Chicago Mother Loses Custody of Her Daughter—For Insisting That Her Daughter Is A Girl
by Kelsey Bolar

Jeannette Cooper never imagined she’d lose custody of her child. The 44-year-old lifelong educator always considered herself a loving and responsible mother to her daughter Sophia. But when, at age 12, Sophia suddenly claimed to be transgender, Jeannette was skeptical. Sophia had never exhibited signs of gender dysphoria. In fact, Sophia exhibited many more traditionally feminine behaviors and preferences than Jeannette ever had. To Jeannette, it didn’t make sense. 

But Sophia insisted, not only that she was trans, but that she was ‘unsafe’ around Jeannette. What followed was an almost Kafkaesque series of court proceedings and therapy sessions in which Jeannette’s ex-husband, lawyers, therapists and other individuals and institutions supposedly concerned with Sophia’s best interests worked to erode Jeannette’s most basic parenting rights. Nearly three years later, Jeannette can’t even visit with the daughter she loves. She lives less than ten minutes away, but can only communicate with Sophia by U.S. Mail. All because she insists that Sophia is a girl.

Finally ready to tell her story, Jeannette is speaking out to warn parents how gender ideology has become the latest weapon in parental custody battles, severing one of the most fundamental bonds in life under the guise of protecting children.

Part One: What Is a Woman

Jeannette shaves half her hair but not her legs, often doesn’t wear bras, and purchases clothing regardless of whether they’re sold in the men’s or women’s departments. She jokes that if you subscribe to traditional gender stereotypes, she’s the one who people would think is transgender. But that’s precisely how Jeannette raised her daughter—outside the confines of traditional sex stereotypes. 

“I don’t think there are any bounds on what it means to be female other than to exist in a female body,” Jeannette, who lives in Chicago, Ill., said. “There is nothing that I have to do to become female. I simply am. I can dress whatever way I want. I can cut my hair off, grow it long, I can change my clothes. I am still female. Any behavior that I have is female because it is mine.”

Jeannette doesn’t care for political labels. But she considers herself a radical feminist and has voted Democrat in every election since she was 18. When addressing the discrepancy between her political beliefs and her views on sex and gender ideology, Jeannette responded, “the difference between libertarianism and anarchy is a fine line.” 

When Jeannette and her ex-husband divorced in 2015, the parenting agreement granted Jeannette custody of Sophia six days, seven nights a week. While Jeannette admits that Sophia had a hard time with the divorce, she and her daughter were extremely close, homeschooling for a period of time and bonding over board games, vacations to Six Flags, and their shared progressive politics. 

So on July 22, 2019, when Sophia, then 12 years old, went on a regular custodial visit to her father’s house, Jeannette had no reason to suspect that Sophia would not come home. But at 8:30 PM, when Jeannette arrived to pick up Sophia, her ex-husband refused to return Sophia to her custody. 

Part Two: Not Coming Home

The next morning, Jeannette, for the first time, learned that Sophia identified as transgender and did not feel “safe” in her care. Jeannette could not understand why she would feel that way. Jeannette says she has always made clear to her daughter that she will accept her for who she is but notes that she may have commented in Sophia’s presence about news stories regarding teenagers who seek to transition, expressing her view that many of these kids just need to find  a way to become comfortable with their bodies and find people who appreciated their unique personalities—not to identify outside of their sex. 

After eight days of her ex-husband violating their parenting agreement, Jeannette filed an emergency petition to have her daughter returned to her custody. Sophia’s father responded in court documents, alleging that due to “burgeoning adolescence and awakening awareness of self,” Sophia was “no longer mentally or emotionally safe” in Jeannette’s home. He asked for all parenting time, all decision-making authority, and requested that the court prohibit Jeannette from seeing and communicating with Sophia unless he and a court-ordered child representative agreed.

The court sided with Jeannette’s ex-husband, pending an investigation. 

Part Three: Affirmation

Distraught and desperate to see her daughter, Jeannette put aside her beliefs and wrote Sophia a three-page affirmation letter, addressed to her daughter’s new chosen name, “Ash.” 

