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Distraught over orders to investigate trans kids’ families, Texas child welfare workers are resigning

Other investigators don’t want to follow an order they believe harms families.

TEXAS, USA — Morgan Davis, a transgender man, joined Texas’ child welfare agency as an investigator to be the advocate he never had growing up.

Editorial note: The above video is from a related story.

Less than a year later, one of the first cases under Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to investigate parents of transgender children landed on his desk.

His supervisors in the Travis County office of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services offered to reassign the case, but maybe, he thought, he was the right person for the job.

“If somebody was going to do it, I’m glad it was me,” Davis said.

He hoped it would be reassuring to the family to see a transgender man at the helm of the investigation. But the family’s lawyer didn’t see it that way.

“She said, ‘I know your intentions are good. But by walking in that door, as a representative for the state, you are saying in a sense that you condone this, that you agree with it,’” Davis said.

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“It hit me like a thunderbolt. It’s true,” he said. “By me being there, for even a split second, a child could think they’ve done something wrong.”

Davis resigned shortly after. Since the directive went into effect, each member of his four-person unit has put in their notice as well.

While the attorney general’s office has gone to great lengths to defend the governor’s directive in court, the agency responsible for carrying out the investigations has been roiled by resistance and resignations as employees struggle with ethical questions they’ve never faced before.

More than half a dozen child abuse investigators told The Texas Tribune that they either have resigned or are actively job hunting as a result of the directive.

A spokesperson for DFPS declined to comment on the resignations or answer specific questions, citing pending litigation.

The employees, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, said they feel conflicted — unwilling to undertake what they see as discriminatory investigations and critical of the agency’s internal response to requests for guidance, but haunted by what a mass exodus of experienced child abuse investigators would mean for the state’s most vulnerable children.

“Things are already slipping through the cracks. … We will see investigations that get closed where intervention could have occurred,” one supervisor said. “And children will die in Texas.”

A “heartbreaking” investigation

From the moment he got the case, Davis felt the conflict acutely. He joined DFPS to help children facing abuse and neglect, not children receiving medical care under the direction of a doctor — medical care that made such a difference in his own life.

Gender-affirming care is endorsed by all the major medical associations as the proper treatment for gender dysphoria, the distress someone can feel when their assigned sex doesn’t align with their gender identity. While many young people focus on social transition — dressing differently or using different pronouns — some are prescribed puberty blockers, which are reversible, or hormone therapy.

Davis felt the directive was an unnecessary overreach — he knew firsthand the care and caution that doctors take when prescribing treatments for gender dysphoria.

Even the person who made the child abuse report didn’t seem to agree with the directive: Davis said they were sobbing on the phone, distraught that they were reporting the family, but the person was mandated by law to report child abuse and feared the consequences of not making a report.

“[They] said to me, ‘Just promise me you’ll be kind,’” Davis remembered.

When he visited the family, the house was clean, the pantry was well stocked and the kids were healthy, happy and well loved. He tried to be as reassuring as possible, reiterating again and again what a good job the parents were doing raising their children in a safe and loving way.

But the family was clearly terrified, he said.

“It was just heartbreaking to me, to everyone, to see what we were doing, to see what we had become,” Davis said.

After that, Davis said he couldn’t keep working for an agency that would target families this way. Last week, he put in his notice; he is going to keep working until mid-May to wrap up as many of his open cases as he can to help minimize the burden on his colleagues.

But even though Davis told his supervisor there was no evidence of abuse, the investigation into that child’s family will remain open, likely long after he’s left, while the state continues to fight in court for the right to investigate parents just like those.

Inside the agency

Employees at the Travis County DFPS office say they found out about Abbott’s directive the same way most people did — on the news. They were shocked and devastated to see their agency become politicized, several said.

When they got an invitation to an emergency staff meeting the next day, many of them hoped they’d be told the agency wouldn’t be following the governor’s directive.

Instead, they received confirmation that they would now be required to open investigations into reports of parents who provide gender-affirming care to their children. They were instructed to treat these cases very differently than others.

According to a meeting agenda reviewed by the Tribune, supervisors were told that they needed to notify their chain of command when they received one of these cases (“as we know these can be difficult,” the agenda read) and that the agency’s general counsel would be working on guidelines to determine how to rule on these cases.

