BY: LAURA BRYANT HANFORD | JANUARY 19, 2023
LAURA BRYANT HANFORD
In August 2021, by concealing a teen’s newly asserted transgender identity from her parents, Virginia’s Appomattox County High School participated in a chain of events that led to that girl falling into the hands of sexual predators not once, but twice.
When the FBI found Sage (last name of the family withheld for privacy) in Maryland, where she was victimized by a sexual predator, a judge refused to return her to her parents on the grounds they were abusing her in not affirming her as male. Housed in the boys’ quarters of a children’s home away from her parents, she told her mother, she was assaulted again. The girl soon fled, then was brutally sex-trafficked again until her rescue in Texas by law enforcement.
Sage’s Law, or the Child Protection Act, is being introduced this week in the Virginia House of Delegates by Delegate Dave LaRock in honor of this young teen from Appomattox County, Virginia. Sage hopes sharing her story will help protect others from the abuse she suffered at the hands of predators, precipitated in part by the very institutions that should have protected her.
School policies and state laws that encourage concealing information from parents’ purport to protect vulnerable minors. In practice, as tragically demonstrated by Sage’s case, such policies open the door to predators by removing children’s greatest protection from their lives.
Sage’s Law aims to shut that door in three ways. It would require schools to notify parents if their child asserts a gender different from his or her sex; it prevents school counselors from withholding or encouraging minors to withhold information about a child’s gender identity; and it clarifies that raising a child according to his or her biological sex, including decisions about a child’s mental and physical health, may not be construed as abuse.
Sage’s story, compiled from months of interviews, reports, and records, has been lived by countless other families torn apart in the name of gender ideology by activist schools, judges, and doctors. This is a story of the unbearable cost of parent-exclusion policies, but also of a mother’s love and relentless determination to save her child.
Institutions that Should Protect Endanger Instead
Sage is a slight, pretty, 15-year-old girl with elfin features and an edgy style. Recently, reflecting back on her transgender identification, she told her mom: “I don’t know who I was. I’m a totally different person now. I never was a boy. Everybody was doing it, I just wanted to have friends.”
That self-reflection is consistent with the research showing that upwards of 80 percent of gender dysphoric children embrace their sex as they emerge from puberty. Children who are “affirmed” as the opposite sex, however, particularly if puberty blockers are used, consistently go on to further medicalization. Sage’s comment also reflects the reality of social contagion, fueled by social media and increasingly recognized internationally as a factor in the exponential rise in the number of children identifying as transgender.
The U.S. model of instant affirmation, heavily promoted and funded by ideological activists, bypasses standard evidentiary norms and is rejected by a growing number of nations and medical professionals around the world. Countless “detransitioners” now face the daily reality of irreversible “gender-affirming” treatments and surgeries they were prescribed as children.
Yet states such as California allow children as young as 12 to make their own health-care decisions, without their parents but under the authority of the state. In January, Virginia delegates Candi Mundon King, Nadarius Clark, Michelle Maldonado, Sam Rasoul, and Marcus Simon filed a similar bill authorizing courts, social workers, and medical professionals to withhold information from parents and consent to medical procedures for “mature” minors.
The consequences for children and families in states such as California that construe not “affirming” as abuse are particularly dire. In October, progressive Virginia Delegate Elizabeth Guzman announced she would reintroduce her 2020 bill to criminalize parents who do not affirm their child’s transgender identity as guilty of abuse, potentially resulting in the loss of custody.
School Policies Endangering Students
Michele adopted Sage, her biological granddaughter, after the death of her son. Like many gender-dysphoric children, Sage has a history of trauma from that early childhood loss. Related health problems became severe at times, requiring therapy and medical treatment. Her daughter’s previous schools notified Michele when concerns arose, she said, enabling her to have Sage’s treatment adjusted. But when her daughter entered Appomattox County High School in early August 2021, Michele says she was cut out of the loop.
