Governor Greg Abbott’s notorious order to investigate gender-affirming care as child abuse was years in the making.
This story was published in partnership with New York Magazine
The story of Texas’s sharp turn against trans rights is about discrimination, cruelty, and an increasingly hostile environment for LGBTQ families in this country. It is also specifically a story about foster care.
When Governor Greg Abbott in February directed the state’s child-welfare agency to conduct abuse investigations of parents who provide their children gender-affirming care, it threw the lives of people like Kimberly Shappley into tumult. Shappley, an LGBTQ activist from Austin and mother to a trans daughter, Kai, said she spent the days following the order calling attorneys, preparing Kai’s safe folder — a collection of medical documents and testimonies from the community in case government agents knock on the door — and getting her “escape plan” in place in case the family needed to leave the state. “I’m just like, I don’t know, crying nonstop since the news hit, like every other parent,” Shappley said.
Shappley and many other parents of trans children earned a reprieve in late February when county and district attorneys across Texas issued statements saying they would decline to prosecute these cases on behalf of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). A mother of a trans child who is under investigation by DFPS, and is also an employee of the agency, brought a lawsuit against the state, backed by the ACLU. On March 11, after several Texas DAs — joined by high-profile prosecutors including New York’s Alvin Bragg and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin — filed an amicus brief in the ACLU case, a Travis County judge put Abbott’s order on hold until a trial could be held.
Still, DFPS has opened at least nine investigations into the parents of trans children. The nation’s largest pediatric hospital, Texas Children’s in Houston, said it was pausing gender therapy at its medical centers due to the governor’s order. And according to details unearthed at the hearing in Travis County, a DFPS supervisor had testified that “abuse investigators had been told to prioritize cases involving the parents of transgender children and to investigate them without exception” following the governor’s order, according to the New York Times. The rights of trans children and their families stand on a knife’s edge in Texas.
Abbott’s order is part of a state-by-state attack on trans people led by prominent conservative groups. Iowa, for example, has 14 bills restricting trans rights pending in the state legislature. In just one day in late March, Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma each passed a ban on trans athletes in sports, and Arizona passed a bill restricting gender-affirming surgeries for minors, procedures that are already extremely rare. President Joe Biden has weighed in, declaring, “The onslaught of anti-transgender state laws attacking you and your families is simply wrong.”
All of this is occurring at a time of heightened, open bigotry toward LGBTQ people more broadly, with Florida enacting its already notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill in March and Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene proclaiming that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband “can stay out of our girls’ bathrooms.” Nearly seven years after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges, anti-LGBTQ sentiment has flowed into new legal and rhetorical channels, most of which involve alleged harm done to children and lurid accusations of pornography, trafficking, abuse, and “grooming.”
These elements have been evident for years, in more inchoate form, in Texas’s efforts to make its foster-care system as inimical as possible to trans children — a doubly salient fact when you consider that trans children separated from their affirming parents may very well end up in that system. If Abbott gets his way, the conservative movement’s campaign to take over Texas’s child welfare will reach a new and frightening stage, ensnaring trans kids, like Kai Shappley, who have remained out of reach. “Right now we’re kind of like, what do we do? Do I put her on the plane right now and say, ‘Bye, see ya, go hang out with so-and-so for a while’?” Shappley said. “Do I do that to my kid?”
Foster care is tough on every child who experiences it, but for LGBTQ youth it’s worse, since they are more likely to experience incarceration, homelessness, and sexual violence. Partly because they are rejected by their parents, LGBTQ kids and particularly trans kids are vastly overrepresented in the foster-care system; one 2014 study focused on Los Angeles found that there were up to double the number of trans foster youth than there were trans youth in the general population. “They’re coming into care with a lot of trauma, and then the system which is supposed to be responding to that mistreatment by a parent or guardian is repeating the same things,” said Currey Cook, the director of the Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project for Lambda Legal.
Since mid-March, Abbott’s administration has been grappling with the fallout from the revelation that girls in a foster-care facility near Austin called the Refuge Ranch were sex-trafficked and photographed naked by staff members who rewarded them with alcohol and drugs. The scandal broke against the backdrop of federal monitoring in the wake of a civil-rights lawsuit filed against the state in 2011 for its abhorrent treatment of kids in its long-term care. Abbott was the state’s attorney general when the suit was filed, and he and current attorney general Ken Paxton have spent millions of dollars fighting it instead of making the recommended changes. Texas lost the suit in late 2015, but its lagging compliance has resulted in preventable deaths of children and a crisis of high-needs kids sleeping in offices and hotels with nowhere else to go.
Trans kids are especially vulnerable both inside the system and after they leave. They are routinely misgendered and placed in living situations with kids of the opposite gender, often in so-called treatment centers where they are not safe. Only nine states have anti-discrimination laws and policies in place for LGBTQ youth in their child-welfare systems, according to a 2017 Lambda Legal report. Texas is one of ten states without any explicit protection against discrimination on account of sexual orientation or gender identity in its child-welfare statutes or policies. (Only California places children in bedrooms in accordance with their gender identity by statute.) “It’s literally at the discretion of the facility,” said Yoshika Berroud, a former program director at a residential treatment center in Houston. Outside such facilities, trans youth are often fostered by unaffirming homes, which puts them at increased risk for serious mental-health issues, including suicide.
