A transgender children’s charity is giving potentially dangerous chest-flattening devices to 14-year-olds against their parents’ wishes, an investigation by The Telegraph has found
Mermaids, which receives funding from the taxpayer and runs training for schools and the NHS, offered to send a breast binder discreetly to a girl they believed was only 14, even after they were told that she was not allowed to use one by her mother.
Evidence obtained by The Telegraph shows that the charity’s staff have offered binders to children as young as 13 who say that their parents oppose the practice.
Chest-binding has been described by parent groups as a form of “self-harm” and it can cause breathing difficulties, chronic back pain, changes to the spine and broken ribs.
Dr Hilary Cass, the former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics, who is leading a review of trans children’s services for the NHS, describes it as “painful and potentially harmful”.
Campaigners and MPs said on Sunday night that there were “massive safeguarding red flags” over Mermaids and called for an immediate investigation by the Charity Commission.
The Telegraph has uncovered evidence of the Mermaids online help centre offering advice to users who present themselves as young as 13 that controversial hormone-blocking drugs are safe and “totally reversible”.
In the last month alone, this newspaper has seen discussions in the charity’s moderated forum for 12 to 15-year-olds on how to raise money to start taking drugs and the best way to take testosterone.
A moderator also publicly congratulated a teenage user for deciding that they were transgender by the age of 13 and deciding that they wanted drugs and “all the surgeries”.
Children ‘pushed into believing they are transgender’
Parents believe that the advice from the charity and the forum has “pushed” their children into believing that they were transgender and led them to want irreversible medical treatment to “cure” their issues.
In an email exchange with an adult posing as a 14-year-old girl wanting to transition to a boy, Mermaids staff agreed to send out a breast binder despite being repeatedly told that the child’s mother would “not allow” it.
They asked for the name and address the user wanted the package sent to, which would allow them to receive it without their parents’ knowledge.
The Telegraph has seen evidence that Mermaids has been running a free “binder scheme” since at least 2019 and has offered it to users who say that they are 13 and their parents will not buy them one.
The most comprehensive study of the impact of binders to date has found that more than 97 per cent of people who use them suffer health problems as a result. The study did not look at the impact on under 18s.
Stephanie Davies-Arai, the founder and director of Transgender Trend, which campaigns for evidence-based healthcare for children, said: “Mermaids should not be sending breast-binders out behind parents’ backs. Parents are the primary caregivers and they have ultimate responsibility for their health and welfare. To exclude parents from really serious decisions like this is anti-safeguarding.
“An investigation into Mermaids is long overdue. People have been raising concerns for quite a few years now. The Charity Commission and anybody who is recommending Mermaids or using them for training needs to really seriously think about child safeguarding.”
Her call was echoed by MPs including Miriam Cates, Tory MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, who said that the charity “is stating an extreme position on gender ideology and it is going behind parents’ backs to speak to children. This raises huge safeguarding red flags”.
Mermaids refused to comment on the findings of the investigation.
In a statement setting out its position on binders, Mermaids said that it took “a harm reduction position” that providing a binder with safety instructions was better than people using other “unsafe practices” or experiencing dysphoria.
Safeguarding fears abound over charity that doles out breast binders and drugs advice to children
Mermaids holds a privileged position in public life. The controversial charity is paid to train teachers, police forces, NHS staff and social services on dealing with transgender issues.
In recent years, it has received more than £20,000 in taxpayer’s money from grants and more than £500,000 from the National Lottery.
Staff have met government officials, given advice to the NHS and were identified as influential at the soon-to-be closed Tavistock Clinic as it was dolling out drugs to children.
But while councils, medical professionals and schools continue to send young people to the charity, an investigation by The Telegraph has raised serious questions over safeguarding and the advice it gives to children as young as 12.
Exchanges seen by this newspaper show that Mermaids staff are sending out potentially harmful breast binders behind parents’ backs and encouraging children to keep their contact with them private.
Conversations on the moderated forums include teenagers giving advice on lying to medical professionals in order to be prescriped puberty-blocking drugs and on the best way to take testosterone or raise money to go abroad to start hormone treatment.
An email exchange with the charity, seen by The Telegraph, shows staff offering to send a free breast binder to a user they believed was 14 who told them “my mum won’t let me” have one. Binders are used to flatten the chest to make a wearer appear more masculine.
Mermaids said the user – an adult posing as a teenager under the pseudonym Kai – had to have been a member of the charity’s online Youth Forum for a month and posted three times before it would supply them with a binder.
Exactly a month later, Mermaids agreed to send Kai a binder if they provided a size, read the binder safety sheet and sent a “name and address that you want the binder to be sent to”.
“Once we have all of this information, we will pass it over to dispatch and they will take it from there. If we have one in the correct size in stock, we can send it out, otherwise, you will be put on the list to have a binder dispatched when it is in stock,” the helpline operator said.
