In late October 2019, numerous readers asked us to verify sensational stories about a Texas court case that centered on a custody dispute over a child whose parents were at odds over the child’s gender identity. Various publications not only identified that child by name, but also publicized the minor’s private medical information and photograph.
We heard from multiple readers asking about this case. Some noted their suspicions about the veracity of the story were grounded in the fact that versions of it were mostly published by right-leaning websites. For example, one reader inquired:
I’ve been hearing a lot about this story from Texas concerning a boy [name and age omitted by Snopes] who is trans, apparently, and apparently their mother is gonna “put them through surgery and hormone replacement” and stuff, and the dad doesn’t want that, so there is a custody battle in the works. Something tells me that this seems like just a custody battle about a divorced couple that someone played up to be real. Especially since the only sources I’ve been able to find on them are from sites like Lifesite, Daily Caller, and Daily Wire, all right-leaning websites.
Although Snopes usually aims to verify or debunk items submitted for review by readers, this case presents an extraordinary challenge because the item in question intrudes on the privacy of an elementary-school-aged minor. Therefore, we will not wade into sensitive details of this child’s personal life — including identifying the child or parents in any way — but will examine some of the ramifications of the case thus far.
The articles focus on a long-running, bitter divorce case in which the parent awarded custody has purportedly sought medical help with the fact that the child doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The other parent has sought to block that treatment and, while losing in court, has taken the case to the alternative media. Although far-right websites have reported the child’s mother seeks to medically “castrate” the child or commence hormone therapy, the mother on Nov. 5, 2019 published a press release stating that was not true.
The parent who opposes treatment has given multiple interviews and provided details about the child’s medical case. Sensational but one-sided stories based on that parent’s statements have appeared on RT, the Russian state-funded media network, numerous right-leaning sites, and a website founded by a former Texas state senator.
We emailed questions to the editor of that Texas publication asking why the site felt the need to publish photographs of the child, and whether the editor had any reservations about doing so. The editor did not answer those questions but instead offered this response: “Upon viewing these, I’m not seeing any fact-checking questions or desire to confirm details surrounding the … case. They are questions about our internal processes and decision-making when it comes to reporting on issues important to Texans.”
An attorney for the child’s custodial parent said in an emailed statement that the parent has been the target of threats, harassment, and vandalism to property as the result of reporting on the case by alternative media outlets.
We reached out to several media ethicists regarding the published stories about the child. According to Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert who chairs Poynter’s Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, those stories are not only unethical but are harmful to the child. The stories create a permanent, public record of deeply sensitive and personal information about someone who is not yet old enough to consent to participate in that process, she said.
Professional journalists generally follow certain ethics when reporting on children. Those ethics take into consideration a number of factors, including the child’s right to privacy and the incumbent physical security risks to children that might result from publishing images and biographical or geographical information about them. Overall, journalists are obligated to strive to avoid doing harm to a child through their reporting, and in most circumstances they first obtain permission from parents or guardians before interviewing or taking (and publishing) pictures of children.
But the stories circulating about this divorce case are egregiously unethical, McBride said, because they manufacture outrage and do so by flagrantly violating the privacy of a child, using information gained from one parent who doesn’t have custody of the child. “There’s no way to justify that,” McBride told us.
McBride also said the subtext to the stories about the case appears to be the view that the court overreached by handing custody to a parent seeking therapy for a transgender child. Some of the sites that have covered the story have track records of hateful reporting on the transgender community.
“A deeper question is how a news site that reveals the identity of a child and that child’s medical record is serving your interest,” McBride said. “Let’s presume [these publications’] interest is in exposing a court that they feel has overreached. You can write about that without naming the child and running that child’s photograph. They are definitely harming the child in order to make their point.”
We reached out to attorneys for both parents but did not hear back from the lawyer representing the parent who was giving media interviews. We also reached out to an attorney and social worker who are reportedly representing the child and received no response from either.
An attorney for the custodial parent said in a written statement that a “completely distorted and untrue version of events” is being reported by the news media. The statement asked that the privacy of the children involved in the matter be respected.
“My client is being viciously attacked and threatened by complete strangers based on false and untrue statements. That is unacceptable. We respectfully request that before the media reports on this case, a thorough investigation is completed into the actual facts and truth of the situation.”
Amid stories that created a political firestorm, the child’s parents were awarded joint custody on Oct. 24, 2019 by the judge in the case despite a prior jury decision granting the mother full custody. The child’s mother, in the Nov. 5 press release, stated that the inflammatory media coverage resulted in a rock being thrown through the window of her home while her children were sleeping as well as dead animals and vandalism being done to her place of work, resulting in her business being temporarily closed. The mother has also filed a motion seeking the recusal of the judge in the case and asking that the previous jury decision awarding her full custody be honored.