Several employees say they were told to mark all the cases under Abbott’s directive as sensitive, a rare designation usually reserved for cases in which DFPS employees are personally involved.

They were also instructed not to communicate about these cases in writing, a directive that struck the employees as unusual, unethical and risky.

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“We document … as relentlessly as we do because it’s a way to make sure there’s individual responsibility for actions that are taken that can be tracked back to who made the decision,” said one Travis County child protective investigations supervisor. “I could be held responsible for a decision made in my case that I didn’t make, but I have no way to defend myself.”

Investigators and supervisors said they don’t typically investigate cases if the only allegation is that a parent is giving their child medication prescribed by a doctor. Instead, those cases are ruled out without a formal investigation and designated “priority none.”

In fact, they said, the agency usually gets involved in cases with the opposite problem: parents who won’t or don’t give their child prescribed medications.

But supervisors at the emergency staff meeting say they were told cases in which parents were providing medically prescribed gender-affirming care to their children could not be marked priority none and had to be investigated.

“This is literally a direct contradiction of the policy … because we are telling parents we understand that a doctor … is telling you to do this, but we don’t like it,” said one senior-level supervisor.

When people on the call pointed out that these cases would not meet the standards for physical abuse or medical neglect as laid out in the Texas Family Code, they were told that policy would be generated to match the directives, according to several employees who were in the meeting.

One senior-level supervisor said the response seemed to be, “basically, do it now and policy will catch up later, and everything will be fine.”

For a lot of employees, the special requirements on these cases have put them in an untenable situation.

“We already have such a high level of responsibility that our ethics can’t be called into question,” said another senior-level supervisor who is still employed by the agency. “We have the ability to remove people’s children. We have to be able to pass muster at every level. [This] has dramatically affected the trust that I have in this department as a whole.”

Many DFPS employees say they feel caught in a tug of war between their ethics and their obligations. They say they don’t want to be foot soldiers following Attorney General Ken Paxton and Abbott into this latest culture war, but they need their jobs and they worry about what will happen to vulnerable children if they leave.

Many of those who have stayed have been engaging in small acts of resistance to the directive. Last week, DFPS workers from several offices signed on to an amicus brief condemning the order. Several Travis County staff members wore T-shirts one day proclaiming their support for trans kids; others have added subtle rainbows to their office decor.

Resignations and resistance

A week after the directive came out, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit on behalf of a DFPS employee, identified only as Jane Doe, who was under investigation for child abuse for providing gender-affirming care to her 16-year-old daughter.

At the hearing, a lawyer for the state said DFPS was not going to investigate “every trans youth or every young person undergoing these kinds of treatments and procedures.”

The directive was intended to convey “not that gender-affirming treatments are necessarily or per se abusive, but that these treatments, like virtually any other implement, could be used by somebody to harm a child,” said assistant attorney general Ryan Kercher.

Watching the hearing, Travis County investigators were confused. In the emergency meeting after Abbott announced the directive, they say regional leadership told them the exact opposite — they had to investigate these cases, even if there was no evidence that these medications were being forced on a child or otherwise used as a form of abuse.

A judge granted a temporary restraining order, halting the investigation into that family, and scheduled a hearing to consider a statewide pause to the governor’s directive.

Soon after, DFPS supervisor Randa Mulanax put in her resignation at the Travis County office. She’d reached out to the ACLU to see how she could help block this directive from being implemented and agreed to testify at the next hearing.

On the stand, she told the judge that the cases being investigated under Abbott’s directive are treated differently than others, and that the ethical conundrum those cases had sparked left her no choice but to resign. The judge granted a temporary statewide injunction that day, blocking these investigations from continuing until a full trial in July.

Paxton has asked the Texas Supreme Court to intervene and allow the investigations to continue while the case proceeds through the courts. After several days of confusion, supervisors said they were told the cases are “on pause” — they remain open, but investigative activities are currently suspended.

The injunction also stops DFPS from investigating new reports of child abuse based solely on allegations that a parent provided gender-affirming care to a child.

When Mulanax returned to the office after testifying, she said her office door was covered in thank-you notes and her email inbox was overflowing with gratitude from families, lawyers and fellow DFPS employees.

