This story was produced in partnership with the Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.
At first, Katee Churchill thought it was a game of make-believe. Her middle child, Finn, was a bright and articulate 3-year-old who enjoyed playing dress-up as much as he loved his dinosaurs. But one day Finn ran out of his room crying. He said his brother Rory told him he wasn’t allowed to be a girl. Katee comforted Finn, telling him he could be whatever he wanted to be.
A couple of months later, when Finn saw an ad for a dress, he begged his mother to buy him one. Katee took Finn to a Target near their home, where he ran to the girl’s section. He then began experimenting with girl names and asked to be called “Princess P.” As Finn neared the start of preschool in Clare County, Michigan, Katee took him to a therapist who specializes in gender variance and dysphoria. Katee learned that trans youth who are not affirmed at home have high rates of suicide, depression, and self-harm and that allowing them to dress and act in accordance with their gender identity can mitigate those outcomes. The therapist recommended that Katee and Finn’s father, Chris, follow the child’s lead and call him by the names and pronouns he asked them to use.
Finn settled on another name: Lisa. Sometimes he wanted to be called Finn, other times Lisa. He frequently wore dresses and leggings but also T-shirts and pants. Finn’s vacillations confused some people in Clare, a small rural county of about 30,000 people. (The names of Katee’s children have been changed to protect their identities as they are still minors.)
In 2014, Katee found a card from a Child Protective Services caseworker stuck in her door. The next day, CPS told Katee an anonymous report was made for potential abuse and neglect of her children. CPS found there was enough evidence to initiate a case, alleging that Katee had, among other things, pushed her son against his will to identify as transgender. The agency recommended to a court that Katee’s children be removed and placed with their fathers.
It was an extraordinarily complex, yearslong case that involved all the children in her custody and touched on a range of issues including mental health and poverty. The part of the case that focused on Finn, however, was the kind of legal ordeal that threatens to become more common as state legislatures across the country take steps to restrict the rights of trans people. In April, for example, a proposed bill in the Texas legislature would have made it child abuse for a parent to provide gender-affirming medical care for their child. Other bills introduced in states around the country attempt to limit a child’s ability to access transition care and the activities a trans child can engage in. In 2021, more than 130 anti-trans bills were introduced, a record, and 14 were passed. Activists say that even if some of this proposed legislation is not enacted, it will lead to additional mental-health challenges for already vulnerable children.
Kimberly Shappley, a Texan who identified as a conservative Christian before her daughter Kai came out as trans, said she feels targeted. “It’s happening all across the United States, even in places that aren’t the Bible Belt, even in places that aren’t on the radar,” Shappley said. “There’s literally nowhere safe if you’re an out trans kid.”
Parents of trans and gender-nonconforming children are afraid their kids will be taken from them. A 2019 Family Court Review analysis of ten cases involving mothers who affirmed their child’s nonconforming identity found that, in four of the cases, mothers lost physical or legal custody of their children. In four other cases, mothers were required to share custody of their trans or gender-nonconforming child with spouses who were not affirming of their child’s identity. In Texas, a 2019 custody battle over 7-year-old trans girl Luna Younger became a lightning rod for right-wing provocateurs like Donald Trump Jr. and Senator Ted Cruz, who tweeted, “For a parent to subject such a young child to life-altering hormone blockers to medically transition their sex is nothing less than child abuse.”
In August, a judge awarded Luna’s mother full custody. But Luna’s case helped create the political conditions that led to the recent wave of anti-trans legislation, said Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU. LGBTQ+ families feel particularly vulnerable to CPS intervention. “This is another axis,” Strangio said, “upon which to be concerned about the state coming in and deciding what makes a legitimate parent.”
Katee said that before she became entangled with CPS, “I probably would have been in agreement that if someone got their kids taken away, there’s a reason. Now that I’ve been through the system and I see how it’s structured and how it works — it’s just not functioning the way it should be.”
Katee Churchill grew up in Houghton Lake, Michigan, where the church played a big role in daily life, and as she moved away from religion, she felt increasingly out of place. She was an introvert who describes herself as “extremely socially awkward.” She met Chris Churchill, who would become her husband, in high school, but they didn’t start dating until he returned from a tour with the Army in Iraq in 2009. By then, she had had a son, Rory, with her first partner, David Belincky. Katee and Chris had two children, Finn and Theo, exactly a year apart. In 2012, between the births of their two sons, they married.
