DALLAS — Attorney General Ken Paxton’s non-binding legal opinion arguing that gender-affirming care for children could be considered child abuse sent shockwaves through the state agency responsible for investigating abuse, according to hundreds of Texas Department of Family and Protective Services emails.
The emails, obtained by WFAA through an open records request, highlight the agency’s scramble to understand the Feb. 21 opinion and subsequent Feb. 22 directive by Gov. Greg Abbott requiring DFPS to open child abuse investigations into transgender children undergoing gender-affirming care.
More than that, they reveal an uneasiness among some staff members when it came to enforcing Abbott's instructions.
Stephen Black, the DFPS associate commissioner for statewide intake, sent an email two days after Abbott's directive with two attachments giving “guidance and direction regarding how the department is to handle intakes related to gender transitioning.”
DFPS managers forwarded Black’s email to staff as they worked to understand the impact of Paxton’s opinion and how to internally handle Abbott’s directive.
“I know there are lots of feelings around this and more questions than answers right now,” wrote one DFPS manager in an email to staff. “This email is not the platform for opinions or discussion on this topic.”
Marina Yzaguirre, regional director for Child Protective Investigations in Edinburg, Texas, ordered that cases of “any intakes,” or children arriving into DFPS custody who are transgender, “must be escalated up for further guidance and direction” in a Feb. 23 email.
“We must treat these as normal investigations,” a regional director emailed on Feb. 24.
Warned a regional managing attorney to staffers in a March 1 email: “In regard to the AG opinion about gender reassignment, if program contacts you with any questions or wanting to staff a case with this issue, you need to notify me immediately and do not give any advice in regard to this subject.”
Abbott’s order directed DFPS to “conduct prompt and thorough investigations of any reported instances of Texas children being subjected to abusive gender-transitioning procedures.”
"We will need to discuss having a designated caseworker handle these special cases when they come up," an investigative program director wrote on Feb. 24. "It is being asked that these cases are worked thoroughly without text messages/emails to the family etc."
The American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics support gender-affirming care and consider it medically necessary treatment.
And, despite being asked not to do so, several employees expressed frustration and anger upon receiving Black’s email regarding Paxton’s legal opinion on Feb. 21.
“I will resign,” an employee wrote in an Feb. 24 email.
Less than an hour later, that employee sent an email to another staffer saying, “I have told my boss I will resign before I (report) on a family whose child is transitioning.”
It is unclear if the employee still works for DFPS.
In a Feb. 28 email, another employee spoke plainly about her feelings over the investigative order.
“Effing bull poop,” she wrote to a supervisor.
According to a new report by the Houston Chronicle, “nearly 2,300 employees have left the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services since the beginning of the year" for a variety of reasons not limited to Abbott's directive to investigate transgender youth. But, several told the Chronicle the order was the reason for their departure from DFPS.
In April, more than half a dozen child abuse investigators told The Texas Tribune that they have either resigned or were actively job hunting because of the directive.
Currently, DFPS’s investigations are in legal limbo as the agency faces many legal challenges related to the order.
In all, DFPS had 11 investigations related to Abbott's trans youth directive.
As of Aug. 23., eight of the investigations were closed, according to Marissa Gonzales, DFPS's media relations director. Three cases remain open.
"None of the investigations have resulted in a removal of a child," Gonzales said.
In May, the Texas Supreme Court allowed investigations to continue, but blocked at least one investigation into one family who is suing the state.
Over the summer, three more child abuse investigations into gender-affirming care were blocked in Travis County.
Either way, the emails shed light on the agency’s internal effort to understand the impact of Gov. Abbott’s order and Attorney General Paxton’s opinion.
“Not fully sure what this means for us at [Statewide Intake], but during the most recent legislative session our policy changed because of Texas law to add [physical abuse] for ‘sexual reassignment surgery for non-medical purposes,’” read an email from J.R. Uribe-Woods, a statewide intake supervisor, that was written on Feb. 23.
The state legislature failed to pass bills restricting gender-affirming care during its 2021 session.
But last August, in response to a previous request from Gov. Abbott, DFPS deemed gender reassignment surgery as child abuse except for the surgeries it deems “medically necessary” to correct “medically verifiable genetic disorders of sex development.”
Medical experts widely agree that gender-affirming care rarely includes surgeries.
When needed, most treatment includes puberty or hormone blockers, which delays puberty, but can be reversed.
Equality Texas, a statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group, has criticized Abbott’s request.
“This is nothing more than another political attempt to stigmatize transgender people, their loving families and the healthcare providers who offer them lifesaving care,” CEO Ricardo Martinez said.