“I had forced my brain to accept the reality that was presented to me,” Jeannette said. “I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.”

The letter not only failed to bring her daughter back; Jeannette was told that she shouldn’t have written at all. “I didn’t understand that,” Jeannette said. “And that kind of woke me up to what was really happening.”

Jeannette believed that Sophia’s new stepmother, a licensed psychotherapist, had encouraged Sophia to separate from Jeannette. Little by little, piece by piece, Jeannette said her daughter’s stepmother helped orchestrate a custody change under the auspice of “saving” Sophia.

Three years later, Sophia still presents as feminine—as she always had—but goes by the name “Ash” using the preferred pronouns xe/xyr/xyrs.

Under the temporary court order issued shortly after Sophia first claimed to be transgender, Jeannette was only allowed to see her daughter if she attended reconciliation family therapy, which has a specific goal of reconciling an alienated child and parent. Jeannette said she was looking forward to it. The only thing she objected to was the requirement that her ex-husband’s wife be included, which gave Sophia’s stepmom access to everything that happened during family therapy, including Jeannette’s private sessions with Sophia. Jeannette told the therapist that she didn’t consent to this arrangement, but according to Jeannette, the therapist said if Jeannette didn’t consent, she wouldn’t be able to see her daughter.

“I was told that if I don’t agree to have stepmom there, then my child is refusing to see me,” Jeannette said. “I had no choice. I wanted to see her so badly.”

The therapy sessions were unsuccessful at reconciling the strained relationship. Despite that, she believed her nightmare would soon end. 

Part Four: A Court-Ordered Investigation

When Jeannette’s ex-husband claimed their daughter felt “unsafe” around her mother, the court ordered a comprehensive custody investigation [604.10(b)] to determine if either parent is a risk to Sophia’s physical, mental, or emotional health. That investigation, Jeannette believed, would clear her of any wrongdoing and reunite her with her daughter.

Jeannette, a former teacher and now a Ph.D. candidate in education at DePaul University, has trouble making sense of the allegation that her daughter is “unsafe” around her. She’s spent her entire adult life surrounded by children. But nevertheless, she understood that the court had a duty to investigate. “That’s the responsibility of the court—to investigate if a child is saying that they feel unsafe,” Jeannette said. “So I was okay with that. I think that’s the right thing to do.”

The seven-month investigation, conducted by a licensed clinical psychologist, required psychological testing, home visits, and hours of interviews with each parent.

“After that report came out, I thought, surely, this is going to resolve itself. Clearly, there is no finding of abuse or neglect. They didn’t find anything about me that is unsafe,” Jeannette said. 

“But the thing that I clearly am not complying with is this concept that good parenting means that you affirm a child’s claim that there is something wrong with their body. I’m not willing to do that. I don’t think that’s good parenting.”

Jeannette isn’t able to share the report’s findings, but publicly available court documents after the investigation make no mention of abuse or neglect. Instead, they cite Jeannette’s need to “further [her] understanding of an[d] support of the minor child as relates to the minor child’s gender dysphoria.”

“I have an understanding of the concept of a transgender identity,” Jeannette said. “I don’t think it’s the concept that they want me to have.”

“They want me to have a certain understanding that there is such a thing as a child who is born transgender, and this is who they are. I do not believe that to be true. I will not lie to the court. I will not state otherwise. I believe too strongly in my oath to tell the truth. My child is a girl, and I won’t lie to her or anyone else. I think that’s good parenting.”

Part Five: A New ‘Agreement’

Last year, with her parenting time still suspended and therapy at a standstill, Jeannette voluntarily entered into a new agreement to avoid a prolonged hearing that she feared would end with the same result. After nearly three years, she didn’t want to put her daughter—or herself—through more trauma. 

Under the terms of the final agreement, Sophia is to remain in her father’s custody, with no visitation rights for Jeannette without a court order or unless her ex-husband agrees. Despite repeated requests by Jeannette to see her daughter, he hasn’t.

Since this all began, Jeannette missed her daughter’s 13th, 14th, and 15th birthdays. Nearing her 16th birthday this August, Jeannette found out that Sophia is learning how to drive. “I wish I could teach her,” Jeannette said. “I think I’m kind of good at that.”

