Texas’ highest court allows investigations into abuse by parents of transgender children

HOUSTON — The Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday that investigations into parents of transgender children for possible child abuse could continue, after an emergency appeal from state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott . The decision overturned an appeals court ruling that had temporarily halted statewide investigations.

But the court said authorities could not resume the investigation of the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit, a family and a doctor, acknowledging that the investigation would cause ‘irreparable harm’ and leaving the injunction in place while their case continues until the trial.

In its 12-page opinion, the court found that the appeals court had “abused its discretion” in issuing a statewide order at this stage of the legal proceedings.

Investigations began in February after Mr. Abbott ordered state officials to consider certain medically accepted treatments for transgender youth as abuse, including hormones or puberty-suppressing drugs.

Friday’s ruling came in response to a legal challenge brought by the parents of a 16-year-old transgender girl. The family were among the first to be investigated by the Department of Family Services and State Protective Services under Mr Abbott’s order. Several other investigations have since come to light.

In March, a district judge, Amy Clark Meachum of Travis County, ordered a halt to all such investigations pending trial. She found that the governor’s order was passed improperly and violated the state constitution. An appeals court allowed the temporary injunction to stand.

Mr. Abbott, along with State Attorney General Ken Paxton, took the case to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that the investigations, in and of themselves, were not a “wound” and that the district court had exceeded its authority in preventing them. . All nine members of the state’s highest court are Republicans; five were nominated by Mr. Abbott.

The court found that Mr. Abbott and Mr. Paxton could not in fact demand certain types of investigations from the Department of Family and Protective Services, holding that the agency had discretion to conduct its investigations into the abuse. “Neither the governor nor the attorney general has the legal authority to directly review” the department’s investigative decisions, wrote Judge Jimmy Blacklock, who was appointed by Mr Abbott in 2018.

“Just as the governor does not have the power to issue a binding ‘directive’ to the DFPS, the appeals court does not have the power to grant statewide relief to nonparties. “wrote Judge Blacklock.

The appeals court will now consider arguments from state officials and plaintiffs regarding Judge Meachum’s decision. A trial, originally scheduled for July, is now on hold pending those arguments.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys were encouraged by some aspects of the decision. “The court rejected the state’s arguments to get rid of the case entirely,” said Karen Loewy, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, which represented the plaintiffs with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The court clarified, she said, that if statewide investigations by the protective services agency were allowed to resume, “any investigation similar” to that of its clients “would cause the same harm irreparable” and that “the appropriate thing to do would be to exercise whatever discretion they had before the governor got involved.

It was unclear whether the decision would result in an immediate resumption of investigations. A spokeswoman for Mr. Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But the governor’s directive and subsequent investigations had already had a significant effect on families and medical providers, even during the statewide injunction. Major hospitals in Texas have stopped providing hormone treatments as part of their care for transgender youth in response to the governor’s directive. Parents of transgender children across the state feared becoming targets; some have taken steps to leave the state.

The Texas policy represented the culmination of a broad national campaign by conservative groups to restrict medical treatment of transgender youth, known as gender-affirming care, which has been widely accepted by medical groups and doctors in recent years.

Mr Abbott’s directive came months after bills to limit transgender medical care failed in the Texas Legislature last year. He immediately followed a non-binding advice in February from Mr Paxton that certain medical treatments could be considered child abuse under current Texas law.

The moves by Mr. Abbott and Mr. Paxton, both two-termers, came just before the Texas primary election when they faced bitter challenges from well-funded Republican opponents. Mr. Abbott emerged victorious. Mr Paxton faces a run-off in May.

Mr Abbott said his actions were aimed at protecting children. His campaign described the problem as a “winner” policywith Texas voters.

But dozens of big companies, including household names like Johnson & Johnson, Google and Macy’s, have opposed the governor’s approach. And the Republican governors of Indiana and Utah have vetoed bills banning transgender athletes from participating in youth sports. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so little,” wrote Spencer Cox, Governor of Utah.

For the family at the center of the Texas case, the decision to pursue legal action came when state investigators began requesting medical records related to their daughter’s treatment. The family refused to provide them.

Instead, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Lambda Legal, they went to Austin State Court to try to stop the Department of Family Protection’s investigation, where the 16-year-old’s mother is working to investigate reports of abuse and neglect.

The only allegation against the family – named only John, Jane and Mary Doe – was that their transgender daughter may have received gender-affirming care, according to the lawsuit. At an injunction hearing, the mother testified wearing a wig and glasses to protect her identity and spoke of the emotional impact the investigation had had on her family.

A licensed psychologist in Houston, Dr. Megan Mooney, whose practice includes treating transgender patients, was also included as a plaintiff. Dr. Mooney is required by Texas law to report suspected cases of child abuse, as are other people who work with children, such as teachers. She testified at the hearing that the governor’s order created “total panic” for those in her position.

Judge Meachum found that the governor’s directive forced Dr. Mooney to choose between criminal prosecution for failing to report abuse under the directive or potential civil liability for failing to follow the standards and ethics of his own profession.

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