‘Safe folders’ for transgender children: What to know

Abbott’s letter, sent late last month to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, cited Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion that giving transgender children medical treatments such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy could “legally constitute child abuse.”

“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 wrote.

The directive is the latest attempt in Texas to regulate the lives of transgender children and their families. Last year, the state legislature considered a bill that defined abuse under the Texas Family Code to include administering or consenting to use of medical treatments for gender transitioning.

Texas state Sen. Charles Perry (R), the bill’s author, argued during floor debate that the bill was necessary to “prevent children from making irreversible decisions that they may regret later,” reported ABC Chicago.

As investigations have opened up in the state under the latest directive, parents of transgender children fear the repercussions of speaking up and potentially outing their kids, said Minter.

On Wednesday, Abbott’s order was partially blocked by a federal judge. Hours later, the Biden administration pushed back against the Texas governor, with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announcing upcoming guidance that “makes clear that states should use their child welfare systems to advance safety and support for LGBTQI+ youth.”

The HHS announcement also called for families being investigated as a result of Abbott’s order to file a complaint through the department’s Office for Civil Rights.

The guidance “dramatically changes the landscape” in Texas, Minter said. “It is extremely heartening.”

In response, many parents who support their trans children have relied on a network of organizations for help, sharing essential practices to protect their loved ones. These include “safety folders” (also referred to as “safe folders”), which some Texas parents urged others to compile in the wake of Abbott’s order.

For decades, advocates say, these folders — a small but powerful archiving tool — have been a way for parents to confirm their children’s gender identity and shield them from harm.

Simply put, a safety folder is a collection of legal documents that establish a relationship, such as a marriage or guardian-child relationship, that could be questioned or threatened by a form of surveillance, said Jules Gill-Peterson, associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Histories of the Transgender Child.”

As a concept, the safety folder has been around for at least 20 to 25 years, Minter said, and it was a direct response to fears that child welfare agencies and other authorities were ignorant to the existence of trans children or otherwise misunderstood.

“They are primarily designed to protect parents in the event that a hostile family member, neighbor or colleague reports them to” child protective services, he said.

Back then, “the idea of supporting trans children was very new, very unfamiliar,” Minter said.

These folders have been “very helpful” to lots of parents, he said, and have served as an important educational tool for those unfamiliar with trans children. Lawyers and LGBTQ support organizations have advised families to keep this kind of archive, he added.

“In case you’re ever questioned, you have all the information you need to show there’s nothing amiss going on, but in fact, you are following medical guidance and providing your child with really important and necessary support and care,” Minter said.

“There is a sort of kitchen-sink logic” with what goes into these folders, noted Gill-Peterson. “The more you can marshal as evidence, the better.”

This includes legal documents (a copy of a birth certificate, social security cards, passports or name-change documents) and letters from health-care professionals that confirm a child’s gender identity. But it also includes photos and references from friends, family members or other trusted community members that attest both to the child’s gender and to the parent’s ability to support and care for their child.

The advocacy group TransYouth Family Allies recommends including drawings or writings from children that display their gender identity, as well as photos and videos.

Parents have to “imagine the worst things that could ever happen” — such as having a child taken away from them — and try to assemble an archive to protect against that, Gill-Peterson said.

“You have to take a loving relationship and turn it into a pile of documents, as if you have to prove in an imaginary court that you really are who you say you are, and that your child’s life is valuable and that your relationship of care and support is valuable,” Gill-Peterson added.

This practice is not unique to families with trans members, Gill-Peterson said.

“The reason most people create safety folders is that they’re vulnerable under the law,” she explained.

Families that have a disabled member keep similar archives, as do families that have different immigration statuses or are undocumented. The trait that ties all these groups together, said Gill-Peterson, is that these families are more likely to be questioned about their status or monitored by the state, with the possible outcome of having a child separated from the family.

These folders are crucial tools for families because child welfare agencies wield so much power, Minter said: “In many cases, the way the child welfare system works is that the state can take your children before there is any court hearing.”

How much protection can safety folders offer families today?

The risk that parents of trans children face today is different from what they encountered in the past.

According to Gill-Peterson, who has tracked the history of transgender children from the early 1900s, trans children were likely to be misdiagnosed, arrested, institutionalized or kicked out of their homes 50 to 70 years ago. But while it was common, it was not official state policy to separate those children from their families — and never a requirement to report them, as Abbott has attempted to do.

But with states like Texas and Alabama having recently sought to codify this kind of separation, the landscape is likely more dangerous for trans children now than it was before, Gill Peterson said: “There’s a difference between being at risk because no one knows what you mean when you say your kid is trans, versus everyone knows, and there are people deliberately targeting your kid because of that.”

Minter put it this way: “At this point, families are at risk with or without folders.”

But institutional support for trans families has also changed: Minter pointed to child-welfare workers, teachers and district attorneys who said they would not comply with Abbott’s orders, as well as support from the legal community in Texas and other parts of the country.

“The entire LGBT legal community is mobilized,” Minter said. “This is the most important battle right now.”

The recent guidance from HHS was also “extremely heartening” to Minter, who said it gives transgender children and their parents “concrete avenues for legal protection.”

For Gill-Peterson, safety folders continue to be relevant to trans children today. She sees them as a testimony to the resilience of the trans community — a small but effective way of navigating a system that has refused to acknowledge them: “We don’t just accept things getting worse, and we don’t ever stop fighting for things to get better.”

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