Kobach says he’s ‘committed to preventing every preventable’ child death. I asked about trans kids.

October 16, 2023 3:33 am

Protestors block the view of two people with hateful signs during rally in support of transgender rights May 5, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

I was excited to hear the Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach had turned over a new leaf.

In announcing the latest report from the State Child Death Review Board, Kobach was quoted as saying: “My office is committed to preventing every preventable death of a child.”

What a statement! Surely, I thought, that meant the publicity-seeking arch conservative had seen the error of his ways. He looked into the copious research and expert opinions that underscore how vital it is that we support transgender youth on their journeys (according to the Trevor Project, more than half of trans and nonbinary youth have seriously considered suicide). It meant that Kobach would stop targeting trans Kansans and become an outspoken advocate for their mental health. It meant he would lobby the Legislature to pass anti-discrimination laws to protect the LGBT community in Kansas.

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He might even take a look at the state’s ever-loosening gun restrictions and decide the time had come to rethink the knee-jerk worship of weapons that has cost thousands of young lives across the country. Across the country, 2,590 people under the age of 18 died in 2021.

Admittedly, a single quote in a press release would be a strange place to announce such wide-ranging changes in policy, but perhaps Kobach wanted to break the news to Kansans gently.

I wrote to Kobach’s spokeswoman, Danedri Herbert, to ask whether this was all true. Did the attorney general plan to take these actions? After all, he said it right there in the press release: “My office is committed to preventing every preventable death of a child.”

She replied that “He disagrees with the premise in every one of those questions — that supposed such an hypothetical statute or action would reduce deaths of children.”


So I guess he’s not turning over a new leaf after all.

Still, I couldn’t believe that the attorney general of the state of Kansas would say something so broad, so over-arching and profound, without having committed himself to the cause of preserving children’s lives. So I wrote back to Herbert and asked her what concrete actions the attorney general’s office had taken toward “preventing every preventable death of a child.” Surely she had some sort of list of actions that Kobach had taken, given his praiseworthy commitment.

She didn’t respond.

Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach attends a Statehouse hearing in September 2023. Kobach’s office released the State Child Death Review Board’s recent report. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)


‘Neither prudent nor proper’

Kobach did answer my question, in his own way.

Two days after I sent Herbert my request for additional comment, the attorney general asked that judges in the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals stop requiring the use of preferred pronouns. In other words, he want judges to allow a lawyer, like himself, to call a transgender woman a man during a cross-examination. He wants court officials to allow outright hostility toward those in the court system with different gender expression under the guise of religious freedom.

“It is neither proper nor prudent for judges to expect that parties refer to counsel, litigants, or witnesses by idiosyncratically selected pronouns,” he writes.

That sure sounds as though Kobach has taken a stand toward LGBTQ children. And it sure doesn’t sound like one “committed to preventing every preventable death of a child.”

As it happens, actual scholarly research has been done on this topic. The University of Texas at Austin conducted a comprehensive study on transgender youth and their mental health.

Using a young person’s correct name and pronouns means:

71% fewer symptoms of severe depression

34% decrease in suicidal ideation

65% decrease in suicide attempts

UT Austin study

Authors found that trans youth who could use their preferred name and pronouns saw a 71% reduction in symptoms of severe depression, a 34% drop in suicidal ideation and 65% fewer suicide attempts. Some folks like to debate about hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgery, but these life-saving results have nothing to do with such treatment. They simply show what happens when trans folks receive respect.

For more on the study and subject, please read “Fighting anti-trans legislation is suicide prevention,” a column by Lazarus Nance Letcher that first appeared in Source NM last year.

Instead, our state’s chief law enforcement officer has pursued a vendetta against transgender folks who want to change their birth certificates or driver’s licenses.

Kobach would probably prefer that coverage of the State Child Death Review Board focus on fentanyl overdoses. His office mentions the drug in four paragraphs of a 10-paragraph press release.

The report itself paints a more nuanced picture. Yes, 20 young people died from fentanyl from 2017 to 2021, with all of the deaths taking place in the most recent two years. But at least four transgender youths died from suicide over the same five-year period. At least 11 gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning youths did. In many youth suicide cases, officials can’t confirm gender identity or sexual orientation, so those numbers only scratch the surface.

Kansans rally in support of transgender rights May 5, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


‘Be honest with themselves’

Kobach’s a smart man. He attended Harvard, Oxford and Yale universities. He has the capacity — and then some — to comprehend how his behavior affects others. As an official elected statewide, he wields power in and out of court. If he wanted, he could improve the lives of trans youth in Kansas.

He has chosen instead to make those lives more difficult.

The ACLU of Kansas has repeatedly battled Kobach in court. Communications director Esmie Tseng didn’t want to speak about ongoing litigation, but she emphasized the responsibility borne by Kobach and those like him.

“Every child in Kansas should be treated with dignity and respect, including and especially by decision-makers at the highest level of our state government,” she said. “Our hope is that every public official will work to thoughtfully assess the impact of their actions on all Kansas children, especially the most vulnerable, and will be honest with themselves and the Kansans they serve when those actions may not be consistent with their declared goals or values.”

Kobach’s actions in office help create a climate of fear and hatred. His letter to the 10th Circuit makes clear that he’s not accidentally pursuing this painful path. He intends it.

I’ve harped on Kobach’s phrase today because transgender youth absolutely deserve an attorney general “committed to preventing every preventable death of a child.” These Kansans deserve someone committed to their mental and physical well-being. Kris Kobach doesn’t show any interest in being that person.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.