Unbeknownst to Michele, her then-14-year-old’s taste at the time for boys’ clothing, which she described to her mother as simply “dressing emo,” was accompanied by her assertion at school that she was a transgender boy. School records, shared by the family, indicate school staff were calling Sage by her chosen male name and pronouns and at her request concealing this from her parents. Sage recalls her school counselor telling her during the first week of school that since she identified as male she could use the boys’ bathroom.
School records also indicate bullying, although they do not capture the severity of what Sage eventually told her mom: boys were following behind her in a group, touching her, threatening her with knife violence and rape, and even shoving her up against the hallway wall. On Aug. 23, according to school notes, reports were received from students and teachers that Sage had used a boys’ bathroom and encountered hostile boys there. The school counselor met with Sage the next day to direct her to use the nurses’ bathroom for safety reasons.
Sage’s statement that “all the boys at this school are rapists” prompted the school to review hallway footage outside the bathroom, showing that several boys had entered while she was inside. On Wednesday, Aug. 25, the counselor and school resource officer called Sage into a meeting, where she became so emotional that the counselor recorded concern Sage might be “a risk to herself due to being so upset when leaving school.”
Only at this point — after meeting alone with her daughter, after two days had passed and knowledge of the incident had reached all the way to the superintendent, according to the school records — did the school finally contact Michele, she said, still without revealing the male identity her daughter was asserting.
Michele recalls finding a school hall pass labeled with a new name that August evening and Sage telling her for the first time that she was identifying as a boy at school. As Michele sat with her on the floor, Sage tried to stop the tears as she told her mother a group of male students had “jacked” her up against the wall of the boys’ bathroom and threatened her with violence, and that she was terrified of what they would do. Michele tried to comfort her, assuring her she could stay home while they figured out how to handle the bullying.
That night, Sage disappeared. She was found nine days later in Maryland, a victim of sexual assault. That was just the beginning of her family’s ordeal.
Excluding Parents Invites Predators
As Michele’s case illustrates, school policies that exclude parents from critical knowledge of their child’s mental health remove a child’s greatest safeguard from his or her life. While this author could find no such policy posted on the Appomattox High School or school board websites, the school’s actions to “affirm” Sage’s stated gender, name, and pronouns and to permit access to bathrooms of the opposite sex are all consistent with the directives of former Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2021 model policies. So is the choice to deceive parents.
In fact, the Northam policies direct that an entire gender transition team and plan be set up for such a child, all in secret from the parents if the child so wishes. This guidance was revoked in 2022 by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, but Virginia Democrats and LGBT groups are fiercely contesting the transparency and parental consent required by the new proposed guidance.
Yet school counselors, unlike parents, have at best an extremely limited knowledge of a child’s mental, emotional, and physical needs. They also have neither the constitutional authority nor the expertise to determine a child’s best interests.
Children who identify as transgender have well-documented mental health co-morbidities and rates of adverse psychiatric events. Even Dr. Erica Anderson, former head of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), has raised alarm at the “pitched battle” engendered by professionals who “triangulate” or set children in opposition to their parents.
In Sage’s case, by withholding information about her daughter’s gender identity and related issues, including the severe bullying related to Sage’s transgender exploration, the school destroyed vital opportunities for Michele to discern warning signs in time to assess and respond before tragedy struck.
Predators know transgender kids are vulnerable prey. Sage told Michele months later that some of the transgender websites to which a school counselor referred her linked to “creepy” older men and pornography.
One mother told this author that as soon as her daughter identified online as “female to male,” multiple suspicious “sugar daddy” accounts reached out to her on social media. Roblox, the wildly popular children’s gaming site, has transgender chat rooms with a panic button to “hide your screen from your parents.” Sage, her mother says, was lured to meet sex traffickers by online predators posing as friends.
A Court-Enabled Tragedy
The first call from the FBI came late at night on Sept. 2, her mother recounts: Sage had been found. Michele says investigators told her Sage had been trafficked into Washington, D.C. and then Maryland for nine days of horrific, brutal sexual abuse.
