Final Part of a 3-Part Series
LGBTQ activist Dee McCord has spent her adult life engaged in ensuring equality for all while building her four Chicago businesses with a comparable pride for the history of the city.
In the summer of 2015, McCord leased and renovated the 102-year-old Alvin Theatre on Chicago's West Side, transforming it into The Shapiro Ballroom.
The dilapidated building not only became an exquisite space for weddings, corporate and nonprofit events but a studio called I Do Dance where McCord could impart her skills as a dance instructor to couples and in-laws in order to make that first dance of the wedding reception as unforgettably beautiful as the ceremony which preceded it.
I Do Dance is welcome to "all sexual orientations and gender presentations" and McCord's work as an activist has made her plenty of influential friends both within and outside of the LGBTQ community.
None of this immunized McCord or her two children ( aged 5 and 3 ) against an unexpected and disturbing visit from an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ( DCFS ) investigator in the fall of 2016.
Her five-year-old Clara ( alias ) is a transgender girl who McCord recalled to Windy City Times was "telling us she was female as soon as she could talk."
According to McCord, in June 2016 her ex-husband was charged with felony child abuse after breaking Clara's arm.
"He was not supportive of her transition," McCord said. "As one of his defenses, he tried to deem me an unfit parent by having one of his friends anonymously call DCFS."
In the first week of November, a DCFS investigator arrived at McCord's home.
"I am a single, working mother," she recalled. "The case worker came to my house multiple times during the school day and claimed that, because nobody was home, I was dodging [DCFS]. If I had been home with the kids, DCFS would have told me I was 'keeping my child home from school.' The case worker left me her phone number and, when she finally did come to my house, I assumed it was due to the open criminal case against my ex-husband."
"She was not aware there was a case," McCord added. "She was not aware that we already had a DCFS worker assigned to it. She came into my home and refused to tell me what the charges were about until I told her that I knew my rights."
The documents the investigator carried alleged that McCord was raising her children in a home that was unfit and neglectful.
"I have a housekeeper and a full-time nanny," McCord said. "The case worker went into our kitchen and saw that there were child safety locks on all the stoves and cabinets and that there were outlet covers. She accused me of only having these measures because she gave me 24 hours' notice that she was coming and it wasn't a surprise visit."
Then the investigator began to interrogate McCord's children.
"She thought I had three kids and that one of them was missing because of Clara's male birth name," McCord remembered. "I told her 'No. My child is transgender and that should be in your records.'"
"The case worker then looked at my transgender child and said, 'You have a penis. You're a boy. You should dress like one and play with boy toys like your brother,'" McCord said. "My daughter was very distraught, started crying, looked her straight in the eye and said, 'I'm a girl.' The case worker refused to use proper pronouns and then she told me she would do a future surprise visit to prove that I was neglecting my children. She said that I was psychologically damaging my daughter by allowing 'him' to dress as a female. I was absolutely terrified."
McCord noted that the DCFS case worker assigned was Eraina Ross-Burleson.
Records indicate that, as of 2016, Ross-Burleson was a DCFS Child Protection Specialist.
After Ross-Burleson left her home, McCord contacted a private attorney, the Cook County State's Attorney LGBTQ and Hate Crimes Specialist, the Lurie Children's Hospital Gender & Sex Development Clinic, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois ( ACLU ) and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy ( 14th District ).
"I had every single organization I knew make a call to [Ross Burleson's] supervisor," McCord said.
A legal case was prepared against DCFS alleging harassment. After a month, McCord said that the investigation against her was dropped with very little fanfare.
"We never got any official letters," she recalled. "We were moving and we had to call DCFS to update them on our new address and they told us that they didn't need the information because there was no case anymore."
McCord belongs to a number of secret social media groups populated by parents who are raising their transgender children in affirming homes.
Windy City Times' investigation uncovered an almost universal terror on the part of these parents concerning DCFS and child protection agencies nationwide.
Many of the families who were investigated or are currently being investigated refused to speak openly because of a fear of DCFS retaliation or because of a gag order placed by the juvenile court judge deciding their case.
These secret social media groups are, therefore, among the few confidential arenas where families can talk with each other about their transgender children. They are so frightened of personal information being compromised or used by child protection agencies against them, that the general public and in particular the press are not invited.
McCord said that, from information received by these private social media groups, she was made aware of "countless numbers of families of transgender children who have been subjected to DCFS investigations."
Windy City Times knows of at least 10 cases nationwide.
