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Texas welfare workers are resigning over orders to investigate trans kids' families

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been nearly two months since Texas Governor Greg Abbott directed his state's child welfare agency to investigate parents of transgender children. The order has left parents in fear of facing a child abuse investigation for helping their trans kids receive gender-affirming treatments, treatments that are recommended by the American Medical Association. It has also had a serious impact on the agency that is tasked with conducting these investigations.

Eleanor Klibanoff has been talking to some of these workers. She is the women's health reporter at the Texas Tribune, and she joins us now. Welcome.

ELEANOR KLIBANOFF: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So I understand, like, some of these workers have resigned because of Abbott's directive. Can you just tell me what have they told you about their reasons for leaving?

KLIBANOFF: You know, most of them are social workers. They got into this job to investigate serious concerns of child abuse and neglect. And now they're being sent out or fear being sent out on investigations where a child is receiving medical care in consultation with a doctor and being asked to sort of intervene between that relationship between the parents and the child's doctor. And that paired with some of the, you know, concerns over how these cases are being handled has left them, many of them say, with no choice but to resign.

CHANG: What about those staff members who have decided to stay? Like, what are they saying to you?

KLIBANOFF: Well, you know, there's been, from what I've heard, a lot of sort of small acts of resistance. Several of them signed on to an amicus brief in the legal case expressing their concerns about this directive. In the Austin area office, several of them wore don't mess with trans kids T-shirts to work one day. They've been hanging up rainbow signs. But that, you know, I think for many of them, is starting to feel insufficient. They feel like they are really stuck between a rock and a hard place here.

These cases are currently on pause. The investigations, they're no longer - you know, while this moves through the court system. So they're not actively having to undertake investigative activities, but they're very fearful for what this could mean if that pause was lifted.

CHANG: And as far as the resignations go, how has the state of Texas responded? Have they said anything about the departures from this agency?

KLIBANOFF: They did not answer specific questions about the departures and what the impact of that would be. You know, they've just said that they will follow the law in their child abuse investigations. But, you know, this is an agency that has struggled for a long time with employee recruitment and retention. They struggle on a lot of fronts - with, you know, their foster care system, with child abuse investigations. And many of these employees personally worry a lot about what it means to have long-tenured, experienced investigators and supervisors walk out the door.

CHANG: Yeah. I was just going to ask you, the people who have decided to leave these jobs - are any of them still openly struggling with that decision, processing it and worried about the consequences of what leaving this agency means for the people still there?

KLIBANOFF: Absolutely. I mean, I wouldn't say any of them are. I would say all of them are. I mean, they are really tied up in knots about this. I mean, in a lot of cases, they were working under sort of subprime conditions as it were. And now they know that by leaving, they're just increasing caseloads. They're just getting those cases reassigned. I mean, almost every supervisor I talked to said they are haunted by the fact that, if these cases fall through the cracks because people resign or because they're taking on other investigations they feel they shouldn't be involved in, that children in Texas will die. That's the stakes of these investigations.

CHANG: Yeah. That is Eleanor Klibanoff, women's health reporter at the Texas Tribune. Thank you so much for your reporting.

KLIBANOFF: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.