Driving through the night, their backseat full of stuffed animals and cozy blankets, Michele and her husband Roger arrived early the next morning at the Baltimore Courthouse. They were stunned to hear that their child, who had just survived unspeakable trauma, was being held in a juvenile detention cell and that they were being summoned to a hearing late that afternoon before Judge Robert Kershaw. When they entered the courtroom, Sage appeared from the penitentiary remotely, on screen, with only court-appointed attorney Aneesa Khan, an assistant public defender, present in person. “I love you, baby!” Michele cried to her daughter, who responded “I love you too, Nana.” To their shock, Khan spoke up and alleged on Sage’s behalf that she did not wish to return home and had been “both emotionally and physically abused by his parents in connection with [his] expressed male gender identity and desire to live as a trans male.”
Michele had only found out about this claimed male identity the night her daughter disappeared. Yet Michele was willing to use any name or pronoun to bring her home. Sage later told her, Michele says, that Khan “told me to tell the judge my parents hit me, starved me.” Sage also told Michele that Khan “didn’t care how much [Sage] had to lie…but they were going to win this case” to remove Sage from her parents’ custody and place her in a Maryland foster home that would affirm her as male.
Michele is a Virginia Court-Appointed Child Advocate (CASA) with years of experience supporting troubled teens, and she and Roger were quickly cleared of abuse charges. But the allegations were used to take custody of their daughter and bar them from seeing her.
The Cruelty of Ideology
Rather than treat Sage as a victim of horrific sex trafficking and return her to her family, the court dealt with her as a runaway, providing grounds for temporary custody in Maryland. Significantly, under the Interstate Juvenile Compact, even if allegations of abuse are made, juveniles are to be returned to their home state, which is presumed to better be able to assess the child’s needs. Judge Kershaw delayed this return for two months, which led to Sage’s next trafficking episode.
Instead of receiving treatment for her profound physical and emotional trauma, Sage was kept for days in solitary detention as a runaway, then transferred to the Catonsville Children’s Home. Per Judge Kershaw’s order, she was housed according to her “expressed male gender.” Michele says she eventually learned from Sage that she was the only girl in male quarters and that she had been repeatedly assaulted there.
Kershaw held multiple hearings focusing on Sage’s claimed male identity and Khan’s efforts to demonstrate gender identity abuse, including calling two Appomattox school counselors to testify against Sage’s parents. While his final ruling on Nov. 10, 2021, reluctantly conceded lawful custody to the parents, Kershaw opined at length that “more likely than not” Sage had “endured emotional abuse and neglect by his parents,” including “misgendering” and “misnaming.” Astonishingly, Kershaw cited as evidence of parental abuse “running away from Virginia to Maryland,” when in fact Sage was abducted, raped, and trafficked across state lines.
While Sage was in The Children’s Home, Michele says she sent letters and cards multiple times a week and tried countless times to reach her by phone, especially on Sage’s 15th birthday. Months later, Sage commented: “I missed you so much, but I tried not to because you didn’t want me back.” Horrified, her mother asked what she meant. She learned from Sage that Khan had told her that, because she was transgender, Michele didn’t want her anymore — and that not one of her cards or messages had ever reached her daughter.
Sage also eventually told her mother that, while living at the foster home, she skipped classes every day and would “smoke weed and do drugs” with kids she had met. Sage also relayed later that Khan had told her “I don’t give a sh-t if you do drugs, I just want to win this case.” Sage also said Khan had visited the home of one of Sage’s Maryland school friends to enlist her support in contacting Sage, claiming Khan had won the case and resulting in knowledge of Sage’s case spreading around the school.
In a text to a friend at the time, Sage referenced Khan’s intent: “going to the court of appeals, and the supreme court.” It is difficult to avoid Michele’s conclusion that “[t]he only best interest [Sage’s] attorney had was for herself. To put my traumatized child on center stage to push her political or gender agenda!”
