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Transgender kids in Texas face challenges accessing gender affirming health care

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Transgender kids in Texas and their families are facing new challenges accessing gender-affirming health care. Governor Greg Abbott directed Child Protective Services to investigate parents who allow this care, saying it falls under a new interpretation of child abuse. Houston Public Media's Sara Willa Ernst spoke to a family nervous they may now become targets.

SARA WILLA ERNST, BYLINE: The Texas Legislature already tried to ban transgender kids from accessing puberty blockers, hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgeries. Two bills died during last year's session. Pilar Hernandez, the mom of a 17-year-old transgender boy, was hoping her family's nightmare was over.

PILAR HERNANDEZ: So I have this fantasy that this year we'll be able to at least rest a little.

ERNST: Those bills sought to charge parents with child abuse for letting their kids access treatments that the medical community largely agrees can be lifesaving. Trans kids face higher rates of suicide, anxiety and gender dysphoria, mental health issues that have gotten better for Hernandez's son Alexander after starting testosterone a few years ago.

ALEXANDER HERNANDEZ: I feel great about it. It's one of the best things I've done for my health all around.

ERNST: Texas's top leaders are now using a different legal tactic to criminalize transition care. Instead of passing a new law, they're interpreting existing laws in a new way. The state's attorney general issued an opinion saying these treatments constitute child abuse, and then Governor Abbott directed investigations to start. Here's Abbott on "The Mark Davis Show" in December, where he improperly described gender-affirming surgery as mutilation.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MARK DAVIS SHOW")

GREG ABBOTT: Any type of genital mutilation is child abuse. (Laughter) I don't think anybody can disagree with that.

ERNST: District attorneys in some of Texas's blue counties say they'll refuse to prosecute parents or clinics. For now, the AG's response is an opinion on a hypothetical situation, says Shelly Skeen, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, which advocates for LGBTQ people.

SHELLY SKEEN: It is what I'm going to call an advisory opinion about what might be the legal implications of a particular course of action. But there's no real, live people involved. You're not in a court of law.

ERNST: Alexander, who's a junior in high school, knows it's just an opinion. But he worries that trans kids, already an invisible minority, might hide even further to protect their families.

A HERNANDEZ: To be threatened with legal action and allegations of child abuse is very, very frightening. I'm also very worried for all of my trans friends. A lot of us deal with really bad depression and anxiety, and it gets significantly worsened with news like this.

ERNST: Alexander's mom says they have the means to move out of state, but that doesn't mean they want to.

P HERNANDEZ: We like Texas. It is our home. We shouldn't be able to, you know, escape. We live in a democracy. We live in a place where civil rights - they're supposed to mean something.

ERNST: Last week, Governor Abbott sent a letter to the Department of Family and Protective Services, directing the agency to begin investigating reports. A department spokesperson told the Texas Newsroom that the agency will follow the AG's interpretation of the law, but there were no pending cases as of last Monday.

For NPR News, I'm Sara Willa Ernst in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONLIKS' "HEAR ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sara Willa Ernst