"Because these parents didn't have connections, they were struggling through the legal system to make sure their families didn't get torn apart," McCord said.
One such family is currently in DCFS Illinois juvenile courts. Unlike criminal or civil cases, juvenile court records are sealed. It is therefore extremely difficult for the media to be able to access details of cases and so raise awareness of any wrongdoing or discriminatory practices on the part of DCFS.
Outside of the Illinois Office of the Inspector General ( OIG ), there is very little that is done in terms of internally policing the agency. The wide-ranging powers it wields in the name of "protecting children" have, according to a number of sources Windy City Times spoke with both on- and off-the-record, led to instances where that power has been abused.
A Suburban Family
Through anonymous sources and its own investigation, Windy City Times was able to piece together a series of events which trapped a south suburban Chicago family and their 5-year-old transgender daughter in a system many advocates believe was rigged against them from the very beginning, simply because they chose to be affirming parents.
The family's problems began at Advocate Hope Children's Hospitala faith-based institution in the Oak Lawn suburb of Chicago where they were taking their daughter for medical issues unrelated to her gender identity. [Detailed in Part One of this series.]
According to a friend of the family who asked to be called 'Lilly,' doctors and staff members at Advocate Hope refused to recognize the child's gender identity.
Windy City Times discovered that one of those pediatricians received his medical school training at Catholic Health Partners ( now Mercy Health ) which is guided by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services as defined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ( USCCB ).
In late January 2017, the family asked for the child to be transferred to Lurie Children's Hospital.
Instead, Advocate staff made a call to the DCFS hotline in Springfield.
Lilly claimed that, although the child appeared in good health, a DCFS investigator and two police officers appeared at the family's home Feb. 3 and ordered them to take the child to Advocate.
The family were unceremoniously removed from the child's hospital room by Advocate security staff three days later. Lilly said only one subsequent visit to the child was permitted for the family over the next 34 days.
Halema Townsend, an investigator from the DCFS regional office in Harvey, Illinois, was assigned to the case. The mother was charged with "Medical Child Abuse ( Factitious Disorder by Proxy or Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome ) [FDBP]."
DCFS Deputy Director of Communications Veronica Resa asserted that the charges were "unrelated to LGBTQ issues."
LGBTQ Nation reported that both parents passed a subsequent psychological evaluation.
The transgender child and her family's case was given a temporary custody/shelter care hearing which lasted from March 7-13 in a Cook County Juvenile Court presided over by Judge Robert Balanoff.
During that hearing, Windy City Times and a group of family witnesses and supporters from the Trans Liberation Collective witnessed Balanoff misgendering the child twice.
An anonymous source who was privy to the hearings but unrelated to the family or their defense counsel told Windy City Times that, once the witneses were asked to leave and the closed hearings began, the misgendering continued from Balanoff, Townsend, the State's and DCFS attorneys present and the Cook County Guardian's office.
Resa denied such misgendering ever took place.
In an interview with Windy City Times, DCFS Associate Director of Behavioral Health- Clinical Division Juliana Harms said that, in cases involving transgender children, the agency's Statewide LGBTQ Coordinator Jane Kelly "would certainly be a part of information gathering. She might have contact with the family or with the child."
The mother's attorney Rina Infelise of the Davi Law Group told Windy City Times that "I have never spoken with Jane Kelly. She never made contact with my client. Once I learned of her position [after the March hearing], I reached out to her several times and I continue to await and look forward to a response."
McCord said she and her attorney also tried to reach out to Kelly without success.
The anonymous source noted that among the evidence considered during the hearing in Balanoff's courtroom was the color of the child's pull-ups and what kind of toys she played with.
None of the parent's witnesses were called to testify during the hearings and the contents of the child's safe folder ( containing letters from professionals, neighbors and relatives affirming the child's gender identity ) remained undisclosed. According to a family friend, Townsend refused to even look at it.
The source said that the bulk of the testimony which resulted in Balanoff's decision was given by Townsend and the state's attorney.
A scene was described which occurred before the final hearing began on March 13. Townsend claimed to the state's attorney that she had evidence pertaining to the case but refused to share it with Infelise. Townsend allegedly said that she didn't have enough copies and walked away.
Within a matter of hours, Balanoff ruled that the child be awarded temporary custody to DCFS.
To do so, he was required to find probable cause of child abuse or neglect along with an urgent and immediate necessity for the removal of the child from the home despite reasonable efforts made by the state to keep the child there.
