Call Texas’ Anti-Trans Crusade What It Is: Family Separation
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Governor Greg Abbott have weaponized the child welfare system for their own political gain.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is a snake, spineless and greedy and willing to do just about anything to maintain his office and power. Look no further than the story of Paxton and Amber Briggle.
In September 2016, Paxton and his wife Angela visited Briggle’s home in Denton, Texas, and had dinner with the Briggle family, including their eight-year-old trans son. At the time, Paxton was suing the Obama administration for issuing a directive that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that aligned with their gender identity.
Local media framed the dinner as a moment of hope that Paxton would humanize children like Briggle’s son. “The Briggles said they were pleased to get the chance to show the Republican that they are Texans — ‘just like everyone else,’” the Dallas Morning News wrote. “I hope that this meeting can set a tone of civility for our public discussions about LGBT issues,” Briggle’s husband Adam said at the time in a press release from LGBTQ+ rights group Equality Texas.
Nearly six years after that dinner, a “tone of civility” is perhaps the furthest thing from anyone’s mind who’s read about the horrors that Paxton and Governor Greg Abbott have unleashed upon families like the Briggles.
Last month, Paxton issued an opinion deeming gender-affirming care for trans kids to be child abuse. Paxton’s opinion came in response to a question posed to him by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who had asked if “sex change procedures” for kids were child abuse if there was no “medical necessity” for them. Abbott had also asked the state Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) to determine whether what he called the “genital mutilation” of children constituted abuse. (It must be noted that the authors of these letters completely misunderstand and misrepresent the kind of gender-affirming care that kids receive; among other things, almost no trans children get any kind of surgery as part of their care.)
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Within a week of Paxton issuing his opinion, Abbott ordered the DFPS to investigate families of trans children for the use of puberty blockers or surgery, and ordered licensed professionals like doctors and teachers to report “such child abuse” — in other words, people who very well may be familiar or involved in a child’s gender-affirming care are now legally bound to report the child’s parents to DFPS.
This brings us back to the Briggles. Abbott’s order has led the DFPS to open at least nine cases against families with trans children. This includes the family of Amber Briggle, who, for her sins of fighting a state that wishes it could erase children like hers, and for opening her home to Paxton in good faith, had that same home surveilled by Child Protective Services (CPS) earlier this month.
This series of events is no coincidence. It came months after multiple bills to criminalize gender-affirming care for trans kids and to constitute such care as “child abuse” failed during the Texas legislative session last year. When Abbott couldn’t get what he wanted, he and Paxton found another way, but their agendas were far more self-interested than just wanting to tear families of trans children apart.
Paxton and Abbott released their opinion and directive just weeks before Texas’ March 1 primaries, with Abbot being goaded by his opponents for supposedly not being far-right enough to lead the state. Though Abbott won his primary comfortably, Paxton is now headed for a runoff with Land Commissioner George P. Bush, son of Jeb(!). Paxton, who has been indicted with securities fraud charges since 2016 and is under FBI investigation for bribery allegations, faced similar accusations from his opponents of being unfit for the office.
As an incumbent backed into a corner while seeking a third term, Paxton has had the laughable audacity to frame himself as an underdog, alleging that his opponents were propped up by “the establishment.” It’s abundantly clear that these announcements to treat gender-affirming care as child abuse and to investigate families suspected of having trans children have very little to do with the welfare of children and everything to do with Abbott and Paxton pulling out whatever stops they have left to maintain their positions. They hate trans people and they love their power, and they’ve figured out a horrific way to combine the two.
Even employees of the DFPS knew that Abbott and Paxton were using the department to discriminate against families of trans children. From the Texas Tribune’s coverage of a court hearing involving a lawsuit against the state, emphasis mine:
A DFPS supervisor who was called to testify at the Friday court hearing said that the child abuse investigations into families of transgender children are being held to a different standard than other cases.
Investigators can’t discuss cases with colleagues via text or email, and they are required to investigate the cases, even if there’s no evidence of abuse, said Randa Mulanax, an investigative supervisor with DFPS.
Mulanax has decided to resign as a result of this directive after six years with the agency.
“I’ve always felt that, at the end of the day, the department had children’s best interest at heart,” she said. “I no longer feel that way.”
This may all look like a terrible new thing, but it isn’t, really. It’s an updated version of a tool that the state has been using for generations, and that has been deployed to especially harmful ends in recent years: family separation.
In the most generous light, DFPS and CPS and similar “child welfare” agencies in other states can remove children from harmful living situations. But these services are frequently weaponized by the state to criminalize parents who are struggling to provide for their children.
The 19th published an interview with Briggle right after Abbott issued his order, where she expressed nervousness over what might happen to her family. Weeks later, Briggle published a blog post about the state’s investigation into her family and a CPS case worker’s visit to inspect the house. “When we were notified of the allegations, it was as if the wind had been knocked out of us,” she wrote. “We wanted to scream and cry, but we had no air.”
I imagine Briggle’s description of having CPS called on her and her husband is the exact feeling that most parents have when CPS gets involved in the wellbeing of their child. I was in my late teens when my dad first told me that our family of four had been investigated by CPS twice, the second time resulting in a caseworker investigating our home. It never occurred to me until then that my sibling and I were ever in remote danger of the state taking us away from our parents, and it scared me to think that I ever was.
I imagine that Briggle’s encounter with the state was also a little bit like what the parents of migrant children went through when they found their kids torn from them. Again and again, children become the tools used to discipline and terrorize marginalized people, and to warn everyone not to step out of line. The fact that this also terrorizes the children is an added bonus.
This is ultimately what Paxton and Abbott and all the other Republicans behind 2021’s anti-trans legislation intended, right? This is their end game, to wipe trans people out of existence by criminalizing trans kids and the people who love, embrace and support them as children. Why else would they go to such lengths to make being a trans child such a crime if not to see it through to its logical conclusion? Family separation is a tool that the GOP has at its disposal, and they’ll use it to threaten trans people and the people who love them as they see fit.
There is resistance happening to all of this right now. Several Texas district attorneys have stated that they won’t interfere with gender-affirming care for trans kids. Earlier this month, the ACLU of Texas and Lambda Legal filed a suit against the state on behalf of one of the first families investigated under Abbott’s order (one of the parents was herself an employee of the DFPS who was placed on leave after asking her supervisor for clarification over the order). A state judge issued the family a temporary restraining order against the state, which Paxton appealed and lost. Then on Friday, the judge issued an injunction to suspend Abbott’s directive and all investigations into families of trans children. In her ruling, District Judge Amy Clark Meachum stated the obvious — that providing your child gender-affirming healthcare is no reason to be investigated for child abuse. The injunction will remain in effect until the case is heard in July, according to the Texas Tribune. Meanwhile, Paxton has said he intends to appeal the ruling.
But injunction aside, none of that can undo the weeks of threats that families and their trans children have faced, thinking the state might accuse them of abuse. None of that can undo the stress and anxiety and sleepless nights of thinking you might be removed from your family because they support you, or that you might be punished for trying to be a good parent, or that you might have to physically escape the only place your family has called home. None of that can fill in the gaps left behind by Texas’ largest gender-affirming care program, which closed after pressure from the state. The Texas GOP took the opportunity to use children for their own political gain, and even if they lose come July, the damage is already done.