As a husband, Chris cheated and was violent, according to his own court testimony and Katee’s recollections. Chris suffered from PTSD, and he admitted to drinking heavily and using amphetamines. Katee says he told her and their mutual friends he was suicidal and posted about it on Facebook. He owned guns, and Katee feared he would use them against her. In 2011, Chris forced a pregnant Katee to hold a gun to his chest and told her to pull the trigger.
In 2012, Katee obtained a restraining order against Chris after he threw her to the ground in an argument. Katee fled and took the kids to a domestic-violence shelter. Afterward, she and the kids lived for a time with Belincky and his new partner, Maria Santoro. Santoro had extensive experience with domestic-violence nonprofits and instantly recognized Katee as a victim. “It was a horrendous yearslong cycle of abuse from him,” Santoro said.
When Katee was informed CPS was investigating her, she wasn’t receiving child-support payments and was struggling financially. Her youngest son, Theo, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, and he could be aggressive with her and his brothers. Chris’s history of domestic violence wasn’t discussed in court even though CPS had asked that Finn and Theo be placed with him. Instead, the court focused on the length of Rory’s toenails and the fact that Katee’s home was heated with space heaters. The petition noted a lock on Katee’s fridge, which she attributed to keeping Theo, who was 2 years old at the time and had received his autism diagnosis, from pulling the food out of the freezer. In one evaluation, psychologist Lynn Simons said Katee “appears to demonstrate Factitious Disorder by Proxy” — a disorder in which a caregiver invents or causes an illness or injury in a person under his or her care — because she claimed one of her children was transgender and another had autism.
CPS’s petition alleged that Katee was “emotionally and mentally damaging” all three of her children because she “insists that her three year old son [Finn] is transgender.” John Petras, a clinical social worker who evaluated Finn, reported that the child “was not transgendered” and “any transgender identification, thoughts, and issues” on Finn’s part were a result of Katee “putting notions of transgender characteristics” into Finn’s head.
Antonia Caretto, a therapist who specializes in gender variance and gender dysphoria, also evaluated Finn and his parents as part of the court case. Caretto noted in her report that about 7 percent of preschool-age boys exhibit cross-gender behavior and that it was “not abnormal.” She noted that “as children get older, they identify more consistently with their assigned sex and those who don’t identify with their assigned sex become more aware that expressing gender non-conforming behaviors can be met with disapproval.”
Caretto found that Katee was more accepting of Finn than Chris and that Finn sensed his father had a problem with his gender fluidity. In one session, Finn told Caretto he couldn’t choose his clothes at his dad’s. In another, he told her he couldn’t be a princess for Halloween at his dad’s house but he could be one at his mom’s.
For a psychologist to identify a child is transgender, they typically examine if the child is “persistent, insistent, and consistent” about identifying with a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. But in Finn’s case, his fluidity was confusing even for Caretto, who said he regularly shifted his pronouns and name in the course of a session. Caretto didn’t find that Finn had gender dysphoria; rather, she said, he had anxiety about how his gender fluidity created conflict between his parents. “As I see it, for [Finn] the conflict is not so much about gender as it is about being forced to choose between these two world views rather than being able to find his own resolution,” Caretto wrote.
In April 2015, probate and family court judge Marcy Klaus ruled that Katee did not abuse or neglect her children. She noted that the thoroughness of Caretto’s report, which included interviews with both Chris and Katee as well as extensive time with Finn, influenced her decision. Months later, Katee’s three children were returned to her care.
But Katee’s joy at getting her kids back was short-lived. A year later, Clare County CPS brought another case against Katee. Only this time, Katee would be judged by a jury of her peers.
The child-welfare system is a patchwork of state and county agencies that, in 2019, investigated the homes of nearly 3.5 million children around the country. Unlike criminal cases, CPS cases are handled in civil courts overseen by family-court judges; in rural counties like Clare, it’s common for a single judge to oversee all CPS cases. Parents are often provided fewer legal protections in CPS cases than in criminal-court proceedings. In a handful of states, it’s not required that parents even have attorneys representing them.
The child-welfare system has always disproportionately ensnared families who are Black, Indigenous, poor, or otherwise marginalized. And once a family is on CPS’s radar, it is incredibly difficult to exit the system. Advocates say CPS often targets poor and Black families for poverty-related circumstances or minor infractions. Chicago Public Schools, which are 90 percent nonwhite, had a policy that school staff should contact child-welfare services if parents were late to pick up their kids. This fall in Washington, D.C., more than 90 families were referred to the Child and Family Services Agency for educational neglect for keeping their children home for COVID-related reasons.
Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, calls the child-welfare system the “family policing” system and says it “functions to regulate poor and working-class families — especially those that are Black, Latinx, and Indigenous — by wielding the threat of taking their children from them.”
CPS’s interactions with LGBTQ+ families are more opaque. Nancy Polikoff, a professor emerita at the American University Washington College of Law, said such interactions are often kept out of public view because of strict privacy laws and parental fear of losing their children. “That parent’s goal is to keep their child, and sometimes, if they’re seeking a lot of publicity, that could be used against them,” Polikoff said. “So it’s not going to get the same kind of visibility.”
Asaf Orr, the transgender youth project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and one of the attorneys who represented Katee in her CPS case, said parents of trans kids are advised to compile a “safe folder” documenting their child’s transition with letters of support from pediatricians, pastors, and community members. “The whole purpose of the safe folder is to be able to show it to the CPS worker who knocks on your door because a teacher called CPS, or a community member or a parent of a friend,” Orr said, “to show the child-welfare systems you are not creating something in your child; this is you following your child’s lead.”
Jury trials in CPS cases are rare; most states don’t allow them. In Michigan, either party can request a jury trial in a CPS case. In Katee’s second case, the prosecutor requested it. Because Clare County is small, the judge in both cases was the same.
Vivek Sankaran, the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan, said jury trials can sometimes work in favor of parents in CPS cases because it takes the decision away from solely the judge. “In some ways, it makes a lot of sense to me because the definitions of neglect and abuse are so broad that community norms and standards are important to interject,” Sankaran said.
But there are drastic differences in the way CPS operates in big cities, which see a much higher volume of cases, and rural towns, where there can be greater scrutiny of minor infractions. Tiny Clare County reports confirmed abuse and neglect at nearly double the rate of the state’s most populous county, Wayne, which encompasses Detroit. And in cases involving a child with gender variance, community bias — particularly in communities that are just beginning to navigate these issues — can affect the outcome. Katee’s second trial took place four months after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016; he received 64 percent of the vote in Clare. “One of the most significant effects of the Trump election is the boldness with which people are willing to express their anti-transgender beliefs,” said Orr, Katee’s attorney. “And we saw that, I think most starkly, initially in the increase in custody disputes involving trans kids.”
Orr said he was surprised when CPS opened another case against Katee after the first was decided in her favor. “They were either upset or shocked that they lost the first time around and were hoping that by going to a jury trial — pulling from the pool of, you know, somewhat reliably conservative people — they would be more successful,” he said.
Strangio said the idea that a parent is pushing their child to identify as transgender is a common tactic in an increasing number of custody cases in which one parent is not affirming of a child’s gender. “The idea that people are being pressured to be trans in a world that has such unrelenting pressure to be cis is absurd,” Strangio said. “Most of the time, what you have are parents who reject their children in one way or another for a significant period of time or take a long time to come around. You have the child resisting it internally, you have the parents resisting it, and then eventually the family comes together and says, ‘Okay, we have to support our child or the child is gonna die.’ This is usually how it works.”
“Obviously, to have the state come in and act this way is even more of a disturbance in many ways — and it’s alarming,” Strangio added.
Before Finn started preschool in 2015, Katee emailed Finn’s teacher with information about gender exploration and advice from his therapist on how to best handle it in class. In the second trial, prosecutors called Finn’s preschool teacher and T-ball coach as witnesses, and they told the court they felt Katee was pushing Finn to identify as a girl against his will. The teacher testified that, in one instance, Katee asked that Finn write his names as both Finn and Lisa even though he said he was Finn that day. (Katee said she asked him to write both names because, at preschool age, she wanted him to learn how to write them both.) Finn’s T-ball coach said that, on the field, Katee was “mocking” her by yelling out “Lisa” when the coach called out “Finn.”
Prosecutors in the second trial leaned heavily on the idea that Katee was an “LGBT activist” based on her affiliation with Facebook support groups for parents of gender-variant children. When the prosecutor asked state witness Don Spivak, a psychiatrist, if Katee might be using her children to get attention in her activist community, he implied that was the case. “Obviously, anybody can be an activist and for whatever cause they wish. And that wouldn’t necessarily imply that they have any kind of psychological problem,” Spivak said. “However, in this case, it is intimately involved with a feeling and decision about a child, so there’s an intimate involvement in that activism and the ideas about a child. And then the child has to comply with that notion in order to support the activism. They’re intertwined.”