Why a diagnosis of Munchausen by Proxy made by Advocate staff members against the mother but not verified by a psychological examination indicated a probable cause for Medical Child Abuse is unclear.
Why evidence, which allegedly demonstrated such probable cause, was permitted from an individual with a publicly issued ( although, according to DCFS, misinterpreted ) bias is unclear.
Why the family was only permitted one visit to their child during her over-month long stay at Advocate and why that visit constituted a reasonable effort to keep the child with the family is unclear.
Windy City Times has filed a Freedom of Information Act ( FOIA ) request with the Illinois Office of Inspector General ( OIG ) to determine if there were any complaints previously for the investigator on this case, and if any had to do with LGBTQ children. As of the date of publication, no response from that office has been received.
A full trial is supposed to occur within 90 days of Balanoff's decision to temporarily remove the child, during which the state must prove their case through a preponderance of the evidence. Sources inside DCFS claim that the case being heard within that timeframe is doubtful.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ Nation reported that the child is in an environment where she is undergoing conversion or reparative therapy.
Windy City Times uncovered cases across the countryNew York, California, Indiana and Michiganwhere the mother of a child has been or is currently being investigated by child protective agencies in those states following a hotline call claiming that a child was being "forced" to be transgender.
The calls came from concerned members of the community, other family members who did not agree with the affirming way in which the parents were raising the child or mandated reporters such as pediatricians and hospital staff who diagnosed the mother with FDBP.
Although it still appears in the DSM-V, the existence of Munchausen by Proxy is still a matter of debate among academics. However, in two documented cases with DCFS Illinois, it seems to have been enough to not only trigger an investigation but for that investigation to conclude the accusation of abuse as "indicated" and for further action against the family to be taken.
Numerous studies such as the National Transgender Discrimination Survey have reported that "transgender and gender non-conforming people frequently experience discrimination when accessing health care, from disrespect and harassment to violence and outright denial of service."
Are pediatricians acting in a similar manner and is that discrimination resulting in calls to Child Protective Services hotlines? If so, how are pediatricians able to make a serious allegation such as FDBP even though they do not, in general, possess a degree in psychology?
The American Academy of Pediatrics ( AAP ) boasts more than 66,000 members nationwide.
In 2002, the AAP's support for LGBT health and wellness and, in particular, the organization's affirming stance on gay adoptions led to a number of members leaving in protest and forming the American College of Pediatricians ( ACP ). The core values of the ACP's membership state that "there are absolutes and scientific truths that transcend relative social considerations of the day."
In 2016, ACP joined Catholic organizations in speaking out against the Department of Health and Human Service ( HHS ) mandate barring discrimination by healthcare providers and insurance companies against transgender individuals.
A January 2017 report by the ACP concluded that "Conditioning children into believing a lifetime of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex is normal and healthful is child abuse."
This is not an opinion shared by the AAP, which participated in a 2017 amicus brief in support of Gavin Grimma Virginia high school student fighting for his right to use a restroom in accordance with his gender identity.
Dr. Lynn Hunt, MD is the chair of the AAP's Section on LGBT Health and Wellness ( SOLGBTHW ). Among their core beliefs: "There are many normal variations in gender presentation, gender identification, and sexual orientation. Each pediatrician should strive for inclusion and reject stigmatization of all children and families."
The SOLGBTHW offers a number of resources for medical professionals including policy statements and educational information such as webinars and booklets. One booklet, co-authored with the American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians and the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ), focuses upon "Supporting and Caring for Transgender Children."
"We've seen some amazing advocacy by people like our immediate past president Dr. [Benard P.] Dreyer and our Executive Director Karen Remley," Hunt said. "But people have to have their consciences raised enough to know what they don't know. The profession of pediatrics is sort of like the rest of the country in that [transgender issues] just aren't on the radar."
One of the authors of the DSM-V's text regarding Gender Dysphoria ( which removed it from the list of mental illnesses ) is surgeon, columnist, politician and nationally celebrated trans rights activist Dr. Dana Beyer, MD.
She agreed with Hunt.
"The AAP have come out with great statements of support and they've done good work but if you don't notice a statement when it comes out or you're not paying attention to it because you've never seen a trans kid, then you're going to miss that," Beyer told Windy City Times. "It needs a generational change. It's not an easy thing to do. One would hope that the average physician would be open-minded enough to understand when he or she sees a patient or a condition about which they know little and that they would then refer that patient to somebody who does."
