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Gianforte rebuts far-right accusations about child protection case

After anti-transgender accounts fanned an online firestorm over the confidential case, the Republican governor said state child protection workers acted appropriately.
Posted at 7:42 AM, Jan 31, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-31 12:36:57-05

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte is defending the state health department’s actions in an active child protective case against a wave of online criticism from conservative groups, including some far-right, anti-LGBTQ social media accounts, an unusually public commentary from the state’s highest elected official about confidential child welfare proceedings.

In a series of Monday afternoon posts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Gianforte responded to direct call-outs from prominent anti-transgender commenters who alleged that the state’s child welfare division had “kidnapped” a Glasgow teenager last fall and sidestepped the state’s new law against minors receiving gender-affirming care in Montana by allowing the youth to seek those services in another state.

While there is a current child protective case and related court proceedings involving a teenager who identifies as transgender and was removed from their parents’ custody last fall, the narrative fanned by online anti-transgender groups is largely unsupported by court records and email communication examined by Montana Free Press over the course of several months.

Conservative groups have drawn attention to the case in recent weeks after the child’s father and stepmother, Todd Kolstad and Krista Cummins-Kolstad, posted a video on Facebook in early January describing their views about their child being placed in state custody last August. The video, in which the couple rejects their child’s identity as a transgender boy and details the teenager’s mental and physical health conditions, has continued to circulate online despite the couple removing it from Facebook under a Jan. 18 order from a Valley County judge.

MTFP is withholding the teenager’s name out of respect for the privacy of a minor. An attorney representing the teen has declined to comment or acknowledge the case’s existence, citing confidentiality about child abuse and neglect proceedings.

The video has fueled media attention and sparked criticism of the state’s actions by the parents’ supporters, with some calling for an explanation and intervention from the state’s Republican governor, who signed a law last year curbing gender-affirming medical access for transgender minors. In his Monday posts on X, Gianforte confirmed that his office has reviewed the matter and, without describing the case in detail, said the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, or DPHHS, acted correctly in taking the child into protective custody.

“To give them their best shot at reaching their full potential, children deserve to grow up in happy, healthy homes with loving families. Sadly, this ideal is not always realized,” the thread said. “… Upon hearing recent allegations related to a child welfare case, I asked Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras — an experienced attorney, constitutional conservative, mother, and grandmother — to review it. Consulting with the director of DPHHS and personally examining case documents, Lieutenant Governor Juras has concluded that DPHHS and the court have followed state policy and law in their handling of this tragic case. I have asked the lieutenant governor to continue monitoring the case as it progresses.”

In a later statement, the governor’s spokesperson Kaitlin Price clarified that “broadly speaking, the state does not remove minors from homes to provide gender transition services or use taxpayer funds to pay for those services while a minor is in the custody of the state.”

Price also said the governor has asked the state health department to “codify a formal policy and/or develop a regulation to clarify and ensure the definition of abuse or neglect does not include a parent’s right to refuse to provide gender transition services to his or her minor child.”

In his Monday statement, Gianforte also touted his signing of Senate Bill 99, the 2023 Montana law that bans gender-affirming medical treatments for minors with gender dysphoria.

That law, confusion over which is central to the Kolstads’ case, has never taken effect. It was slated to do so on Oct. 1, 2023, but was enjoined last September while a legal challenge against it proceeds in state district court in Missoula.

According to an affidavit filed in state court by child protective workers last fall and later shared with MTFP by the Kolstad parents, state child protective workers and local police originally responded to two confidential callers in August who expressed concern that the teenager living at the Kolstad residence was depressed and suicidal. Both reported that the youth had begun publicly identifying as transgender in 2021 and had not been supported by their parents. After arriving at the house to interview the minor and the parents, child protective workers determined that the reported concerns about the youth’s mental health were justified and asked that the minor be transported to the local hospital. The Kolstads agreed and proceeded to drive the child there.

Once at the hospital, the affidavit stated, the medical team recommended the youth be admitted to a residential psychiatric facility anywhere in the region as soon as a bed became available, based on a medical assessment of the minor’s continued suicidality.

Four days after admitting the teenager, on Aug. 22, hospital staff told child protective workers that a bed had become available at a psychiatric facility in Wyoming, according to the legal filing, but reported that the parents were not allowing the minor to be transported out of concern that the neighboring state does not have laws prohibiting gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.

When child protective workers went to the Kolstad’s home to discuss the situation, the affidavit stated, the parents reiterated their objections.

“Stepmother and Birthfather became upset very quickly and voiced concern of the state of Wyoming mutilating [the teenager’s] body and giving [the minor] medication” for transition-related care, the affidavit read.

After that interaction, child protective workers said, they notified the parents that the state was taking temporary legal custody of the minor and proceeded to fill out paperwork to transport the teenager to Wyoming to receive mental health care.

At the time of the Montana hospital’s referral to the psychiatric facility in Wyoming, no law was in place in either state banning gender-affirming care for minors. And, as health care providers have testified in state legislatures and court proceedings, receiving a prescription for medications such as puberty blockers or hormone therapy typically takes several months, if not years, and multiple referrals from mental health therapists and other medical providers, in consultation with the minor’s family or guardian.

In interviews with MTFP, Todd Kolstad and Krista Cummins-Kolstad have said they have never been opposed to their child receiving inpatient psychiatric treatment for suicidal thoughts, but affirmed that their opposition to the transfer to Wyoming arose from the belief that their child might access gender-affirming medical care without parental consent if they were to cross state lines.

Since then, the Kolstads have expressed their continued opposition to other medical providers, lawyers or care providers supporting their child’s social transitioning — non-medical actions that include the adoption of different names and pronouns, cutting or growing out their hair, or wearing gender-aligned clothing.

“Basically, what I think they’re trying to force us into is letting [our child] socially transition,” Cummins-Kolstad said in a January phone interview following a court hearing. “But we’re not OK with that. We’re not comfortable with that.”

The case over the Kolstads’ parental custody remains in active litigation. The teenager, who returned to Montana after roughly a month at the Wyoming facility, is living in an out-of-home placement while the parents dispute the terms of the state-directed treatment plan, which is aimed, ultimately, at reunification of the family. Without a firm plan for the teenager to return to their home, Cummins-Kolstad said, she and her husband have opted to make their case in the court of public opinion.

“You’ve already ruined my family,” she said in reference to state child protective workers and the judge overseeing the case. “So all I can do is fight for other people’s families and mourn my family in private.”

In a Tuesday phone call, a senior official from the Gianforte administration described the decision to issue a public statement about the case as an effort to “set the record straight to the greatest extent possible” as allegations pile up about the child being wrongly removed from their family and taken across state lines to receive gender-affirming care.

The official, who requested anonymity to explain the administration’s strategy candidly, said the governor is limited in what he can say about a confidential case, but wanted to communicate to constituents that his administration had looked into the matter.

“Frankly, we’re mostly concerned that this child is still alive,” the official said. “And that’s what I would argue is in the best interest of the administration and the state.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health crisis, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting “988.”