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Social workers are quitting over Texas’ anti-trans child care order

“There was a sadness,” one social worker said of his experience investigating a transgender home.

(CN) — Randa Mulanax worked at Texas Child Protective Services for six years, ultimately leading a small unit of investigators in Austin. But when a new policy required her to investigate families of transgender children, Mulanax decided she couldn’t be part of a mission that “didn’t feel right.”

In March, just weeks after the new rules went into effect, Mulanax resigned. In a letter to supervisors, she expressed concern these investigations would “cause trauma” and harm families “that are only trying to support their child and make them feel loved.”

“We are an agency that is here to protect the unprotected,” Mulanax wrote, but these new rules were “politically motivated" and “unethical.” She accused state officials of “actively discriminating against a specific sect of people” and warned they might cause “irreparable damage” to Texas’ protective services department.

The directives that have outraged Mulanax and others started with a February legal opinion by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Matt Krause, a Republican state lawmaker, had asked Paxton whether gender-affirming treatments for transgender children were a form of child abuse. Paxton said yes.

Attorney general opinions are advisory, not binding legal precedent. But Governor Greg Abbott followed up days later, ordering the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to “investigate” what he called “abusive gender-transitioning procedures.”

Both Paxton’s and Abbott’s letters conflated sex-change surgeries with treatments like hormone therapy, which are non-permanent and recognized by doctors as a safe and appropriate treatment for gender dysphoria. Sex change operations are rarely, if ever, performed on people under 18. They’re a last-ditch procedure that even most transgender adults opt against.

“I don’t know a doctor who would perform a sex-change operation on a 12-year-old,” said Lane Strickland, a spokesperson for the Texas advocacy group Out Youth. “It’s just not a thing.”

Numerous medical groups, including the Texas Pediatric Society, have denounced the new Texas rules. Still, as a court battle over Abbott’s directive plays out at the Texas Supreme Court, healthcare providers across the state have stopped offering gender-affirming therapies for children. At least nine Texas families remain under investigation, The Texas Tribune reported in March.

The new rules, Mulanax said in an interview with Courthouse News, are “a betrayal of our career and our goals and what we felt like we were there to do.” Her job was already “hard enough." Opening investigations into caring families was “soul-crushing.”

Mulanax isn’t alone in that feeling. Since the new rules went into effect, she personally knows at least six other CPS workers in the Austin area who have left the agency. Estimates from other workers are even higher. That’s out of an Austin workforce of just around 70 people focused on investigations.

“We are severely understaffed,” Mulanax said — and that was true even before these new rules went into effect.

Courthouse News has requested data from the agency on how many people have resigned since Abbott’s Feb. 22 letter, as well as information on the total number of transgender-related abuse reports and allegations by region. At press time, DFPS has not yet provided these records.

Morgan Davis, a trans man and former CPS investigator, is also leaving the agency after submitting his resignation on Monday.

Out of a team that originally included six people, four have already left either because of the directives, high overall caseloads or both. Once Davis leaves, there will be only one person in his former investigative unit.

Another unit employee, who would only interview anonymously, said it was “untenable” to remain in CPS under the new rules.

Prior to resigning, Davis had to investigate a transgender family. He called the experience “surreal.”

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A typical CPS call might involve allegations of neglect or serious abuse in the home, he said. In this case, “the child is being taken impeccable care of, and the parents are fearful.”

“There was a sadness,” Davis said of his feelings handling that case. While the case remained open in compliance with state orders, he pledged to “tell this child they’ve done nothing wrong” and “treat this child with love and respect.” (To protect the family’s confidentiality, Davis was limited in what he said about that investigation.)

Davis chose to speak out, he said, because this was “a hill I’m willing to die on.”

“We’re losing good people very quickly,” he added of CPS.

Also resigning from Davis’ unit is Shelby McCowen, an investigator and a personal friend of Davis. As a lesbian, she considers herself a member of the LGBTQ community.

McCowen can relate to how transgender kids are feeling, she said, because when she was in high school, her parents had to fight with her school district to allow her to take another girl to prom.

“We’re kind of being told to turn on people we consider family,” McCowen said. “I didn’t think that in 2022, we’d still be fighting for basic rights.”

Amid funding cuts and other controversies, McCowen estimates that CPS in Travis County is currently operating at less than 50% staffing. And while McCowen has other grievances with CPS, including stress and long hours, the new anti-trans directives were “the last straw,” she said.

McCowen resigned from her position last month. In a video posted to her TikTok, she explained her reasons for leaving.

“I made a pledge to protect the children of Texas,” McCowen says, speaking into the camera. “Greg Abbott, our governor, made it impossible for me to protect the children of Texas. … My morals don’t allow me to stay in the position I’m in.”

“I’ve joined the fight,” she concluded, urging her followers to join her at a “trans visibility rally” at the Texas Capitol. The video went viral, and McCowen ultimately made it private. She was “overwhelmed” by the response, she said, and didn't want viewers to be confused about the date of the rally.

Social workers aren’t just upset about the anti-trans order — they’re also upset about how state officials are handling them.

Officials, some workers said, are instructing CPS employees to handle transgender cases through private email and phone lines, apparently in a bid to limit public access to records. The agency declined to comment.

Typically, CPS investigators also have discretion on how to handle cases. They can classify a case as “priority none,” meaning there are not sufficient allegations to warrant a home call.

Acording to Mulanax and others, officials aren’t allowing workers to classify transgender abuse cases this way.

Even though it seemed to contradict current CPS policy, “it’s expected that we find [these abuse allegations] to be true,” Mulanax said, citing conversations with superiors. “They’re making us keep these cases open.” The only other cases that would be treated that way was if a child had died or was already in the care of CPS.

In court, lawyers for the government have argued against injunctions by noting that parents have not yet faced findings of wrongdoing or had their transgender children taken away. Still, these investigations are causing a range of other issues, said Michael Ludvik, an attorney representing one transgender family. (That family declined to comment for this story.)

People who work with children, such as doctors and teachers, have a “duty to report” abuse that could see them possibly face criminal penalties if they don’t turn in transgender families. Likewise, parents who work with children or are in government jobs can lose their employment or have their security clearances revoked over child-abuse allegations even if they’re ultimately cleared.

“That could get you fired instantly,” Ludvik said. “That could kill your entire career.”

In an effort to protect children and families, Ludvik has been circulating a “Letter of Legal Representation” to legal and advocacy groups. The form letter informs CPS that a child has legal representation and that it is “a direct violation of Texas law” to interview them without the child’s lawyer present.

“I have quite a few families that have letters of representation in kids’ pockets when they go to school, daycare, anywhere,” Ludvik said. The youngest child he’s representing is around five or six years old. To explain to that child the significance of the letter, Ludvik invoked the shield used by Captain America: “He doesn’t always need it, but it’s always on his back, ready to go.”

Mulanax, the former CPS supervisor, is now looking at other potential lines of work. She’s considering going back to school to study marketing. “I need a break,” she said.

CPS workers “sacrifice a lot,” Mulanax said. They work long hours and handle traumatic situations, including the deaths of children. Still, “it’s always in the back of your head that you’re helping people who need it and doing good.”

With the new Texas rules, she didn’t feel that way anymore.

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