to make sure that all the agency’s kids had adequate stocking stuffers.
It was often very sad work, and I wasn’t naive about the child welfare system, and the strains the families and caseworkers were under. Still, it’s a system that – in name – is set up to care for children and families, which is something we can all get behind, right?
Which is why I was particularly curious about the directive out of Texas earlier this month that charged the state’s Department of Family Protective Services with investigating families that support gender-affirming care for their transgender kids.
“Gender-affirming care” can mean anything from allowing your child to choose their own name and dress however they like, to supporting the use of puberty-blockers or hormone treatments.
The directive from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (who both just won their re-election primaries) asked for families to be investigated for what they called “child abuse.”
This is part of a trend of anti-trans actions on the state level: from bathroom bans to a bill in the Idaho state senate that would outlaw gender-affirming healthcare for transgender children under the age of 18, to a bill in Alabama that would make it illegal for a doctor to provide such care.
The Texas directive was blocked by a Texas judge – Abbot and Paxton are appealing it – and the bill in Idaho was voted down. Still, these anti-trans actions are popping up in states all over the country.
So I wanted to talk to someone who has been following these trends for a while. And, in particular, the connection between the child welfare system and anti-trans actions that target families.
Enter Roxanna Asgarian. She’s a freelance journalist who has called for newsrooms to make child welfare a “beat” – a specific area of coverage, the way newsrooms cover sports, or elections. She’s kept her eyes trained tightly on this system for years.
I reached out to her after reading a story she wrote last year, about a case in Michigan in which a mother was jailed and had her kids taken away from her because she supported her child’s gender exploration (wearing skirts and choosing to use a different name). She’s also written in-depth about what’s happening in Texas. (Please take time to read her stories! They are excellent!)
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, but if you want to know more about the history of child welfare – or share your own experiences with the system– please drop your thoughts in the comments.
You write that Child Protective Services (CPS) has become a very potent tool for policing trans families. Why is that the case?
In part, it's because child protective services is set up to have a very wide net of surveillance. The bar is so low for an investigation of abuse. Lots of families can have CPS investigations. There’s something like 4.4 million CPS investigations around the country each year. It’s super common, and we know that abuse is not that common.
Investigations are common, but actual abuse is not that common.
Right, and the tools are mostly for the surveillance and the punishment end, and not so much the support end. One of my sources, Mical Raz, has written a book called “Abusive Policies: How the American Child Welfare System Lost Its Way.” She's really brilliant. She says that this thing in Texas is making it super clear that we criminalize families that we don't like.
So what makes Child Protective Services an effective avenue for transphobic politicians in particular?
Essentially, the Attorney General was reading into an existing child abuse law in the family codes and saying, “Well, this is where I think we could apply gender-affirming care.” It's very clear that the law was not intended to apply to this situation.
The specific part of the family code has to do with impeding growth and development, and that has a lot more to do with withholding food or other other things like that. The term “abuse” becomes this amorphous concept that makes it a lot easier to weaponize.
The other piece of it, as it refers to trans kids, is that this has been an issue in custody battles, and it's becoming more and more of an issue.
I wrote about a Michigan case of a mom who lost her children to her husband. It didn't start out as a custody case, but it was basically weaponizing CPS for a custody dispute.
Custody disputes are often in family court. But when you are bringing the state intervention into it, you're adding a whole other scary authoritarian level. People coming in and taking your children for no reason. That's really, really scary.
So what's happening right now is extremely alarming for trans kids and their families and for families in general.
You’ve been following this for a while…
I have been working on a story about Texas and trans children and trans foster children in Texas since last summer. This has been coming. And it's been hard to watch because our politicians are so bombastic, and you can think that it's all talk. What we're seeing now is that it isn't all talk.
Even if the law is not changed, they have the ability to terrorize and harass people. It's important to be aware that this is part of a larger, coordinated effort. They've been taking down the LGBT-specific websites on the DFPS site and on the Health and Human Services site, which are specifically for LGBT foster youth.
LGBT youth are overrepresented in the foster care system, and trans youth specifically, are overrepresented, because of unaffirming parents. These kids are treated abysmally, particularly trans kids. They are sometimes not allowed to identify as they are, and they're often sent to live in institutional placements. They experience sexual violence at increased rates. There are terrible outcomes for LGBT youth, and specifically for trans youth in foster care.
Sometimes it feels like child welfare issues get really big in the public consciousness when white, middle-class families can relate. Even in this case: How many people are talking about trans foster youth – the youth that are already in the system, and what's happening to them?
Your reporting points out how families of color and poor families are specifically targeted by CPS. Do you see any solution to this? Does the whole thing just need to be torn down?
Poor families are targeted, LGBT families, undocumented families. Families who are already marginalized in some way basically make up the entirety of the child welfare system.
But we know that abuse is not limited to marginalized families. There are children in middle-class, upper-middle class and rich families who are being abused.
So it's really hard when you say, like, “Well, do we need to tear it down?” Nobody wants kids to be abused. Nobody wants kids to be murdered, you know. And it's one of those things that fires people up. But in the history of the child welfare system, people get fired up and then do things based on where they're coming from, which is usually a middle-class, white, female perspective.
That's partially why the system is targeting marginalized families. It's coming from the perspective of quote-unquote: “good families.” And the system has this perspective, “Oh, these poor people, they need our help.”
That's a terrible way to approach helping anyone. Nobody wants to be helped when they're condescended to and treated badly.
Fundamentally, we could do things outside of the child welfare system that make meaningful change in families’ lives. The Child Tax Credit, that's something that made a huge difference. There's research that showed the difference it made on a national scale was huge.
We could help in ways that don't have anything to do with removing children from their homes: Access to substance abuse treatment, for example. People who have money can pay for these things. If you don't have money, you get on a list for a year or six months. And in the meantime, you're being surveilled.
So we criminalize families we don't like, and we focus on surveillance rather than prevention and support. We're putting resources into the policing part, and not into the preventative part.
Well, there was legislation passed in 2018 called The Family First Prevention and Services Act, and it gives states federal money to do preventive services, which is a sea change.
But some people argue that that's also not helpful, because it's tied to a system in which, if you don’t do things the right way, you don’t get the service.
Say a family is housing insecure. They need housing assistance. If we put it through the child welfare system, that assistance requires that you must drug test once a week, or you also must do a therapy appointment once a week, and you also must do a parenting class. And this parent is struggling to make ends meet. So they're likely trying to find a job, or have a job or have two jobs. What they need is actually just money. Money would solve the problem. The idea of putting more preventative services, in theory, is a good idea. But in practice, if it's still coercive, then it ends up just widening the net again.
I’m interested to know about your experience with caseworkers in these child welfare agencies. Who are they, and what is their perspective on the system they work in?
The system is very traumatizing for the caseworkers. The turnover is huge in the child welfare system. I think there's kind of two options: people can get really disillusioned and burnt out and personally harmed. Often those people leave. Then there's these career lifers, who compartmentalize to the point where they're doing their daily work, but they're not thinking about the real impact, the more intense implications of it.
A lot of the caseworkers I talk to are in the first camp, because they're no longer acting caseworkers. Part of that is that caseworkers aren't typically allowed to talk to the media, which is a real shame, and I'm working on some ways to get into the labor aspect of what they're doing. The conditions are awful. They're really, really bad, and they're not able to talk about it. And so much of every case is confidential, so it's not like you can go home and just chat about it with your spouse or something.
I feel for caseworkers. It's a system that's not working for anybody.