Catizia Farris was assigned male at birth, but her great-aunt and -uncle, who took her in after her mother died, were uncomfortable with any displays of femininity. If she was caught playing with makeup, she was punished. She wasn’t allowed to wear the clothes she wanted to wear, so she hid them in her backpack and changed when she got to school. Her adoptive parents installed a lock on the outside of her door, shutting her in her bedroom for hours at a time. Sometimes, Catizia said, they would hit her. After an explosive and violent argument, her great-aunt dropped her off at an emergency shelter and Catizia was charged with assault. She was 13 years old, and she’d be in foster care for the next several years.
One of Catizia’s first foster placements was a boys’ home in Mountain Home, Texas, an hour and a half from her native San Antonio. They took the clothes she loved so much and gave her standard-issue sweats. She said she was growing her thick black hair long — what she described as “my everything” — but staff shaved her head as the boys looked on. They told her they were going to toughen her up. Each day, in her few moments alone, Catizia cried in the shower.
“I had to learn how to not be feminine or just be me in general,” Catizia said. Calls to her caseworker went unreturned. The home billed itself as a wilderness program, meant to “strengthen character and engender personal integrity in young men.” She knew she wouldn’t be able to leave the home until she completed the program, so she acted the way they wanted her to. “My plan was to fake it ’til I make it so I can go back to San Antonio.”
Catizia is Latinx, and for trans youth like her the situation in foster care is even more dire. LGBTQ youth of color are “the most vulnerable ones: They experience every single form of childhood maltreatment at disproportionately high rates; they’re four times more likely to be in the system,” said Adam McCormick, an associate social-work professor at St. Edward’s University who researches LGBTQ foster youth. “And we’ve created a system that will inevitably do more harm than good for them.”
LGBTQ youth also stay longer in foster care than their peers; many of them age out of the system without a guardian. When that happens, they are likely to end up homeless, said Brandon Andrew Robinson, an associate professor of gender studies at UC Riverside. When Robinson interviewed 40 LGBTQ homeless young adults in Central Texas, he realized that more than half of them had been in foster care. “I quickly learned that this was a main institution punishing and policing LGBTQ youth and especially trans youth, and that the violence and discrimination that they experienced there further contributed to their experiences of instability,” Robinson said. “Many of them would flee their foster homes or flee their group homes and go back to the streets. And of course when many of them aged out at 18, they had nowhere to go because they had such bad and violent experiences in the system, that the streets became the safest alternative.”
When Catizia was 15, she met Lauryn Farris, and her life changed. Lauryn was a transgender woman who came out in her 40s, and as she embraced her true self, she became an outspoken advocate for trans rights in San Antonio. Catizia at the time was struggling at another institutional home. She was living fully as a girl then, at a conservative high school where people made fun of her for being a “tranny.” Back at the home, she still lived with the boys, and even had a boy roommate.
Lauryn and her wife Kerry had been married for decades before Lauryn’s transition, and they had two grown children. Lauryn’s experience transitioning late — and all the confusion and stress it placed on her and her family’s lives — made her particularly sensitive to what was going on with Catizia. The Farrises adopted her in 2015. The family later spoke out against anti-trans legislation introduced in Texas, particularly the 2017 “bathroom bill,” which would have required trans people in government buildings and schools to use the bathroom corresponding to their assigned sex at birth. That bill ended up failing in the legislature.
In retrospect, Catizia was one of the relatively lucky ones. In the years since, the foster-care system has only grown more hostile toward trans children, thanks to a series of below-the-radar initiatives launched by Christian groups that were looking for new avenues to promote their agenda post-Obergefell, pushing Republican politicians to the right on a range of social-conservatism causes.
During the same session of the Texas legislature that produced the bathroom bill, several other revisions were made that would have far-reaching consequences for LGBTQ kids in foster care. One was a change to a little-known document that informs foster youth of their rights while in care. It had once included the right to fair treatment no matter the child’s “gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, medical problems or sexual orientation.” But in 2017, that language was swapped for the right for foster youth to “be treated fairly” and “have their religious needs met.”
While the bathroom bill failed that year, another bill passed both houses and was signed into law. HB 3859 carved out a religious exemption for child-welfare providers that did not want to provide their services to LGBTQ people. Contemporaneous news articles focused on how the law would affect LGBTQ couples who were looking to foster and/or adopt children, since many of the child-placing agencies contracted by the state are religious. But the law didn’t stop there. The broad language applied this “religious exemption” to child-welfare providers at every point of the process — including treatment centers, which by law were now able to provide “religious instruction” to children in their care. This, to some LGBTQ advocates, sounded a lot like conversion therapy.
“Once you remove kids from a space of recognizing their vulnerability and protecting them, it’s easy to move from there to actually actively attacking them.”