To that end, on Aug. 3, 2016 then-AAP President Dreyer asserted in the organization's newsletter that "Pediatricians should not be transgender children's first bully."
"The pediatrician's office, and the entire health care setting, should be a safe, accepting place," Dreyer wrote. "I was sad to receive an email from one of the parents telling of another family's encounters with the health care system when they bring their 5-year-old transgender daughter in for care for her serious chronic disease. The doctors refuse to treat her as a girl until she is older, and some have even called child protective services claiming the mother is harming her child for allowing her to live as a girl."
Hunt stated that an official AAP policy statement on transgender children which addresses an affirming approach to the child is currently being drafted.
"That means listening to the children, to what they are saying, supporting them wherever they are and not trying to change that," she said. "Data is very strong that children who are supported with their gender identity and expression do much better as adults health-wise than children who aren't."
However, to be effective, a policy statement also requires education and training on transgender issues.
"Making such education available the way the American Academy of Pediatrics makes education available for everything is important," Hunt said. "I feel like the more educational opportunities we have [about] transgender kids, the better. Medical school and residency training are equally as important to the [AAP] as training for practicing physicians. I have mixed feelings that legislating or mandating certain things for the whole population works out the way it's intended. But I think making opportunities repeatedly available and keeping the discussion going will move the needle. We need to keep the issue alive and realize that particularly trans research is going to be operating in a resource-poor environment for the next few years and governmental support for that research may not be robust."
"Medical school programs and residency programs need to have LGBTQ competence," Beyer agreed. "Not all programs do. It's on our national organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality [NCTE] or the [National LGBTQ] Task Force and the like to ensure that we're educating the general public about the [affirming] clinics that are available in Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Chicago. Parents need to know about those but many don't."
While not necessarily focused on trans issues, today's parents do have access to an ever-increasing flow of online medical resources at their fingertips.
WebMD, KidsHealth or The Mayo Clinic, for example, offer the ability for a parent to determine a possible diagnosis through an overview of the symptoms. They also suggest courses of treatment. Although, these websites urge consultation with a physician, parents often make healthcare decisions based on their own research.
In a number of cases where the staff of a hospital has called a child protective agency hotline accusing a parent ( almost always the mother ) of FDBP, it has been due to a parent disagreeing with doctors over a diagnosis or a course of treatment.
Sometimes a parent takes their child to the emergency room one too many times.
In Illinois in 2014, a teenage boy named Isaiah Rider, who was suffering from neurofibromatosis, was taken from his mother by DCFS after a hotline call made by staff at Lurie Children's Hospital. News reports indicated that the mother Michelle had asked for pain medication for Isaiah which Lurie physicians didn't believe he required.
According to Neurofibromatosis Midwest, chronic pain is a common challenge for those living with the disease.
Isaiah remained separated from his mother by DCFS until well past his 18th birthday.
As to how a pediatrician can diagnose psychological illnesses in parents such as Munchausen by Proxy, Hunt admitted that, "It's a very gray area. It's complex and requires negative confirmation such as fictitious fevers which keep getting work-ups. Ultimately, I think the pathology is the parents receive some sort of attention or validation by the attention that the child's getting which evolves over time. As a mandated reporter, if your suspicion [of abuse/neglect] is raised, you must call it in."
Unfortunately, if and when that report is made to a child protective agency hotline, transgender children and their families find themselves in what Beyer called "judicially probably one of the most archaic in our society."
"The Federal Circuit Courts and many state courts are much more advanced with their understanding with the biology of sex and gender and what gender identity is and how it manifests itself," she said. "Because of the dynamics of the situation of dealing with children and family courts, if a person is transphobic and wants to cause damage to the trans community, this is its soft underbelly."
Those dynamics are extraordinarily complex and many parents do not understand that the only way to navigate them is to immediately hire an attorney.
The Family Defense Center is a Chicago-based advocacy group which has helped thousands of parents who have found themselves charged by DCFS.
Diane Redleaf is the organization's founder and legal director. She told Windy City Times that the burden of proof which DCFS must meet in juvenile court is very low.
"In criminal cases the state has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt," she said. "DCFS has to prove its case as 'more likely than not.' There can be a ton of doubt and they can still win. I think the system has been set up to give [DCFS] a huge amount of discretion over other people's lives."
DCFS told Windy City Times that the agency is replete with "checks and balances" to protect transgender children and their parents.
Yet, Redleaf stated that the Family Defense Center has documents in which the same, what she called, "bad actors" among DCFS staff members continually show up in cases where a family has been wrongfully accused.
