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I’ve been investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) twice.

The first time we’d just returned from a queer parents’ conference at which our son became a toddler (he took his first solo steps in the crowded pre-2001 LAX terminal). The accusation came from a childcare worker at the conference, who alleged that we were raising a “girl” child as a “boy.” The accusation was political dynamite, as we were the organization’s most visible trans couple. We sorted it out eventually: CPS took his birth certificate as sufficient evidence and dropped the case. We never knew if the caregiver mistook a girl child as ours, confused gossip she had heard about the child’s parent being trans as referring to the child, or whether she deliberately reported us as a hate crime.

The second time, we knew we were victims of a series of hate crimes, and we knew who the perpetrator was – the police officer who had responded to our initial call for help. By the time we realized he was the ringleader, he’d already written the police report that labeled us crazy and the crimes as domestic violence. No one would believe we were being terrorized by cops, let alone help us. The state department of justice finally agreed to grant us an interview, and we drove an hour and a half for it. It later turned out the person we met with had – even before she met us – referred the case to CPS. After all, the police report said we were crazy and there was a child in the house.

We were honest with the two CPS investigators – the child WAS in danger, just not from us. They weren’t interested in that. They had already interviewed our son (the school was not supposed to let him meet alone with any adults claiming to be an authority in order to protect him from the cop and his cronies, but they let the duo do so anyway) and he had said we were loving, non-abusive parents. So what they wanted to know from us was, did he have a bed? Apparently a court case had revolved around an abused child who didn’t have a bed, so they were required to see his. Once they could see for themselves that he had one, they left.

I’ve been remembering these cases recently because CPS would have never been called on my parents. My family was considered white and middle-class. My father’s name landed most nights on everyone’s doorstep, and my mother was known as a habitual volunteer despite also being a full-time bank teller. My younger sister and I wore clean clothes to school, and were successful students. We didn’t show up in the ER with bruises or broken bones. So how could anything possibly be wrong? 

I’ve been contemplating that question for a lifetime. 

Recently I assumed responsibility for my sister, who had to retire early after our mother died and her lifelong mental illnesses exploded. I had kept at least a 10-foot pole between me and my parents and sister, so it’s been a shock to recognize just how terribly impaired she is. Despite many, many hospitalizations and countless medications, her behavior is still so disruptive that she is in constant danger of being evicted from her assisted living facility. It’s not clear that there is an alternative placement for her.

Two weeks ago my father reported that my sister’s voices had told her to trash two of his rugs, which apparently (he told me at great length) he loved. That caught my attention: it seemed an odd thing for her to do. I started reading about the diagnosis she had that I knew the least about: borderline personality disorder (BPD). 

BPD is usually associated with child abuse or neglect.  It was hard to see the neglect in our house, but the carpets (and a few other strange things, like cuts in the furniture my parents had given my sister) are clues. Things were always more important in my parents’ house than people were. I saw how powerful this orientation was when I visited as an adult. My young son tripped and fell heavily on the kitchen floor. My sister immediately admonished him to be careful, he could have damaged whatever it was he was holding. She never did ask if he was ok. This incident may sound innocuous, but what it represents was pervasive: everything was more important than my sister and I were: furniture, knick-knacks, televised sports (him), volunteering (her), arguing, and – most of all – my parents’ feelings. My father believed parenting was woman’s work, just as was all the housework and the necessity to help support the family. Not only did my mother not have time for the kind of caregiving children crave, but she had no empathy or emotional caregiving skills, either. Whenever I was terrified – of having my blood drawn, say, or after being in a car accident – she yelled at me to shut up and “be good.” I can easily imagine that my sister and I experienced this lack of empathy and nurturing from the beginning.

Attachment theory holds that infants learn the world is safe from the care given to them from their earliest moments. Children who don’t experience this safety are often caught in a terrible conundrum: continually turning to those caregivers (they can’t just go find substitutes!) for calming and care, and continually finding disgust, dismissal, or blame instead. It’s the kind of environment that can create people who show these kinds of BPD symptoms (from Mayo Clinic):

  • An intense fear of abandonment, even going to extreme measures to avoid real or imagined separation or rejection
  • A pattern of unstable intense relationships, such as idealizing someone one moment and then suddenly believing the person doesn’t care enough or is cruel
  • Rapid changes in self-identity and self-image that include shifting goals and values, and seeing yourself as bad or as if you don’t exist at all
  • Periods of stress-related paranoia and loss of contact with reality, lasting from a few minutes to a few hours

As I said, what my sister and I experienced would have never caught CPS’s attention. But now with the help of my sister’s diagnoses, I’m beginning to believe that it was both very real and exceedingly damaging. 

What does all this have to do with trans and non-binary survivors? Maybe nothing. Or maybe a lot, particularly for those of us who later decide that our life problems are traceable to our gender identity or some other innate personal flaw. We do know that people who experience abuse and neglect in childhood are more likely to be re-victimized later on, possibly because we didn’t learn the social and emotional skills we should have as kids. Either way, just because CPS never showed up at your door doesn’t mean you escaped childhood unscathed; the scars and the causes may just be harder to see.