CPS investigations in Rio Grande Valley chill political discourse regarding gender-affirming care
Sara Parsons is a retired speech therapist based in the Rio Grande Valley who helped launch a local support group for parents of trans children after her daughter came out as trans six years ago.
“I have friends that have already been reported,” Parsons said from Harlingen, her Cameron County hometown on the border.
The reports Parsons referred to are Child Protective Services (CPS) investigations into the parents and families of trans children.
In February, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a non-binding legal opinion that argued that gender-affirming health care treatments for children constituted child abuse. Later that month, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), under which CPS operates, to begin investigating any reports of these types of treatments.
A Texas appeals court reinstated an injunction early this week to pause the investigations with the intention of making a decision in July. However, Paxton brought an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court just two days later.
The ongoing litigation has left an unclear course of action for state employees and legal questions for parents.
On the Texas-Mexico border, Parsons said she began to hear about local CPS investigations through her support group network.
“I have friends here in the Valley that have already been notified by CPS, but with caution,” explained Parsons. “CPS has investigated and gone to the school. The school has said, ‘We have wonderful parents here.’ You know, everything is good. But the gist of the whole matter is that they were still investigated and they're still under investigation.”
When TPR contacted Region 11 DFPS media specialist John Lennan for comment, he said the agency “could not comment on individual investigations as litigation continues.”
Parsons says that after cases began to spring up in the region, some members of the parent support group she helps lead became more careful about their online presence and have avoided speaking to the media.
“A lot of people in our group now are just way too afraid, intimidated, to go out to show their faces. One of my friends said, ‘I just can't do it. I'm afraid because they haven't come after me, but I know I'm targeted. And I can't do it. I can't put my name. I can't put my face out there.’”
Parsons explained that she agreed to speak to TPR only because her daughter came out as trans after her 18th birthday.
With legal cases ongoing, the extended family and legal counsel of members of Parsons’ support group also expressed concern about the unknown consequences of being identified and possibly reported.
“They’ve been advised by family members and by their attorneys, ‘Don't give interviews. Don't have your picture taken. They're coming for you.’”
Madeleine Croll has previously served on the executive board of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party and is currently president of the Rio Grande Valley-based advocacy organization Gender Equality Network of Texas, or GENTex.
She said that Abbott’s directive and the resulting CPS investigations locally had a chilling effect on civic participation in the region. Families are so concerned that some have opted out of participating in political public events over the past few weeks.
“We have some very active parents of trans kids,” Croll told TPR during a trans rights political action that she organized last week at Edinburg City Hall.
“Unfortunately, under the current directive, they don't feel as comfortable bringing out their kids," she explained. "Now, Greg Abbott has declared open season, and is telling people to file CPS complaints against them for loving their kids and respecting their kids for who they really are.”
Other states with Republican-controlled legislatures have recently mimicked Abbott’s actions on proposed legislation targeting trans individuals.
The LGBTQ+ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign (HRC) tracked 38 proposed bills in the U.S. introduced this year alone that seek to deny gender-affirming care to trans children.
Some Republicans have openly signaled these bills as good politics for the GOP, such as Abbott political strategist Dave Carney, who told reporters, “This is a winning issue. Texans have common sense. This is why the Democrats across the country are out of touch.”
Elias Cantu is the president of LULAC Rio Grande Valley Rainbow Council and serves on the national LULAC LGBT Task Force.
He said he’s spoken with several advocacy organizations in the region about the ramifications of Abbott’s directive. While the cases have sparked fear, activist leaders in the Rio Grande Valley said they are cautious but unsurprised at Abbott’s actions.
“We did meet virtually in several meetings. I am a part of several other organizations. Basically what we’re hearing is the same,” said Cantu. “This is all during election season. This is all for votes. And at what cost? It could cost someone. You know, a trans child–a trans child’s life.”
While Cantu and other leaders see a predictable and detached play for votes from Republicans, Parsons believed the intention behind recent directives targeting trans people may be more personal.
She explained that her negative experiences with those outside the trans community and the recent anonymously initiated CPS reports by persons presumably close to the families now under investigation led her to look deeper.
“I would love to say that it’s all political. But I don’t think that was first and foremost in (Abbott’s) mind,” Parsons said. “The previous presidential administration gave everyone permission to not only speak their mind, but dig deep down into themselves. They now have the freedom to say it out loud.”
RELATED | A third of trans youth are at risk of losing gender-affirming care, study says
Parsons said the governor’s directive has caused not just a chilling effect on public participation in politics, but an uneasiness in the private life of the community as well.
“They’ve all said the same thing,” said Parsons about recent sentiments shared within her parent network. “‘We don’t know who turned us in.’ And those are the words – ’turned us in’. Basically they’ve been criminalized.”
“We don't know if the school called CPS, we don't know if it was our physician's office. And so you're talking about the people that you entrust with your child's life. I had a friend who said, ‘I can't accept this. My God doesn't make mistakes.’”
“So I think it's way beyond political. It's just become a one track mind to eliminate the odd, the different. The fact that they think that my child and people like her don't belong.”
RELATED | His public custody battle helped ignite a movement against transgender health care for kids. Will it carry him to the Texas House?
Croll said that the recent injunction on investigations gave her some cautious hope moving forward, but she warned that the outcome of rulings on these cases concern more than just trans advocacy organizations.
“The actions of the governor and attorney general are far beyond the scope of their power of office,” she said. “It's good that the courts saw they were without merit.”
She added: “But this is a dangerous action. We want people to be aware of the fact that actions taken in removing the liberty and rights of transgender people can easily be turned upon other groups.”