"No agency polices itself," Redleaf said. "It's difficult to hold these bad actors accountable and we've got a public that believes they're on the right side."
For defense attorneys working within the DCFS system like Kent Dean and Marie J. Taraska, this can mean an uphill battle.
During law school, Dean paid the bills with a social work job and then work in an emergency room overnights and on weekends. His post-law school career began with three years in the Public Defender's Office Juvenile Protection Division.
"At that time for advancement in that division in the Public Defender's office, you have to have a minimum number of termination [of parental rights] trials which we referred to as the 'death penalty' of child welfare cases," he said. "I didn't do enough termination trials because many of my clients were doing well and I got the kids home, but it's funny how the office had inverted the criteria for who was doing a good job."
In 2008, Dean instead decided to go into private practice.
"Once you're in [juvenile] court, all the different parties have their interests injected into the situation and those interests don't necessarily coincide with the family or the child," he said. "So you really want to avoid that by not fumbling the investigation in the first place. If you are dealing with an investigation as a defense attorney, you have to know about ANCRA [the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act]. If a parent talks to an attorney who does not know ANCRA, that attorney has no business getting involved with an investigation."
A 19-year law veteran, Taraska started her career in the Child Support Division of the Cook County States Attorney's Office and then as a prosecutor in Juvenile Court abuse and neglect cases.
"I get cases at all different stages," she said. "When I get a call because a family has been indicated for abuse or neglect or the case is going to court, one of the things I hear a lot from families is 'I contacted a criminal attorney and they told me not to speak.' Although that may be great advice if there are criminal cases pending, there are many situations when telling a family not to speak is incredibly detrimental and can hurt them a lot during a DCFS investigation."
As a piece of legislation, ANCRA is continually evolving. It recently increased the list of mandated reporters to include abortion providers. Dean said he had even heard discussions of a proposal to add hair stylists and barbers.
"The fact it was even discussed is alarming," he said. "These people have no training whatsoever. They're not medical people. Let's face it, politically it's always a safe bet to position yourself as protecting children. It's also part of the reason evidentiary rules and everything get short circuited. Emotion gets put in front of logic and what you should have learned in law school."
Regardless of who calls the hotline, when a DCFS investigation is initiated, the case worker assigned must make a "good faith" attempt to make contact with the child within 24 hours.
In cases Windy City Times has examined, that attempt runs the gamut from a business card left on the front porch of a home, to a DCFS investigator showing up at the front door flanked by law enforcement demanding to be allowed inside.
The initial reaction from parents has been a mixture of confusion and alarm.
"My first recommendation would be to contact an attorney when at all possible; the moment you get that card on your door," Taraska said. "If you are actually answering the door to someone from [DCFS], you may not have time to make that call."
"If DCFS shows up to your door and you aren't expecting them, let them at least see the children," Dean advised. "If you don't, they may turn around and seek a juvenile arrest warrant which will give DCFS and law enforcement the authority to come right through your door and take the child. It takes nothing for them to get one and you won't know it's coming."
"When DCFS shows up and I am not immediately accessible, allow them to see your children," Taraska agreed. "But tell them, 'I want to cooperate and I intend to cooperate but I have contacted an attorney and, with all due respect, no one will be giving any interviews without my attorney present including my children, including myself. However, we are cooperating with you so come on in and see the home and see the child.'"
"I see lots of people writing online, 'Don't let [DCFS] in your door,'" Dean said. "You can stand on that Constitutional principal, but it's not going to work."
According to Dean, the reason why it does not work is due to an issue of competing Constitutional rights. Those rights were seemingly ignored during the Illinois case witnessed by Windy City Times.
"There's the parent's right to raise the children as they see fit but there's also the child's right to be safe, which are both legitimate," he said. "The standard of proof is abysmally low considering the dire nature of the potential outcomes and the fundamental Constitutional and human rights at stake. The state can only intervene in those rights when there is a 'compelling state interest.' Across the country, almost every state has recognized the children's right to be safe as compelling. In order to effectuate that, they drill holes in evidentiary expectations and reduce the standard of proof to the point where the amount of evidence needed to make a finding [of abuse/neglect] is shocking to most people."
Redleaf noted that in temporary custody procedures, "Hearsay is liberally allowed."
