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Judge blocks Abbott order to treat gender-affirming care as child abuse

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman
Adri Perez of the ACLU of Texas speaks during a rally last week at Sweatt Travis County Courthouse in support of transgender children and their families.

Finding that Gov. Greg Abbott violated the rights of transgender adolescents and their parents, a state judge issued an order Friday blocking gender-affirming medical care from being treated as child abuse in Texas.

State District Judge Amy Clark Meachum said Abbott exceeded his authority when he issued a Feb. 22 directive requiring the state child-welfare agency to investigate such medical treatment as abuse.

Meachum's temporary injunction, which applied statewide, also ordered the Department of Family and Protective Services to cease any investigations — or refer any cases for prosecution — based solely on the provision of gender-affirming care.

The agency had nine such investigations underway, a spokeswoman said Friday.

The judge announced her ruling from the bench Friday evening after a daylong hearing in her Austin courtroom. 

"We are thrilled. And what a relief for Texas families," said Camilla Taylor, litigation director for Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ legal advocacy group.

Taylor said Meachum's quick ruling underscored "how very harmful and terrifying this directive is ... for families and young people in particular who are in fear of being removed from their parents."

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed notice of appeal within an hour of the ruling.

"Democrat judge tries to halt legal and necessary investigations into those trying to abuse our kids through 'trans' surgeries and prescription drugs," Paxton said on Twitter. "I’m appealing. I’ll win this fight to protect our Texas children."

Paxton also said his appeal halted enforcement of the injunction, adding: "Much-needed investigations proceed as they should. This fight will continue up to the Supreme Court. I’m ready for it."

A lawyer for Lambda Legal said the organization considers the appeal "baseless."

"We will fight to ensure the properly issued injunction remains in place," lawyer Omar Gonzalez-Pagan said Saturday. "As we know, attorney general Paxton has a troubled history following the law. If any family is affected by the state’s lawless actions or is contacted by the state, they should contact Lambda Legal's help desk immediately.”

The injunction had been sought by parents, identified only as Jane and John Doe in court documents, who are being investigated for child abuse for providing gender-affirming care to their 16-year-old. Jane Doe, the mother, works for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which placed her on leave and initiated a child abuse investigation after she asked a supervisor to clarify what Abbott's order meant for her family.

Meachum's order not only blocked the investigation into the Doe family and others like them, it also prohibited state agencies from taking action against health care providers and organizations that provide gender-affirming care to transgender minors.

More:Appeals court rules for Texas family in fight over treating gender-affirming care as child abuse

The judge also voided the portion of Abbott's directive that required state-licensed professionals who have direct contact with children — including doctors, nurses and teachers — to report such care as child abuse.

Without court intervention, the Meachum wrote, members of the Doe family faced irreparable injury, including the potential for Jane Doe losing her job and, for both parents, "the ongoing deprivation of their constitutional rights and the stigma attached to being the subject of a child abuse investigation." 

Their daughter, the judge added, was at particular risk: "(She faces the potential loss of medically necessary care, which if abruptly discontinued can cause severe and irreparable physical and emotional harms, including anxiety, depression, and suicidality."

During Friday's proceedings, a lawyer for Texas defended the governor's action and objected to the hearing, arguing that it should not have been held because Meachum had yet to rule on pending motions, including the state's contention that the judge lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.

Assistant Attorney General Courtney Corbello also argued that the Doe family did not have standing to sue to halt Abbott's directive because their complaint ws based on potential, rather than actual, harm.

"All Jane Doe has been subject to is one investigation, one meeting with an investigator and nothing further. She is not in the central registry of child abuse; she hasn't had her child taken from her; her child is not off of any medications or lacking any sort of medical treatment," Corbello told the judge. 

It is too early in the process, Corbello said, to issue a statewide injunction against Abbott's directive.

"There will be nothing heard by the court today proving that there is a statewide dilemma, a statewide violation of law occurring that affects families other than plaintiffs and their child," she said.

More:Mayor Steve Adler declares Austin safe for transgender children 

The first witness called by lawyers for the Doe family was Randa Mulanax, an investigatory supervisor for Child Protective Services who resigned this week in response to the gender care investigations.

"It's a very stressful job overall ... (but) I have always felt that at the end of the day the department has the children's best interest at heart, and the family's best interest at heart — but I no longer feel that way with this order," Mulanax said.

"It feels unethical. It feels like we are stepping into dangerous territory. interfering with parents and medical providers on care for their children," she added.

When Child Protective Services is presented with questions involving medical care, Mulanax said, investigators typically consult with doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and other medical professionals — the same providers now accused of helping commit abuse.

"If they've already received these treatments, it is not our position to step in and say they're incorrect," she said. "I see this as going down the slippery slope of what will be next, what other private decisions would the government try to interfere with?"

Mulanax also testified that the agency created special standards to handle transgender care cases, including orders to inform senior leadership and the agency's lawyer of opened investigations and a directive to put no case details in writing via texts or emails.

As the court hearing was taking place, advocates for transgender Texans and their families turned a regularly scheduled meeting of the Texas Family and Protective Services Council into a standing-room-only opportunity to voice objections to the policy of mandatory investigations into reports of minors receiving gender-affirming care.

Some said they were speaking on behalf of families who feared being investigated for child abuse if they showed up to speak.

In Friday's hearing in Meachum's court, the mother identified as Jane Doe also testified, but the court's livestream on YouTube was interrupted to preserve her anonymity.

Also called to testify was Megan Mooney, a Houston psychologist who joined the lawsuit against Abbott's directive because it required her, as a state-licensed professional, to report gender-affirming medical care as child abuse.

Mooney said she believes reporting her transgender patients would harm her clients and violate her ethical obligations.

Families with transgender children were in a state of "outright panic" after Abbott's directive, she added.

"Parents are terrified CPS will come and question their children or take them away. Mental health professionals fear violating law, and it puts medical professionals in the horrible position of not being able provide care to children," Mooney testified.