In the second trial, Chris’s domestic-violence history was admitted and raised by both sides. Chris testified to two incidents of violence against Katee. Still, much of the testimony about his history of violence centered around CPS’s argument that Katee was playing the victim. Katelyn Brubaker, the CPS caseworker who filed the petition, said in her report that Katee “has created anxiety based on her own prerogatives portraying an image that she is a victim.” Brubaker also testified that the violence against Katee indicated a greater risk of Katee — not Chris — potentially harming their children.
On the stand, Spivak agreed. “The story is always that she is mistreated. And nothing about her participation, anything she might have said, any direction between herself and somebody else that may have led to anger and distrust between them,” he said. “It was a one-sided version that included only ‘I’m being mistreated.’” Spivak said Katee had inflicted a more “subtle” type of harm on her children.
Katee’s defense team argued that she was an established victim of domestic violence and that, in addition to the favorable evaluations of several other mental-health professionals, Spivak’s report acknowledged that the behavior he witnessed did not “add up to abuse and neglect requiring ending custody.”
In February 2017, the jury found that a preponderance of the evidence suggested Katee abused her children. She would not have regular contact with her two youngest sons for two years.
In 2018, a Michigan appeals court reluctantly upheld the decision against Katee, saying the “evidence unambiguously established” that she had not forced a gender identity on her child. Katee and her attorney say Chris refused to allow her to see the kids for months. Finally, he relented and took the children to meet Katee at a park. Even though it wasn’t stipulated in the custody order, Chris wanted to supervise the visit, and when she left the park with the children, he called the police. Clare County charged her with child kidnapping, and in June 2018, a judge returned a guilty verdict in the case. Katee spent three months in jail.
After Katee was released, it took more wrangling in court to force Chris to allow her to spend time with her kids. By then, the children had spent two years away from their mom. Meanwhile, as her lawyers appealed to the State Supreme Court, a new attorney general, Dana Nessel, a Democrat and out lesbian, was elected. In 2019, Nessel’s office dropped the case and vacated the verdicts against Katee.
Katee was vindicated — but the damage was done. As a result of the first trial, she was placed on the state’s central registry for child abuse and neglect. The registry has 300,000 people on it; some have been convicted of crimes against children, while others have been placed on it by a CPS caseworker “after finding evidence of abuse or neglect.” The registry can be accessed by the courts, various government agencies, and employers who work with children. Because she was placed on the registry, Katee is unable to work in child care, which was her main line of work prior to becoming a full-time mom.
Katee still doesn’t have primary custody of her children. “I basically get what most dads get,” Katee said of her visitation rights. She moved away from Clare County and drives more than an hour each way to pick up her kids every other weekend. This summer, Chris was charged with possession or use of a firearm while under the influence of drugs. He declined to comment for this story.
For now, Katee is focused on rebuilding her relationship with her kids. “In my mind, I’m like, It’s over and we’re healing,” she said. But she’s worried CPS could bring another case. “And that fear is always in the back of my mind.”
Santoro, the stepmom of Katee’s oldest, Rory, said of Katee, “She’s emotionally fucking exhausted because she just went through a decade of the worst abuse imaginable. And at this point, can you blame her?”
Finn has settled into a typically male gender presentation and identifies as a boy. (Finn is referred to with he/him pronouns throughout this story in accordance with how he currently identifies.) Katee’s worried about the effect the CPS case had on all her children but especially Finn, who she thinks internalized the conflict between his parents over his gender. Because Katee doesn’t have primary custody, she can’t make medical decisions for Finn without Chris’s consent. So even though Katee thinks Finn should be in therapy, she can’t have him see a psychologist. She hopes that when Finn turns 18, he can get back into therapy and live comfortably in his skin no matter how he ends up identifying.
When Finn heard a journalist was writing a story about his family, he said he had something he wanted to say. “I chose to be transgender,” Finn, now 11, told me by phone. His mom, he said, “did not tell me that I couldn’t be, that I had to be — yes, she might have encouraged me, like, ‘It’s okay if you are, like, I don’t really care if you are or not.’ But I did choose. I chose. No one else. No one made me. No one forced me.”
When I asked him what he wanted other kids in his position to know, he said, “Hopefully, they don’t turn out like I am.” He said his stomach hurts each time he thinks about his gender, so he tries to keep his mind off it, filling it instead with the histories of famous wars and making YouTube videos. In them, he never shows his face. (He’s waiting for 200,000 followers to do his “face reveal,” he said. He currently has seven.) In the latest video, he does a silly dance with his face completely covered with a shirt. “I keep my mind busy so I don’t think of anything that scares me or makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “Although I still get uncomfortable all the time — I can’t block all of it out.”