The bill was championed by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, which began pulling out of contracts to provide foster- and adoption-placement services around the state in advance of the bill’s introduction to the legislature. “It would be tragic if the reforms sought this session did not ensure that we could provide foster services in accordance with the very values that make our assistance so essential to the success of reform,” Jennifer Carr Allmon, the organization’s executive director, told legislators at a committee hearing. Foster-care reform was a main priority of the state legislature that year, in part because of the federal lawsuit against Texas accusing the state of not providing adequate resources for foster kids. So Catholic charities had leverage. “The point isn’t about the political stuff,” Representative James Frank, the bill’s author, said at the time. “It’s about having as many quality homes as possible.”
Texas wasn’t the only state passing legislation limiting the rights of LGBTQ parents and children in the child-welfare system. Since 2010, 49 such bills have been introduced in 19 states, and ten states have enacted similar laws, according to the Family Research Council, the powerhouse Evangelical lobbying group behind much of the legislation. The group partnered with the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and others to form the “Promise to America’s Children,” an agenda that provides “examples of good legislation” to conservative lawmakers on a number of subjects. Besides “inclusion” bills that carve out exemptions for religious child-welfare providers from anti-discrimination laws, the group also authors boilerplate bills banning transgender girls from sports and gender-affirming care for trans children.
For Will Francis, the executive director of the National Association of Social Workers Texas, the 2017 removal of LGBTQ protections in the Foster Care Bill of Rights was the first domino to fall in a long line of protections for LGBTQ kids. “Once they did that, that first erasure — you know, if you call me tomorrow and said, ‘Hey, the department is now paying for conversion therapy,’ like I’d be shocked, but not surprised,” Francis said. “Once you remove kids from a space of recognizing their vulnerability and protecting them, it’s easy to move from there to actually actively attacking them.”
It would seem the Christian right has powerful allies on this issue. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Catholic Social Services in a dispute in which they claimed they were being discriminated against, after Philadelphia pulled its contracts for refusing to license LGBTQ couples for adoption. Currey Cook, the Lambda Legal attorney, says the whole system has been turned on its head. “We have a system that is supposed to be serving children, but it’s actually now been designed to cater to the providers’ needs and wishes and beliefs versus the child’s,” Cook said.
Governor Abbott, who like all Republicans in deep-red states is wary of being outflanked from the right, saw gender-affirming care as a logical next target. “It’s a complete disregard, disrespect, and dangerous salvo on these families to score political points. I mean, that’s all it is. He doesn’t care,” Francis said. “It was done to create a confusion that I think comes directly from the abortion playbook of empowering local vigilantes to take out anyone that doesn’t fit in their worldview,” he added, referring to Senate Bill 8, the 2021 Texas law that empowers third parties to sue abortion providers. It remains to be seen whether the courts will agree. The Texas Supreme Court will soon rule on whether the injunction against the directive will stand. If it falls, investigations of families with trans children will resume.
“You can’t help but feel that they want every LGBTQ youth and adult in this state to either kill themselves or leave.”
Attorney General Paxton, who issued a nonbinding legal opinion that inspired the Abbott DFPS directive, hasn’t stopped there. In March, he announced investigations into two drug manufacturers of hormone blockers he alleges are pushing off-label uses of the drugs to treat gender dysphoria. He told the Austin Independent School District that its annual Pride week was breaking state law. And he purposefully misgendered United States Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, in a tweet that Twitter flagged for hateful conduct.
Tracy Harting, an attorney for children in the foster-care system, said the attacks have reached a point where it’s clear it’s not just savvy political grandstanding. “You can’t help but feel that they want every LGBTQ youth and adult in this state to either kill themselves or leave,” Harting said.
Catizia, who was able to find the “happy ending” of a permanent, loving family, has still struggled badly. She had a brief few years of relative stability, when she lived at home with her moms and finished out high school online. Later, she started a relationship and moved out. But when COVID-19 hit, her life was again thrown into flux. She wasn’t able to see her parents, who are older, for a long time, and in late 2020, Lauryn had a stroke. The next summer, she died of a heart attack.
Catizia was devastated, and her old feelings of abandonment flared up. Her mom Kerry has had a hard time tracking her down at times. Catizia said that, over the past two years, she has experienced homelessness, including periods living in hotels, and was coerced into sex work — all things that are common for people with her life experiences. Catizia said she sometimes feels suicidal. “I’m still family. And sometimes I have to remind myself that I am,” she said of her mom and brothers, who often reach out to her, worried. “Because of the foster-care system, I definitely have that PTSD where I forget and think that I’m alone, and that I have to do things alone, that I have to not ask for help.”
Kerry worries about whether Catizia will be able to find stability. She didn’t know how much Lauryn’s death had affected her until she shut Lauryn’s phone off and Catizia called her in tears: She had been calling the phone nightly to hear her mother’s voice on her voice-mail message.
“I wish we could have gotten her when she was younger,” Kerry says now. “I mean, you can’t go backwards, but she might have had more of a chance.”
As the ACLU case unfolds, Shappley said she’s heard from well-meaning people who ask her whether she plans to move her family outside of Texas. “Three-quarters of the United States is on fire with anti-trans legislation right now,” she said. “Where do you want me to move?”