Gender dysphoria and parental disputes

There has been a growing number of reported legal cases of gender dysphoria in children over the last few years and it seems more and more children…

“Gender dysphoria” (GD) is a condition in which a person may feel unhappy with his or her biological sex, express a desire to be the opposite sex, or even insist that he or she is of the opposite sex from what his or her genes and anatomy indicate. People who choose to adopt a “gender identity” different from their biological sex are known as “transgender.”

There has been a growing number of reported legal cases of gender dysphoria in children over the last few years and it seems more and more children are questioning whether their biological sex matches their gender identity.

The Guardian newspaper has reported that a record number of children are seeking counselling from Childline with regard to gender identity. Apparently the number of calls to this service from children wishing to discuss transgender issues has more than doubled and on average they are receiving eight calls a day from anxious children and teenagers. Childline recorded 2,796 such calls during 2015 – 2016 compared with 1,299 in the previous 12 months. Similarly the number of referrals to the Gender Identity Development Service, an NHS group that supports children experiencing issues with their gender, has increased from 97 in 2009/2010 to 2,590 in 2018/2019.

This mirrors the increase in referrals of young people to gender identity clinics across the UK. One of these centres is the Tavistock Centre based in central London. At this NHS clinic children as young as 12 can be prescribed hormone blockers which delay and suppress the onset of puberty. Despite the controversy surrounding the medication, demand for these drugs is growing. Although there is greater social acceptance of gender dysphoria, there is a lot to learn, scientifically, medically and psychologically about this condition. Debate ranges from changing social attitudes with children feeling more comfortable vocalising their feelings and anxieties, to accusations of the media putting ideas into impressionable, malleable young minds and encouraging them to question their gender.

The case of Re J (a minor)(2016) EWHC2430 (FAM) concerned a seven year old boy who was “living life entirely as a girl”. His mother was convinced that her son perceived himself as a girl. However the consultant clinical psychologist assigned to the case concluded that the mother had manipulated or influenced the child’s gender orientation. Consequently the judge found that she had caused “significant emotional harm” to the child and he took the draconian step of removing him from her care and placing him his father with whom he had not had contact for a period of approximately two years. There was no reliable evidence in the case of Re J to suggest that the child was displaying any actual signs of gender dysphoria. On the contrary, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that the child identified as a boy and it was reported that after he moved to live with his father he naturally gravitated towards “male orientated toys and interests”.

Following the wide reporting of this case, many parents of children with gender dysphoria have expressed concern that if they support their children in exploring and developing their identity they could be accused of influencing their child or, worse still, that they could be at risk of losing their child if challenged by a former partner or social services. Mermaids, an organisation that supports trans-people and their families, has reported that a number of parents have contacted them in the wake of the case because their former partners have threatened to take them to court.

The court’s role is to protect and promote the welfare of children, and assess what is in their best interests and whether there are risks of harm.

From a practical perspective any parent of a child expressing concern or confusion surrounding their gender should endeavour to discuss any such issues with the other parent with a view to agreeing the best way forward and avoiding contested court proceedings.

In cases where that simply is not possible or a dispute arises with regard to what is in the best interest of the child, it is prudent to seek professional guidance and legal advice at the earliest opportunity.

For further information, please contact Rachel Lim, Principal Associate on 0151 243 9542 or rachel.lim@weightmans.com.

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