Gov. Abbott's order treats gender-transitioning care for trans youth as ‘child abuse’

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered the state’s child welfare agency to investigate reports of gender-confirming care for kids as abuse, a directive that opponents say is a first by any governor over GOP efforts to restrict transgender rights.

The immediate impact of the order, which Abbott issued Tuesday, was unclear and a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said there were no open cases based on the governor’s directive.

Abbott’s letter to state agencies came after Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton this week released a non-binding legal opinion that labeled certain gender-confirming treatments as "child abuse." That goes against the nation’s largest medical groups, including the American Medical Association, which have opposed Republican-backed restrictions filed in statehouses nationwide.

Both Abbott and Paxton are up for reelection this year, and their actions came a week before they are on the ballot for Republican voters in Texas’s first-in-the-nation primary of 2022.

Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, holds a news conference. (Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

"I hereby direct your agency to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation of any reported instances of these abusive procedures in the State of Texas," Abbott said in a letter to the Department of Family and Protective Services.

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The uncertainty over the impact is largely due to the fact that attorney general opinions do not carry the weight of law. In Houston, the county office that represents the state in civil child abuse cases said it would not take any actions based on the letter, and Texas’ largest child welfare advocacy group said it was unclear what judges and prosecutors would do with the opinion.

"What is clear is that politicians should not be tearing apart loving families — and sending their kids into the foster care system — when parents provide recommended medical care that they believe is in the best interest of their child," said Kate Murphy, the senior policy associate for child protection at Texans Care for Children.

The opinion by Paxton is directed at treatments that include puberty blockers and hormone therapy. It comes months after Texas Republican legislators— who filed more anti-LGBTQ proposals last year than in any other statehouse — proposed laws banning such treatments but failed to pass them.

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Arkansas became the first state to pass a law prohibiting gender confirming treatments for minors, and Tennessee approved a similar measure.

Numerous states also have enacted laws banning transgender students from competing in scholastic sports on the basis of their gender identity.

Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said no other governor has taken the same action as Abbott. She called it a "lawless interpretation" and expressed worry for parents.

"The terror that is being struck into their hearts is very real," Oakley said. "I’m also thinking about the kids who are relying on that care and how frightened they are."