"The temporary hearing requirements for a judge are summarily ignored in these kinds of cases," she said. "It depends on the position of the guardian ad-litem. In Cook County, the guardian is appointed to be both the attorney for the child and the guardian ad-litem. They will very often act as an advocate with the state against the parent and become allied as a prosecutor. That's a very critical problem. They see their role as protecting the child from the parent before there's been evidence establishing that the parent shouldn't be the voice of the child."
The Role of Transphobia
What if an anti-transgender bias is shown during those hearings, whether through misgendering the child or through an investigator providing evidence having demonstrated transphobia on a public forum?
Malcolm 'Skip' Harsch is the director of the American Bar Association ( ABA ) Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. In his conversation with Windy City Times, Harsch stressed that he was speaking for himself and not necessarily providing the opinions of the ABA.
"There's probably a lack of [transgender sensitivity] training actually happening," he said. "But there are free resources available to both public and private attorneys and judges that can be easily utilized. We can look to city and local bar associations to push that information. The Illinois State Bar and the Chicago Bar [Associations] both have done programs involving implicit bias in the legal profession but, when it comes to those trainings, they're probably not as transgender focused as they should be. Lawyers have to get continuing education credits in every state. There are some states that mandate that you have to take Elimination of Bias for credits. Illinois is not of those states."
To Harsch, acknowledging implicit bias in the legal profession is "about knowledge and understanding the things that are going on in your subconscious that you don't even realize are making you biased against a specific subset of the population."
"The ABA has come out publicly via policy saying that every state should adopt Elimination of Bias credits," he added. "The rules that apply to judges are different. Attorneys, especially public defenders, and judges who have not been exposed to this kind of bias training don't even realize that an implicit bias exists or that they have one."
"I would like to see our advocacy groups deal with this more forcefully as far as judicial education and to help family court judges on LGBTQ issues because they don't get a lot of this stuff right," Beyer stressed. "Often that's the first and last court in which LGBT kids or their parents have their day and it doesn't turn out that well."
However, according to Dean, an agency like DCFS is grounded in a culture which makes it fertile ground for problems such as bias and personal opinions superseding factual evidence to exist.
"Say a kid goes home after some hearing," he said. "Say the kid gets hurt. Whose name's going to be in the newspaper? The judge. Which is not fair at all to the judge because it is the Department that largely shapes the evidence that is presented. From the investigator all the way up the entire Department operates under CYACover Your Ass. DCFS will come down hard on an investigator and her whole team if they didn't remove a child and the child gets hurt. If you send a child home after an investigation, there's no reward in that. The investigators don't get a pat on the back. The way the reward system is set up is you only get rewarded if there's a removal. You never get rewarded if you leave people alone. The incentives are completely backwards."
In 2015, DCFS released statistics which indicated an increase in reports of abuse and neglect of 0.3 percent over the previous year. The number of cases in which those reports were discovered to be "indicated" ( findings or abuse or neglect ) was up by 24.7 percent compared with 2014.
"If a DCFS DCP [Department of Child Protection] investigator gets a reputation for not taking kids because she's really drilling down and making sure that evidence is there before leaning on a family, it's not going to help her move forward in her career," Dean added. "A DCP who's yanking kids left and right is thought of as aggressive and can be made a supervisor. There's a certain contingent of DCPs who are really hard on people. There are also a lot of front line investigators who are fair minded but their supervisors are stuck in the culture of CYA. I cannot tell you how many times in the last 10 years or so that I've had an investigator call me saying they are going to recommend to their supervisor to leave a family alone. Then, a day or two later, the supervisor overrules them."
"Sometimes it's just power and control," Redleaf said. "We have a child abuse reporting system that we might call the Child Welfare Industrial Complex. It's a massive system where there's government money involved, where people are told what they should and should not do and biases are running wild. There's all sorts of factors."
"DCFS investigators have a lot of power and they scare the heck out of families," Taraska said. "What I try to do is bear the brunt of that. So, I try to make the first contact [with DCFS]. One of the things I encounter is that workers won't talk to me. They will tell a family, 'Until you sign a release, we are not going to speak to your attorney because we are bound by confidentiality.'"
Both Dean and Taraska confirmed that they know of cases where DCFS has actively discouraged people from getting an attorney.
"What often happens is that the [accused] family finally gets over the initial shock of an investigation and they ask, 'Shouldn't I have a lawyer?'" Dean said. "The common answer DCFS gives is, 'Oh don't get a lawyer. That'll just delay things.'"
"That's completely false and absurd," he added. "In a number of the cases I've been involved in, were it not for my guidance, my explaining things to my clients or telling them when they can say 'no', they would have gone right over a cliff and lost the kids."
