Katee Churchill, from Michigan’s small, rural Clare County, told New York Magazine that the first sign that Finn, whose name has been changed, wanted to explore his gender came in 2014 when he was three years old.
He had gotten into an argument with his older broth Rory, and came to her crying, explaining that Rory told him he “wasn’t allowed to be a girl”.
Over the next few months, Finn began showing an interest in wearing dresses and experimenting with more feminine names. Eventually Churchill decided to take him to therapist specialising in gender variance and dysphoria, to learn how best to support Finn.
Understanding the often devastating outcomes for trans kids who grow up in non-affirming households, Churchill vowed to follow Finn’s lead and support his gender exploration and expression.
Finn played with gender, often changing the clothes he wore and the name he used, but that year Churchill was contacted by Child Protective Services (CPS), who told her an anonymous report had accused her of abuse and neglect.
A case began against her, alleging that she had forced Finn to identify as trans, and CPS recommended that all three of her children, Rory, her oldest from a previous relationship, and as well as Finn and her youngest, be removed and placed with their respective fathers.
Chris, the father of her two youngest children, was an army veteran with PTSD and a history of domestic violence, and at one point Churchill had had to flee with her children to a domestic violence shelter. He admitted in court to heavy drinking and amphetamine use.
But when the CPS case made it to court, his history of abuse went unmentioned. Instead, CPS alleged Churchill was “emotionally and mentally damaging” her kids, and she was accused by a psychologist of “demonstrating Factitious Disorder by Proxy” – inventing illness among her children – because of Finn’s gender exploration and the fact that her youngest son had been diagnosed with autism.
Eventually, after living without her children for months, in 2015 a judge ruled in Churchill’s favour. But her family’s ordeal wasn’t over.
Katee Churchill had to face a jury trial in Michigan over abuse allegations
Michigan CPS decided to pursue a second case against Katee Churchill, this time as a jury trial, a rarity in the US child welfare system.
Because of her small, rural community, Churchill would face the same judge and a jury of her peers.
The prosecution declared that she must be an “LGBT+ activist” because she was a member of social media groups for parents of gender creative kids.
Don Spivak, a psychiatrist and state witness, said in court: “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.
“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.”
This time, her former partner’s history of domestic abuse was raised, but Churchill was accused of “portraying an image that she is a victim”.
The court eventually ruled against her, keeping Churchill from her children for two years.
By 2018, she was allowed to meet with her children in a park. When she left the park without her former partner, she was convicted of kidnapping and sent to jail for three months.
Finally, in 2019, when lesbian Democrat Dana Nessel became Michigan attorney general, the case and charges against Churchill were dropped.
But the years of exhausting litigation and prejudice have caused a huge amount of damage, with Churchill still listed on the state’s child abuse registry and still only able to see her children every other weekend.
Finn, now 11, has stood by his mother throughout, and asked to speak to New York Magazine, and emphasised that his gender expression has always been his own choice.
“She might have encouraged me, like, ‘It’s OK if you are, like, I don’t really care if you are or not’, he said.
“But I did choose. I chose. No one else. No one made me. No one forced me.”
The ordeal has taken its toll on Finn, too, who now exclusively identifies as male but says his stomach hurts every time he thinks about his gender.
Asked what he would tell kids in a similar situation, he said: “Hopefully, they don’t turn out like I am.”
Custody cases for trans and gender-diverse kids could be on the increase
As anti-trans rhetoric, and legislation, becomes more commonplace across the US, cases like Katee Churchill’s could increase.
Asaf Orr, Churchill’s attorney and the transgender youth project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told New York Magazine: “One of the most significant effects of the Trump election is the boldness with which people are willing to express their anti-transgender beliefs.
“And we saw that, I think most starkly, initially in the increase in custody disputes involving trans kids.”
Orr said they recommend that clients keep a “safe folder”, including letters and documents as evidence of their child being transgender.
They said: “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, to show the child-welfare systems you are not creating something in your child; this is you following your child’s lead.”
ACLU deputy director for transgender justice Chase Strangio said that intervention by child welfare services in LGBT+ families was “another axis upon which to be concerned about the state coming in and deciding what makes a legitimate parent”.