Health services are ‘failing’ transgender children, Parliament hears

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Parliament has heard that the system for helping transgender youth is failing them, due to lengthy waiting times and restrictions on services.

The Women and Equalities committee today heard evidence from a range of campaigners and experts on transgender children, as part of a wider inquiry into transgender issues.

There are a growing number of people under the age of 18 who identify as transgender in the UK, but the majority of current gender law only applies to adults.

In addition, the NHS currently bans most gender treatments for those under the age of 16, including most forms of hormone treatment and surgical intervention.

Treatments available for young trans people include ‘hormone blockers’ – which can delay the onset of puberty – as well as psychological services and counselling.

Experts in the field raised a number of issues surrounding the current system today, in a special select committee session on trans youth today.

One of the issues raised was the length of time that many trans youths find themselves waiting before having access to physical intervention.

Susie Green of Mermaids, a charity which offers support to teenagers and children with gender identity issues, argued that the current system isn’t working as it should, and people are waiting too long for access to treatment.

She said: “Their GP will often turn around, in at least half the cases, and say there’s nothing you can do until you’re 18 or they’ll say we can’t refer you to any specialist… we’ve had parents who have spent to years to just get a referral to [specialist centre] the Tavistock”.

The campaigner added that even once a young person had been referred, there were still lengthy delays for them in accessing puberty hormone blockers.

She told the hearing that a 2014 Mermaids survey of pubertal young people found the median time to be refereed was “between 13 and 15 months from when they were referred to when they actually accessed pubertal treatment.”

The committee’s chair, former Tory equalities minister Maria Miller, asked Dr Bernadette Wren, consultant clinical psychologist with the Gender Identity Development Service, to explain the “deep level of dissatisfaction” with the service from patients and family members.

Dr Wren, the Head of Psychology and Associate Director, GIDS, The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, made it clear that she did not agree with proposals to ‘fast track’ youth into physical intervention treatments, saying: “We feel that’s not an ethical way to practice.

“Moving straight into physical intervention at speed from some of our young people isn’t necessarily always in their best interests.”

However, she conceded that “the link with the adult service [and the youth service] is known to be deeply problematic”.

Dr Wren added that the existing system was also known to struggle with capacity and bottlenecks, adding: “The service has expanded by 50% every year for 5 years… [We can at times] struggle to get everybody into the clinic in time”.

It was also noted that in the US, cross-sex hormones can already be offered at a younger age if clinicians deem it necessary, while they remain banned for under-16s in the UK.

Of the age at which treatments are available, Dr Wren said: “[It’s] an enormous issue for our service… we are reviewing it constantly.”

Mermaids argues that a patient’s personal autonomy is not being respected – and that when a young patient knows who they are and what they want, their opinions and views should be taken into account.