"My understanding is that it happens a lot," Taraska acknowledged. "It happens even after I'm on a case. If it does, I immediately call and say, 'Why would you say that to a family? You know they are allowed to have legal representation and they want it.' I get a lot of blowback from that. I get, 'Why would they contact an attorney if they didn't do anything wrong?' My response is, 'Are you kidding? You tell someone there's a report of abuse or neglect, why wouldn't they contact an attorney?'"
Dean added that DCFS discouraging families from seeking representation is tantamount to handing out legal advice, which he recommends families absolutely reject.
"If for no other reason than you have a right to have someone in an official capacity sitting with you during your interview taking notes," he said. "Quite often I have to intervene because a question is put so badly to the client that I say, 'Don't answer it'. Answering a question you don't understand will get you into trouble every time."
"The fundamental right of every American to raise children of any gender is so important and so ingrained emotionally that in my opinion, someone saying, 'I'm going to take your children' is scarier than someone saying, 'We're going to arrest you and put you in jail,'" Taraska said. "To have someone come in and say, 'Because you are allowing your children to be who they are, you are doing something wrong and we're going to take them out of your home' is so terrifying to parents, they will do whatever that investigator tells them to do."
The Consequences to the Child
The consequences to a transgender child who is removed from an affirming home are just as devastating.
Dr. Erica E. Anderson, Ph.D. is a professor of clinical psychology at John F. Kennedy University in San Francisco. A practicing clinical psychologist since 1980, Anderson is one of two psychologists at the University of California San Francisco ( UCSF ) Child and Adolescent Gender Center Clinicone of the world's leading centers for healthcare for transgender and gender nonconforming children.
"We are accumulating data but we know, from our experience, that all-important to transgender children is having a supportive family," she told Windy City Times. "Children who grow up with an affirming family do not have higher incidents of many of the unfortunate things that affect the transgender community including mental health problems, social adjustment, issues with bullying in school and school avoidance, family conflicts and ultimately depression, suicidal thoughts and actions. Transgender kids who have a long period of growing up with supportive families resemble typical children in the population."
Anderson asserted that for an official such as a pediatrician, teacher or member of the law profession to assert that a child as young as five cannot determine her/his/their gender identity is a "very ignorant perspective which flies in the face of what we know scientifically and by observations of many children."
"Children develop the ability to absorb information, to listen to and see what's going around them and reflect on it and, although they might be young and might not be able to have abstract thinking as they would as an adult, they are in a position to perceive what's going on, how they are treated and have the ability internally to compare that with how they feel about themselves and who they are," she said. "There are children who assert their gender identity well before the age of five and continue in persisting in that identity."
"If a child who asserts their gender identity is met with affirmation, they are going to feel more comfortable being honest and open with those they are surrounded by," Anderson added. "A child who is met with resistance or, worse, hostility is going to use a very different set of tactics. They might withdraw, they might censor what they do which can cause them to hide aspects of themselves that they are worried about meeting with disapproval."
Before the transgender child in Chicago was seized by DCFS and placed in the care of Advocate Children's Hospital for "therapeutic separation" from her affirming family, family friend Lilly described her as "a bright, amazing, energetic little girl."
Once DCFS took control and placed her in the care of Advocate whose staff did not affirm her gender identity, addressed her with a male name and forced her into wearing traditionally male clothes while coercing her to play with toys more enjoyed by boys, Lilly remembered that she kept "looking up at her mom and I to protect her but there was nothing we could do. She looked over and whispered, 'Should I just be a secret girl?'"
Ironically, even though the family has been limited to two visits per week the child has had to be returned to Advocate for treatment.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ( SAMHSA ) released a report, "Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth contains a Professional Consensus on Conversion Therapy with Minors," in October 2015.
"Variations in gender identity and expression are normal aspects of human diversity and do not constitute a mental disorder," the consensus asserted. "Interventions aimed at a fixed outcome, such as gender conformity or heterosexual orientation, including those aimed at changing gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are coercive, can be harmful, and should not be part of behavioral health treatments. Directing the child to be conforming to any gender expression or sexual orientation, or directing the parents to place pressure for specific gender expressions, gender identities, and sexual orientations are inappropriate and reinforce harmful gender and sexual orientation stereotypes."
