Texas’ child welfare agency told staffers to keep quiet about gender-affirming care investigations
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services leaders instructed employees to avoid written communications about the cases and barred low-level employees from handling the investigations, according to internal agency communications.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services took rare steps — like instructing staffers to avoid written communications — to keep details of child abuse investigations related to gender-affirming care in secret, according to internal agency communications reviewed by The Texas Tribune.
The agency’s actions are detailed in more than 900 pages of emails and other records that were recently released through an open records request filed by American Oversight, a government watchdog group. They show how the agency tried to limit the public trail of the cases and control public communications about the controversial investigations while employees across the state internally raised concerns.
The Dallas Morning News, which first reported on the issue, obtained similar documents from DFPS.
Gov. Greg Abbott in February ordered the state’s child welfare agency to open investigations of parents and licensed facilities that provide standard gender-affirming care to transgender teenagers. The directive was based on a nonbinding legal opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton classifying such care as child abuse. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy slammed the directive, calling out the state for inserting itself between doctors and patients.
Families sued Texas and, in July, District Judge Amy Clark Meachum blocked the state from investigating two families for providing gender-affirming care to their children. Meachum will decide whether to block child abuse investigations over gender-affirming care for all Texas families at a Dec. 5 trial. DFPS has investigated 11 families for providing gender-affirming care; it has removed no children from those homes to date, KXAN-TV reported last week.
The state’s child welfare agency directed employees to not communicate about cases over email or text, even with the families who were under investigation.
“If you get any intakes regarding this issue, please immediately CALL ME to staff; no emails or texts are allowed,” Patricia Salinas, a supervisor with Child Protective Investigations, wrote in a February email to her staff.
Employees were told they would get case assignments pertaining to the directive over the phone; a supervisor in McAllen explicitly wrote to her staff telling them she would not be using text messages or email to discuss the cases. Staffers were also asked to avoid using text and email to communicate with the families under review about their cases.
Getting instructions to not communicate about cases in writing is unusual for DFPS. Employees told the Tribune earlier this year that documenting investigations relentlessly was a standard process that allowed the department to track who was making decisions about each case.
Department supervisors also directed employees to avoid commenting on Abbott’s directive or the cases on social media.
“Staff need to be clear that as state employees their public/social media opinions must be neutral to non-existent,” Martin Lopez, a supervisor at DFPS, wrote in reference to Abbott’s directive.
“Everyone you need to stay off social media with any opinions based on the following,” one employee wrote about Paxton’s opinion. “We will be investigating these cases. This will get messy.”
Lower-level employees were not authorized to handle such cases, according to the documents.
“We need to ensure our high performing workers are assigned these cases because there will be a lot of eyes on them,” Keith Gailes, a regional director in Texarkana, wrote to leadership.
Supervisors were told to notify higher-ups if they received a case pertaining to Abbott’s directive so that they could staff the cases.
Several employees have told the Tribune they were directed to mark cases under Abbott’s directive as sensitive, a rare designation usually reserved for cases in which DFPS employees are personally involved.
The internal documents also show how DFPS employees revolted against the directive, with some considering leaving the agency.
One supervisor repeatedly brought up concerns with other members of the agency about the nature of the investigations. Shaun Santiago raised questions about whether the department could be forced to follow through with the directive.
“We have trans workers here at DFPS, what kind of message are we sending to them?” Santiago wrote in one email.
Santiago in multiple emails said he would resign before he investigated a family over gender-affirming care. Santiago did not respond to calls from the Tribune.
Emma Menchaca, a DFPS employee in South Texas, expressed disbelief that the department was following through with the investigations. “This is Texas now? Because this is BS. Sorry not sorry. Really???” she wrote. Another employee in El Paso wrote: “Effing bull poop.”
The agency has been roiled by resistance and resignations since Abbott’s directive was rolled out. More than half a dozen child abuse investigators told the Tribune in April they either have resigned or are actively job hunting as a result of the directive. It’s part of a staffing crisis the agency is facing, with nearly 2,300 employees leaving since the beginning of the year, according to a Houston Chronicle report.
Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.