This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.
I was sent a copy of an article this evening. It appears in the October edition of ‘Professional Social Work Magazine’ which I am told is a publication for those who belong to the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) a powerful and influential organisation which claims over 20,000 members, ‘committed to the highest standards of practice and ethics’.
The article was written by someone who did not want to reveal their identify, in order to protect that of their child, which I can quite understand. The article is titled ‘Listen to children on gender – what being the parent of a trans child has taught me’.
It is the account of a teenager who struggled with a ‘gender identity’ that did not ‘match the sex they were assigned at birth’ and how the parents supported the child to transition from female to male after the child made his wishes known at 12 – having spent ‘months, if not years’, ‘thinking about his body as wrong’.
It is a sensitive account from a parent about how they responded to their child who, on this account clearly did appear to be expressing strong views that had been held over time. I have absolutely no difficulty with this. It is clear that ‘gender dysphoria’ does exist and a small percentage of people will benefit from surgery to bring their physical body more into alignment with what they believe their body should be.
However, there will, I am equally sure, be those who profess a wish to ‘change sex’ who have other issues and difficulties that medication or surgery will not alleviate. Such intervention may have permanent and life long consequences and should not be entered into lightly. Enormous caution should be taken around ‘supporting’ a child who is not Gillick competent into making any serious decision about their lives.
And this is where the article began to make me feel very uneasy. Far from restricting it to an account of one child’s journey, it is clear that the author wishes to offer far more general guidance and does so on the basis of assertions that are – in my view – profoundly misguided and actively dangerous.
The author raises as a ‘myth’ that hormone treatments are given to children under the age of 16 or surgery is considered only at 18. Possibly she or he is unaware of the activities of Dr Helen Webberley and what appears to be a growing number of activists who demand that ‘puberty blockers’ should be available to children as young as 12. Ironic also is the fact that the CEO of Mermaids Susie Green took her child abroad for surgery when the child was only 16.
Offering up these age limits of 16 and 18 as some kind of inviolate barrier beyond which people cannot pass is simply naive – particularly given the inevitable ‘drive’ for increased intervention at a younger age as that will make it easier for a child to ‘pass’ – particularly a boy who wants to become a girl.
But my real fears are raised by the ‘bullet points’ at the end of the article
- Just because a child is telling you they are transgender, does not mean they are too young to know this
- Its not possible to force a child or young person to be trans
- parents supporting their child in their gender identify is not a safeguarding issue
I wonder if the author of this article has read the judgement in Re J? I wrote about this in more detail in this post – In whose best interests? Transgender children: choices and consequences – and the issues around bear repeating here.
This is an important case – J (A Minor), Re  EWHC 2430 (Fam) (21 October 2016).
The Transparency Project wrote about the case and the media response here and summarised the court’s approach in this way:
Mr Justice Hayden heard the case over a number of days in the summer and, based upon the experts and professionals whose evidence he heard (along with that of the mother herself), the judge concluded that J was a little boy whose mother’s perception of his gender difference was suffocating his ability to develop independently – and was causing him significant emotional harm. He was placed with his father, where he quickly began to explore toys and interests that were stereotypically “boys”. The judgement is very clear that the father had brought “no pressure on J to pursue masculine interests” and that his interests and energy were “entirely self motivated” (pa 47). So, not forced to live “like a boy” (whatever that means) – but choosing (there is more detail in the judgment).
Importantly, Hayden J acknowledged that there are genuinely children who are transgender or gender dysphoric, and who present in this way from an early stage, but – and here is the crux of it – this child was not one of them. This was all about the mother’s position.
At para 63 of the July judgment, the judge commented on the expert opinion of the mother and how she presented:
When stressed and distressed, [M] becomes controlling, forceful and antagonistic. This reflects her underlying anxiety. She is actually very frightened and upset. She tries to sooth herself by taking control of situations but her interpersonal style is counter-productive. She does not negotiate well. She finds it difficult to compromise and situations become inflamed rather than de-escalated. In situations of interpersonal conflict, she protects herself from loss of confidence or face by unambiguously perceiving herself as correct which means that from her perspective, the other party is wrong. To acknowledge her flaws, even to herself, feels crushing and devastates her self-esteem so she avoids this possibility by locating responsibility and blame elsewhere. When she is unable to achieve the outcome that she wants, she resorts to formal processes and/or higher authorities: complaint procedures, The Protection of Human Rights in Public Law, the European Court of Human Rights, Stonewall and so on.”
It is clear that the mother was insistent with all agencies that J ‘disdained his penis’ and was being subjected to bullying at school etc. She could not provide any proof of this and the school denied it was happening. She was supported throughout by Mermaids who played a significant role in the development of a ‘prevailing orthodoxy’ that J – at 4 years old – wished to be a ‘girl’. That view was found by the court to have no bearing in reality and was a product of both ‘naivety and professional arrogance’
This local authority has consistently failed to take appropriate intervention where there were strong grounds for believing that a child was at risk of serious emotional harm. I propose to invite the Director of Children’s Services to undertake a thorough review of the social work response to this case. Professional deficiencies to this extent cannot go unchecked, if confidence in this Local Authority’s safeguarding structures is to be maintained.
No one and no thing is exempt from safeguarding
I am profoundly worried by that last bullet point in the article – “parents supporting their child in their gender identify is not a safeguarding issue”.
The mother in re J was supported throughout by Mermaids, who issued an angry press release after the judgment and said there would be an appeal. There was not. The author of this article refers its readers to Mermaids as a useful resource.
It is surely the antithesis of any responsible social work or safeguarding policy to set up groups of people or particular issues that are immune from examination or critical regard. While the author’s 12 year old child may have thought long and hard about the issue and demonstrated his Gillick competence beyond doubt – I suggest the same certainly cannot be offered with regard to a 4 year old. But is the issue of ‘trans’ now off the table for social workers? Whatever the child’s age or level of understanding – if he or she declares they are trans, then that is that? No further investigation or assessment is required? How can this be right? How is this good social work?
I am really worried about this. I would be interested to hear from other social workers about what they think, and how they would approach a case involving a very young child who wished to embark upon a path of ‘changing sex.’