"The level of knowledge of transgender issues is so variable in America," Anderson said. "There's only a small number of people who are tuned into it and the rest of society has no clue. We hear all the time politicians say, 'There are only two genders, so let's legislate it with bathroom bills.' It flies in the face of scientific fact that every species has variations and variation is a normal part of nature. People are acting upon their own notion of something that they have no objective knowledge about and it's appalling."
In April 2016, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Florida's Department of Children and Families ( DCF ) "repealed proposed protections for gay and transgender foster youthincluding one that would have banned the highly controversial practice of conversion therapy intended to make gay teens heterosexual."
The Sentinel noted that the decision came following testimony at provided by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Florida Baptist Children's Home at a January hearing.
Less than a year later, the Alabama State legislature introduced HB 24 in March 2017 which would "prohibit the state from discriminating against child placing agencies on the basis that the provider declines to provide a child placement that conflicts with the religious beliefs of the provider."
According to the Human Rights Campaign, the bill would "would allow state-licensed child-placing agencies to disregard the best interest of children, and turn away qualified Alabamians seeking to care for a child in needincluding LGBTQ couples, interfaith couples, single parents, married couples in which one prospective parent has previously been divorced, or other parents to whom the agency has a religious objection. The measure would even allow agencies to refuse to place foster children with members of their own extended familiesa practice often considered to be in the best interest of the child. A qualified, loving LGBTQ grandparent, for example, could be deemed unsuitable under the proposed law."
Both decisions raise questions as to how parents in Florida and Alabama who offer their child an affirming home feel about the threat of their state's child protective agencies given the level of fear exhibited in states like Illinois.
Discrimination protections are on the books in Illinois but agencies like DCFS have been seen to act with a sometimes unilateral disregard for them whether through a culture of cover-your-ass or implicit bias which has gone unaddressed.
"Don't get me wrong, 90 percent of the time when the department does intervene, either with a safety plan or even temporary custody, there is a problem and a child is at some risk," attorney Dean stated. "It is the 10 percent or so where I perceive there is a significant gap in the evidence or the department becomes overbearing in light of the actual risk. It is those 10 percent cases that keep me up at night."
Advocate Beyer stressed that many of the cases in which the parents of transgender children are investigated or have their children removed from their homes occurred or are occurring because of the progress that the trans community has made in recent years in terms of both societal perceptions and civil rights.
She called it "a silver lining" to what is often a bleak outlook for parents of transgender children who find themselves caught up in a child welfare system which is being and has been successfully utilized as a blunt instrument to remove a child by someone who has a political or religious objection to the affirming home offered by the parents.
The political and religious commentary against transgender-affirming parents offered by right-wing pundits such as Dennis Prager and associations such as the American Family Association ( AFA ) or the ACP have increased exponentially since marriage equality became the law of the land and gay and lesbian couples found a larger societal acceptance.
Now that the transgender community is at the bulls eye of hatred, parents are just as easy a target.
"Parents are listening and trying to do what they can in order to prevent their children from becoming severely anxious or depressed or attempting suicide," Beyer said. "We're taking major steps forward but there are always people out there who want to throw a wrench in the works and they will look for the most vulnerable spot or people."
Because of both the confidentiality with which juvenile cases are handled and the terror exhibited by families who have been accused of abuse and neglect which makes them reluctant to speak out even if they aren't under a judge's gag order, the numbers of times that wrench has been thrown successfully are not quantifiable.
A lack of interest on the part of LGBTQ advocacy groups to address the problem further heightens the mystery of a seemingly clandestine activity by DCFS and child protection agencies nationwide.
Part One of this series at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Can-the-child-welfare-system-handle-trans-children-Part-Two/58759.html . Part Two is at www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Can-the-Child-Welfare-System-Handle-Trans-Children/58703.html .
Windy City Times would like to thank the following agencies for their support during the course of this investigation: Family Equality, the ACLU of Illinois, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights ( NCLR ), Gender Spectrum, the American Academy of Pediatrics ( AAP ), the American Bar Association ( ABA ), the Woodhull Foundation, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the Family Defense Center, Dr. Erica E. Anderson, Dr. Kenneth Haller, Dr. Dana Beyer, Dr. Caitlin Ryan, Kent Dean, Marie J. Taraska, Malcolm 'Skip' Harsh, Isabel Rose, Marsha Aizumi, Dee McCord, the Trans Liberation Collective and each of the mothers who spoke out about their experiences despite their fears of child protection agency retaliation.
The following advocacy organizations had not released statements regarding this report at the time of publication: the National Center for Transgender Equality ( NCTE ), the Transgender Law Center, GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign.