Defending Your Identity to the State: When Families of Trans Kids are Accused of Child Abuse
Like other families publicly fighting for their transgender kid and the greater trans community, we get a LOT of angry feedback. We get angry hate-filled messages and letters just about every way we can receive a message, so much so that I’m waiting for a carrier pigeon to drop off some hate mail next. Add in all the angry articles written in response to our family’s advocacy and we know quite well how this very loud portion of the population feels about our parenting and our child.
The messages say all sorts of things, but right now, I want to talk about one of the most common themes: outraged accusations of child abuse for supporting our transgender child. They tell us how our children should be taken away, and we should be prosecuted and put in jail. After a while, it became such a broken record that I went numb to it. These weren’t as bad as those messages threatening violence, so I just began to ignore them. I’d scroll on past the comments or click delete without a twinge of emotion… until New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency knocked on my door because someone had reported us.
Someone who has likely never met us reported us, anonymously and from a blocked phone number, for forcing our son to be a girl. They used her deadname. They said she was 7 years old when she’s actually 10, and they said we were forcing her to take hormones, something she won’t take for a few more years as medically appropriate, to make her into a girl. Honestly, it’s so absurd it’s almost laughable. It might be laughable if it weren’t so damn dangerous.
I’m finding this to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written both because I feel it is deeply important to communicate clearly and because it feels deeply vulnerable. There was so much pain, anger, stress, fear and waiting in this process, and then I went numb. I spoke with some parents who have been through this process, through a Child Protective Services investigation, and a few said it was no big deal. Maybe that is true for some. It was not true for my family. The fact that this investigation happened at all is a sign of the raging transphobia embedded in our culture and institutions, and while I wanted to trust that the system would see the truth and all would go well, I know all too well that isn’t always the case.
Now, I knew this was a possibility all along. In fact, when I do trainings or speak about transgender children and youth I often bring up the fact that parents are encouraged to have a “safe folder” filled with documents attesting to their child’s good healthcare, gender expression and identity, and their good parenting in case someone reports them for abuse. People are almost universally shocked when I share this piece of information. They are shocked anyone would report a family for supporting their transgender child, and they are even more shocked that we would need documents to help prove our child is who they deeply know themselves to be.
They are more shocked than I expect them to be, because we live our lives in a day to day fight with this kind of thinking and hatred so much so that it becomes normal. Parents who support their trans kids are vilified across many circles. Usually it’s the mother’s fault. It’s her own mental illness, it’s her need for attention, it’s munchausen syndrome by proxy. Misogyny runs deep. Not every trans kid has two or any supportive parents, let alone two supportive parents who happen to be straight, cisgender, white, Christian and highly educated. Not every trans kid is neurotypical, white, economically secure, English speaking, or fits neatly into the gender binary. Kids and families who are not protected by these pretty little white picket fences of privilege are most at risk, and the results can be devastating.
At the same time, if I’m being honest which apparently I’m going to be, I didn’t think it could or at the very least would happen to us. I was naive. We have so much privilege, and we live in a little bubble of support. We live in a state with pretty good protections, and our rather conservative town has been very kind to us. Our family and friends from across the country have been incredible in their love and encouragement. It’s why we choose to be as visible as we are; we hope to be visible for those who can’t be.
So when the nice people from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) showed up at our my door, my husband explained to them that our daughter was transgender and her name was legally changed to Rebekah. The two men were confused. They said, “well then why would someone call this in?” My husband patiently explained our public advocacy and the backlash we’d received. The two men were still confused. They said, “Okay, but still why would someone call making this accusation?” My husband still patiently, bless his heart, further explained that, at best, these people believe children cannot be transgender and so it could only be a result of abuse. They said, “Oh. So they’re just ignorant.” Yeah, something like that, except there is nothing small or minor about their ignorance, and the reality is at their worst this is a tactic being used by the far right to silence those of us speaking out for transgender rights.
That’s part of why I’m having a hard time writing this. I don’t want the haters to know they’ve gotten to us, but I need our allies to know this is what parents of transgender children face. I wish I could brush it off and say “Good try! You can’t rattle us”, but we were truly rattled. This happened two days before my daughter and I were scheduled to be on Good Day Philadelphia. I wanted to cancel. I wanted to hide. I wanted to never speak out again. It was my husband who reminded me that our silence is exactly what they want. I wasn’t about to let that happen.
The people from DCPP were kind enough, but the entire situation was deeply problematic. We knew they had a trans affirming policy in place for how youth are handled in their care. We’d even heard from an acquaintance going through foster care training that our family was lifted up as an example of how you support transgender children. And yet, every professional we spoke to shared the same anxiety we did. They said things like, “The system is broken. I don’t trust them. They hurt good families and fail to help hurting ones.” Now, of course, I know that’s a sweeping generalization… but for the professionals in our family’s life to have such feelings said a lot to us. We all knew our family should come out of this okay, but we were collectively concerned nonetheless.
When they came on a Saturday and said they’d be in touch on Monday, I spent the next 48 hours struggling to breathe, cleaning every surface preparing someone to enter my home and assess my parenting, and scrambling for every document I knew we had that could prove my child is in good health, well cared for, and is, in fact, transgender, all while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy and calm for our family.
When I had to explain to my children that someone would be coming to the house to look around and ask us questions, I saw the look of terror on my transgender child’s face. Before I even said the words she knew someone had reported us. No matter how much I tried to tell her everything was okay, I still found myself holding her while she cried deeply worried the state would take her away from us because of who she is and our support for her.
When they asked for releases to speak to my child’s doctors and find out about details about her care in order to “ensure she was receiving the appropriate medical care”, I wondered how the state thinks they know more about care for transgender children than the Gender Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
When they asked my kid if she was really a girl, I know they don’t realize the depth of pain that caused a child who has fought to articulate and be accepted for her affirmed gender for years. My 10 year old child had to defend her identity to the state. Every. single. time. we ask transgender people to prove, authenticate, and demonstrate that they are trans-enough, that they are girl/boy-enough… it is deeply painful and damaging. This is exactly what I spend every day fighting against and that fight brought them into my home.
I share all this not because it’s so unique or we are so special. I share this because it happens to families with transgender children. It happens to those of us who are public in our advocacy, and it happens to those of us who are just trying to support our kids and live out our lives quietly. This experience was traumatic for my family, but we are the lucky ones. We are the ones with the support, resources, time, and education to provide document after document proving my kid’s identity and good health. We had family, friends, colleagues, and pastors graciously respond to our last minute call for letters of reference and support. We are the ones without a bunch of other check marks against us in the CPS handbooks, whether that be because of marital status, economic status, sexuality, gender identity, citizenship, race, religion, health, educational level, family background, or the state where we live. We are the ones who came out the other side relatively unscathed. Others are not so lucky.
The rhetoric that somehow parents force transgender identities on their kids is deeply damaging and downright dangerous. The idea that medical care for transgender children is abusive or that children shouldn’t be allowed to transition until they are 18 is life threatening to our children. The ripples created by anti-trans and anti-LGBT language and policy at the federal level impact our families on a far greater scale than most realize. The power those who think transgender people have no place in society have over families like mine is far too great. The system has to change, at every level. It starts in our homes but the change has to go deep into our institutions. Families shouldn’t have to live in fear of the courts, and misinformed strangers on the internet shouldn’t be able to put families through what we went through. Kids like mine shouldn’t have to be scared that they’ll be taken away because their parents love and affirm them, and no transgender person, let alone a child, should have to defend their gender identity to the state.