In return for giving up her ability to spend time with her daughter, Jeannette negotiated for a legal commitment that Sophia will not medically transition without a court order or Jeannette’s written permission. She also retained the ability to contact Sophia by postal mail. 

“People who are imprisoned have more communication with their child than I do,” Jeannette said. “That’s wrong.” 

Since Sophia left her house in 2019, Jeannette said she’s seen her for a total of eight and a half hours. 

Jeannette can petition the court to see Sophia again after consulting with a therapist and attending three support group sessions for parents or guardians of transgender-identifying children at The Gender and Sex Development Program at Lurie’s Children’s Hospital, which, according to its website, helps by “providing our families with education, exceptional and affirming clinical care.”

Jeannette attended five sessions last fall, the earliest she could enroll. The therapist required by the court has no openings and her waitlist is full. 

“I’m glad to do whatever is necessary and whatever is required to be able to be in contact with my daughter,” she said. “At this point, I don’t know what more I can do.”

Part Six: Telling Her Story

Jeannette knows there are thousands of other parents struggling with similar issues. According to a June 2022 Pew survey, 5.1% of adults younger than 30 identify as transgender or nonbinary. Roughly half of adults younger than 30 say they personally know someone who identifies as transgender, and about one-in-ten adults say they know someone younger than 18 who identifies as transgender. One Facebook group for parents of transgender-identifying children, which Jeannette helps to manage, has 2,500 parents. Other parental affirming groups have more than 12,000 members. 

Instead of keeping them in the dark about what’s happening inside family court, Jeannette wants parents to know they’re not alone.

“I am sad to say that this could happen to anyone,” Jeannette said. By sharing her story, she hopes the systems that are separating her and her daughter will change. 

“The process by which Sophia was removed, and it was solidified that she would not be in my presence, that I would not have contact with her, is harming her. It is a trauma to her,” Jeannette said. “In no way should family court separate children from their biological parents without any evidence of abuse or neglect. That is wrong. It shouldn’t happen to me. It shouldn’t be happening to any parent. It definitely should not have happened to my child. She is the greatest victim in this entire situation.”

Jeannette blames a lot of people, mostly professionals, for her circumstance. One person noticeably missing from that list is Sophia, whom Jeannette believes did a normal adolescent thing.

“She tried something. But there were no guardrails, nothing stopped her, ” Jeannette said, adding: 

“I’m not mad at my daughter. I’m not disappointed in her. I’m disappointed in the adults who have failed to protect and support her growth and development in a sustainable way. I feel for her. She was struggling, and they left her alone to deal with that on her own, instead of staying present with her and not trying to fix all of her problems. To say, ‘I know that you feel unsafe, but I don’t see anything, any evidence that would make you unsafe. So let’s figure out why you feel this way. Let’s put a variety of adults in your life together who can support you in this moment of distress and stay with you until you come out of that.’”

Jeannette doesn’t know how her daughter will react to seeing her mother share her story—a right Jeannette also retained in the new agreement. But Jeannette hopes that, in time, something good will come of it. That one day, Sophia will understand her mother’s decision to hold steadfast to the truth and maybe even have admiration for what Jeannette is doing as a parent. 

“I see that my child is at sea in a boat,” Jeannette said. “She is struggling. She is in tumultuous seas. I know that. I have seen that. And what I have been told is to follow her lead, to follow her in this journey. I am not willing to do that. I don’t think that is good parenting. It’s my responsibility not to hook my boat to hers. It is my responsibility to be a lighthouse, to be something stable that she can see, some guide that she has, that will always be there, that is consistent.”

“And that is my responsibility. I still do that today even though I have no custody of her. I have no medical decision making. No educational decision making. And no way to communicate with her other than by mail. I don’t have her phone number. I know where she lives, but I’m not allowed to go there. I know where she goes to school and I’m not allowed there either. But this is parenting. What I’m doing, even though I have no real contact with her, I am still her parent. I am still her mother. And I am still parenting now.”

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