Mulanax said she felt proud that she’d contributed to blocking the directive but was wracked with guilt over what her resignation would mean for an already overburdened department.

“I understood that things were going to get worse with me leaving,” she said. “I’m leaving cases behind that have been reassigned two or three times and bounced around from supervisor to supervisor. But do I trade in my ethics and my morality?”

The state’s child welfare agency has long struggled to recruit and retain qualified staff. It’s a grueling job, made more difficult in recent years as the agency scrambles to try to comply with the terms of a decadelong federal lawsuit.

The state is still dealing with a crisis of foster children without permanent placement who sleep in state offices, often for weeks at a time. DFPS employees take shifts supervising these kids; supervisors, who are salaried, do not get paid overtime for that work.

And that’s in addition to their existing, often overwhelming job duties investigating some of the most heartbreaking, challenging cases of abuse and neglect.

Several employees said investigators at the Travis County office are often getting assigned five to seven new cases a week — more than double what they say is recommended as best practice — on top of an already teetering pile of open cases.

“It’s a very scary time here right now,” one senior-level supervisor said. “You never know what you’re going to come into the next day, if someone else is going to leave and you’re going to have another 20 cases to reassign, or you’re going to have to cover another unit because their supervisor left.”

And employees say they know better than anyone the potential consequences of overloaded investigators.

“They’re letting so many years of experience walk out that door,” said a senior-level supervisor. “And the ones who will leave are the ones who stand their ground and do the right thing. Once all those good staff leave, who will be left?”

Few answers available

On a Tuesday in mid-March, a few days after Mulanax testified, hundreds of child welfare investigative supervisors and managers from across the state logged in to a video conference call, eager to get some answers from the department’s leadership.

Several managers said they were surprised to see that DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters wasn’t in attendance.

Instead, Associate Commissioner Rich Richman took the lead. He started by saying the meeting was not going to be “an ass-chewing,” according to several people who attended, and then launched into a criticism of the handling of a separate scandal the agency was facing in connection to allegations of sex trafficking at a state-licensed foster facility in Bastrop.

Abbott’s directive was not the focus of the call, as they’d been hoping, employees who were on the call said.

“We had a whole statewide meeting on something that has literally nothing to do with us instead of the thing that is directly affecting our everyday life,” one supervisor said.

Richman did not address Mulanax’s testimony or the injunction in the gender-affirming care cases. Instead, several people on the call said, he briefly reminded staff that they were to be “neutral fact-finders” in these and all investigations.

When Richman opened up the floor to questions and comments, the staff unloaded, according to chat logs reviewed by the Tribune. They demanded answers on when they were going to be getting more guidance on how to handle cases of gender-affirming care and issued dire warnings about the flood of resignations on the horizon.

“You are losing so many tenured staff and wisdom because this job is just not manageable anymore,” one supervisor wrote.

Another said DFPS leaders “are so out of touch with what your agency does.”

They also aired long-standing gripes about salaries, overtime pay and working conditions.

“As supervisors, we are out here working 60 to 80 hours a week to be supportive of our staff and to keep their heads above water and feel supported,” one supervisor wrote. “We are worn but pushing through, because we love what we do, but not getting overtime or compensation becomes exhausting and discouraging.”

Most of the questions, including those about gender-affirming care cases, went unanswered.

Richman did respond to the money question: According to several people on the call, he encouraged employees to remember they were there for the children, not the money.

“It was also very upsetting because we’ve looked at the salaries of all those higher-ups,” said Mulanax. “It’s pretty, pretty easy to say it’s not about the money when you’re sitting high and tight on over $100,000 a year and you’re not working all this overtime.”

Richman, who was hired in September, earns $150,000 a year.

Evoking children’s welfare felt particularly disingenuous, several people said, when they’d been loudly challenging whether the governor’s directive was really in children’s best interest, to no response.

The meeting was scheduled for 90 minutes, but just before the hour mark, Richman brought it to an end. He said he’d print out the questions in the chat and follow up with employees directly via email. No one who spoke to the Tribune has received a response.

Later that day, the department hosted a similar meeting for lower-level investigators. But this time, the chat function was turned off.

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This story comes from our KHOU 11 News partners at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.

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