Texas reverses decision that allowed social workers to deny LGBTQ, disabled clients

A Texas regulatory board has reinstated protections that bar social workers from refusing services to LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.

The Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council, or BHEC, on Tuesday unanimously reversed an Oct. 12 decision made by the Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners, which had stripped language from its code of conduct that protected clients from being turned away on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, had recommended that the board remove the nondiscrimination language, suggesting that it went beyond the state's current policy.

IMAGE: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Eric Gay / AP file)
IMAGE: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Eric Gay / AP file)

The Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers applauded the reversal and said over 24,000 people had signed its online petition protesting the decision to remove the protections.

"This was a big win today for advocacy, the board and for nondiscrimination," said the association's executive director, Will Francis. "But this is still Texas, and there are not underlying protections for LGBTQ persons. So had these nondiscrimination protections been stripped away, that really would have left people vulnerable, so we need legislation that ensures that there is protection."

Francis said that despite Tuesday's vote, there's still a chance that the nondiscrimination protections could be diluted. Following the vote to reinstate the protections, the nine-member council voted in favor of having the office of state Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, weigh in on the changes to the code of conduct.

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The statewide LGBTQ organization Equality Texas said that even a nonbinding opinion from Paxton's office could harm the fragile protections and would only legitimize "an opinion from an attorney general who has built his career in part on promoting discrimination against LGBTQ+ Texans."

"We can attest that the October 12 vote and rule change did great harm to the mental health and wellbeing of many LGBTQ and disabled people across Texas," Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, said in a statement. "A good faith analysis of this issue affirms what is clearly written into state statute: the BHEC has the power to set ethical standards for licensed social workers."

After the vote, Gloria Canseco, an Abbott appointee to lead the council, apologized for the Oct. 12 rule change, which was "perceived as hostile to the LGBTQ+ community or to disabled persons," according to The Texas Tribune.

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Requests for comment from the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and Abbott's office were not immediately returned.

Jose Menéndez, a Democratic state senator from San Antonio who testified at Tuesday's council meeting, said the reinstatement of the nondiscrimination protections is a "victory for everyone who believes that there's no place for discrimination against anyone for any reason and a repudiation of the governor's recommendation."

"When anyone would propose to remove language that protects someone from being discriminated against simply because of who they are, that sends a message that you are fair game and you may not matter as much as anyone else," Menéndez said, adding that the subsequent reversal "sends a message that advocacy matters, speaking up matters and by working together we can all make a difference."

Menéndez said that to prevent a similar situation from happening again, he will file nondiscrimination legislation in the Legislature with Rep. Jessica González, a Democrat from Dallas.

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