Parents’ anger as child sex change charity puts private emails online Andrew Gilligan in The Times 15.06.19

The original article is here.

Mermaids reports itself to information watchdog after Sunday Times investigation finds families’ personal data on internet

They were some of the most private emails any mother of a nine-year-old could write. Her son, she said, had fully transitioned from girl to boy but was not coping — fighting fellow pupils, stealing from his parents and in emotional turmoil.

“I have wondered if we have done the right thing — allowing him to transition before accessing the clinic,” she wrote. “But I didn’t feel that I had a choice. He was telling me how much he hated himself and tugging at his clothes.”

In another message, a different mother recounted her trans son’s journey. If she dressed him as a girl, his birth sex, he deliberately wet himself so the nursery would give him boys’ clothes from its reserve supply, she said. By early puberty he was angry and struggling.

Many of the emails, written between 2016 and 2017, included the full names of the parents and children, pre- and post-transition, along with telephone numbers and intimate details of treatment and care. They were sent in confidence by the parents, or forwarded by other agencies, to Susie Green, chief executive of Mermaids, the high-profile transgender children’s support group.

Confidentiality, Mermaids promises, is a “basic component of client care and business ethics” whose breach “will lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination”.

Green posted the messages online for anyone to read in what one of the mothers last night called a “fundamental breach” of her son’s rights.

“This is really worrying,” she said. “I don’t think there could be a more fundamental breach of his right to privacy.”

Another mother said she would submit an official complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the data protection watchdog.

The messages could be found through a simple online search until Friday, when Mermaids removed them after being contacted by this newspaper.

Alongside the client emails were hundreds of often revealing internal ones showing trustees’ concerns about Green’s leadership, accusations from parents that Mermaids felt like a “cult” and alcohol problems at residential weekends putting children “at risk”.

Green appears to have thought she had set up a private email group, using a common webmail platform, to share information with her trustees. But she, or Mermaids, had failed to read her group’s homepage which said that its “archives are visible to everyone”.

Even sharing the emails with the trustees was questioned by some parents.

Mermaids said last night that it had also reported itself to the ICO and “will co-operate fully . . . throughout this process”. The watchdog has the power to impose heavy fines or even bring criminal proceedings.

It all adds up to one of the biggest crises in Mermaids’s short history. Not much older than many of the children it deals with, it has undergone a swift transition of its own from marginalised outsider to darling of the establishment.

It was given £500,000 by the national lottery, £128,000 by the BBC’s Children in Need and £35,000 by the government. It also has the support of Prince Harry, City banks and large parts of the media.

Green was series consultant on Butterfly, the recent ITV drama about a transgender child that gave a flattering portrait of Mermaids, with its logo visible in some scenes and a script reflecting the group’s talking points.

Yet controversy is never far away. Green, who took her own son, aged 16, for a sex-change operation in Thailand, believes medical intervention is “absolutely vital” for children unhappy with their biological sex.

Mermaids wants more of it, much faster. It campaigns to end the NHS ban on children being given sex-change hormones that reduce fertility and require lifelong medical support. Most doctors believe that children, who may change their minds, are too young for this irreversible step.

Green claims the lack of such treatment is making children suicidal. She has said patients of the main NHS clinic that treats gender-dysphoric youngsters, the Tavistock Centre in north London, have a “48 per cent suicide attempt risk”. The true rate, says the clinic, is less than 1 per cent.

Green, an IT consultant, has no medical training. Responding on Twitter to an NHS psychiatrist who accused her of “making stuff up”, she wrote that “you need to f*** off. You know nothing.”

A Tavistock clinician said: “Mermaids push simplistic views, emotional blackmail and conscious misinformation at parents. They do so much harm.”

In evidence to MPs, Mermaids complained that the Tavistock spoke too much of the “uncertainty and complexity” of gender transition. It singled out a doctor at the clinic by name as “anti-trans” and demanded “a thorough audit of staff and their views”.

Given this tension, one surprise of the private emails is the apparent closeness of the relationship. Perhaps the pressure was working. Sally Hodges, a senior Tavistock manager, promised to “co-ordinate” the text of the clinic’s website with Mermaids. “It would be valuable to think with you about the content going forward,” she wrote. The clinic’s director, Polly Carmichael, told Mermaids it was good to be working together.

In an exchange from November 2016, Carmichael appeared to give ground on the clinic’s policy that young people, even those over 16, must have been on sex-suppressing “blocker” hormones for about a year before being given sex-change hormones. After Green wrote that she hoped the requirement was being eased, Carmichael replied: “There is some flexibility around the year.”

A Tavistock clinician said that the year’s wait had been shortened since the email exchange: “It is extremely disturbing that a pressure group appears to be influencing decisions taken for strong clinical reasons.” However, a spokesman for the clinic said the time had recently been lengthened, not shortened.

The emails also show co-operation with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), another official body with a public stance of neutrality in the transgender debate. In the correspondence, the EHRC appeared to seek trans test cases against schools and service providers.

Stephanie Davies-Arai, of Transgender Trend, a group concerned about the rise in the number of children transitioning, said: “The EHRC has demonstrated clearly that it is not impartial.

“There needs to be a full investigation into the activities of Mermaids and the influence of the transgender lobby on a public body mandated to protect the rights of everyone.”

Some of Mermaids’s own trustees seem to have had problems with Green. Minutes of a board meeting in July 2016 said that trustees “expressed deep concern about not being kept informed or consulted with . . . trustees have felt remote from decision-making lately and felt communication was not good.” Green promised a monthly report.

“I have lost all trust in Mermaids,” said one parent whose child features in the emails. “I don’t see how Susie [Green] can keep her job.”

Davies-Arai said: “This is one more indication of Mermaids’s carelessness around the protection of children. Lottery funding must be suspended immediately pending the results of a proper inquiry.”

Mermaids said last night: “We are grateful to The Sunday Times for bringing this matter to our attention. Mermaids has acted immediately in accordance with its legal obligations. On Friday the matter was reported to the ICO and Mermaids will co-operate fully with the ICO throughout this process.”

The charity said it had appointed an “independent third party” to conduct an investigation. It claimed that no emails “to or from parents, children and families” had been involved in the breach, even after being told of examples by this newspaper.

It also claimed the data “could not have appeared on any general internet search without the specific group details and would not have appeared on a search for Mermaids or a search for the names of any of the individuals concerned”.

However, The Sunday Times was able to find the material online by simply typing “Mermaids” and its charity number.

Mermaids said that “there were frank and constructive internal discussions about alcohol at residentials” and there had been no further problems since a “responsible drinking policy” had been introduced.

It said the concerns expressed by trustees about information sharing by Green were “out of date”. The board was now happy with the information it received.

Mermaids insists that it does not promote medical transition and said its contacts with the Tavistock were “entirely appropriate”.

It added that Green would “continue to lead the Mermaids team in its constant work to support vulnerable children”.

@MrAGilligan