Michele begged the court to provide treatment for the trauma Sage had endured and had found placement for her by mid-October, approved by Virginia social services, in Youth for Tomorrow’s program for young victims of sexual exploitation. The judge rejected it because they would treat Sage as a girl.
Not until Nov. 10 did Judge Kershaw approve placement in North Spring, a residential treatment facility that would affirm her claimed male identity. Frightened of being locked in the facility and believing her mother no longer wanted her, Sage texted a friend, “im gonna dip” (leave). On Nov. 12, 2021, Sage says, she cut off her court-required GPS monitor and ran away to meet an online “friend” in Texas she thought was 16.
Once more, the unspeakable happened. Sage fell into the hands of a predator who, police told Michele, raped, starved, drugged, and brutalized her. This time she disappeared for months. For the second time in less than four months, Michele had no way of knowing if her daughter was even alive. But Michele never stopped searching. Finally, a tip she discovered on social media led Texas marshals to her daughter’s rescue in Dallas on Jan. 24, 2022.
For the first time since that conversation on the floor of Sage’s bedroom on Aug. 25 the year before, mother and daughter were able to talk. On the plane ride home, Michele listened as Sage began to unburden her heart, grieving over what she learned but overcome with gratitude that her daughter was alive and restored to her.
Affirmation by Intimidation
Upon her return to Virginia, Sage entered North Spring, the lock-down facility negotiated by the court, with Michele driving four hours each way for her weekly allotted visit. Sage was heavily medicated, suffering from constant nightmares, and fearful of both residents and doctors. Sage told her mother that her counselor also pressured Sage to tell Michele she wanted a “gender-affirming” mastectomy.
Yet, during one of Michele’s visits, Sage asked if her mother could secretly take her to buy girls’ clothes, stating she didn’t want to be a boy anymore, but she was scared to tell the doctors. Pressured by North Spring to let them treat her daughter, Michele reached out to Josh Hetzler, an attorney with Richmond-based Founding Freedoms Law Center, who secured her daughter’s return. After nearly a year of horror, she was finally home safely.
The road ahead is a long one of healing both physically and emotionally. There are confusing lapses in concentration and persistent, terrifying nightmares. In a safe, loving home, surrounded by her pets and easing into at-home learning and therapy sessions, the painful recollections emerge unpredictably, as do the panic attacks. Michele doesn’t press, letting Sage open up at her pace, whether to her or to her beloved uncle Cory, who has moved home to support her.
As she begins to process her ordeal, Sage now desires to protect others from the horrors she experienced. Michele’s heroic, unrelenting determination to save her daughter has turned not only to helping her heal but to preserving other families from what hers endured. Advocates have rallied to help fund legal action through The Gavel Project, and to craft policies that will help protect others.
Many children never escape the clutches of sex traffickers. Had it not been for her mother’s relentless love and determination, Sage might never have been found. Michele calls it a miracle. In the starkest of contrasts, the actions of ideologues played a part — twice — in her daughter falling into the traffickers’ hands.
Sage’s public school could have been transparent to Michele about her daughter’s struggles. The court could have returned her to Virginia without furthering a quest to make legal history. The children’s home could have protected her from assault and access to drugs. And doctors could have treated trauma, not pressed living as the opposite sex and mutilative surgery on a victim of sexual abuse. All along, it was her mother who truly had Sage’s best interest at heart.
Sage was failed by adults who thought they were helping but were blinded to their own cruelty by their ideology. Michele tells of countless parents who have reached out to her with their own stories of families and bodies destroyed by school counselors, courts, and doctors who may spend minutes with a child, but assert they have the expertise and authority to usurp decisions from parents who have poured a lifetime into their care.
Sage has shown great courage in sharing her story, and it is time for lawmakers to take a stand for her and many other children by passing Sage’s Law. There is only one acceptable response to her story: never again.