They noted that the risks of binding include “shortness of breath, back pain, chest pain, itching, bad posture, shoulder pain, overheating, and in some cases, rib damage”.
The charity had been told a number of times that Kai’s mother would not let the child “do anything” to present as a boy.
At no point did staff raise questions about any underlying illnesses, mental health conditions, or question whether any responsible adult would be informed that the person they thought was 14 was using a binder.
Before they would send the binder, Kai had to agree to follow the guidelines of the charity, which include that it should not be used for more than 8 hours a day or worn during exercise and should be removed if the wearer experienced conditions such as sickness, dizziness or overheating.
They also referred to a study by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health which found that 97 percent of adult users experienced health impacts from binding including pain, rib fractures, changes to the spine, headaches, respiratory and skin infections and muscle wasting. There have been no studies on the impact on children, partly due to ethical concerns.
The Telegraph has been made aware of a number of posts on the Youth Forum regarding binders, dating back to 2019.
In one, a moderator tells a 13-year-old who complains that their mother won’t let them wear one because it is “neglect” that the charity runs a scheme and if they email their details, Mermaids says it will post one “directly”.
Stephanie Davies-Arai, the founder and director of Transgender Trend, a campaign group, said: “This is a great safeguarding concern, because breast binding is basically a form of self-harm. It damages the body in some very serious ways and it prevents girls from being able to breathe properly, meaning that they cannot do sport or be active.
“They [Mermaids] are giving out inaccurate and partial information and they are encouraging people to trust in what is a medical experiment. Parents deserve to know all of the information, whatever decision they make in the end.”
Other web chats passed to this newspaper as part of a dossier of evidence show a Mermaids worker telling what they believe is a 14-year-old boy that the worker has been on puberty for blockers “many years” and “have never had a problem”.
Though admitting that they are not medically qualified, they add that the drugs “halt puberty and if they come off them then it carries on”.
A charity worker tells another user that puberty blockers “simply suppress the onset of puberty until you are ready to make a decision how to go forward. They are totally reversible”.
The advice was given despite the fact that the medical community has long raised concern about the impact of puberty blockers. Dr Hilary Cass, who is leading a review into NHS services for trans children, has warned there are “significant gaps” in knowledge of the long-term impact of the drugs which she warns could include damage to brain development.
Parents shocked by advice, but Mermaids seems immune to controversy
This is not the first time concerns have been raised about the actions of the charity, including by whistleblowers at the Tavistock, which was the only gender identity clinic for children until the NHS announced that it would close this spring and the service moved into regional centres.
But Mermaids seems to have shaken off continual controversy and remains the go-to charity for children who are questioning their gender.
The latest annual accounts from 2020-21 show that Mermaids received a total income of more than £1.8 million, an increase of almost a million on the previous year. The charity boasts that it earned more than £60,000 from training – double what it predicted – providing sessions for the police, NHS children’s mental health service, hospital trusts, charities and fostering agencies.
They say that they gave 59 training sessions at schools, and that participants of sessions have included GPs, educational psychologists, therapists and paediatric nurses.
Whilst publicly advocating for medicalisation of children, the group is recommended by councils, schools and NHS organisations across the country as a resource for trans young people and their families.
A number of concerned parents who were sent to the charity by professionals say they were “shocked” by the advice.
Services include a forum that Mermaids says is a “safe space” and those joining have “undergone rigorous security checks”, which the adult posing as “Kai” was able to pass.
Once inside, children discuss topics including how to “pass” as their chosen gender, whether they can change their names and pronouns at school without their parents’ knowledge and how to bind their breasts.
In one conversation in a group for 12 to 15-year olds, a moderator publicly congratulated a girl when they described how they decided they were a trans boy by the age of 13 and now wanted “all the surgeries” and “all the hormones”.
One mother sent a complaint to the Charity Commission in 2020 warning that the forum was a “free for all” which “fails the most basic of safeguarding standards” and that she was “horrified by what young adolescents are exposed to behind their parents’ backs”.
In a separate complaint, another mother says she was “hugely concerned that the conversations with homophobic content allowed within the Mermaids Peer to Peer group might have pushed my son to make the decision that he now feels that being bisexual or gay is unacceptable.
“I am worried that these conversations have led him to believe that he needs to be medically transitioned for him to be accepted.”
She raised concern “at the speed” with which her son, who has autism spectrum disorder, “travelled into a world of transition” because of the conversation in which children were “instantly affirmed and encouraged by other service users to change their names behind their parents’ backs”.
In response to the complaints, the parents were told that the regulator contacted the charity but that the matter was now closed.
But the evidence of recent treatment of children uncovered by this newspaper has led to calls for the regulator to look again at the service.
MPs call for investigation
Joanna Cherry KC, an SNP MP, said: “Mermaids are currently trying to have another charity, the LGB Alliance, removed from the register of charities, but I think it’s high time their own activities were put under the spotlight.
“These revelations raise major safeguarding issues particularly in the light of the findings of the recent Cass interim report. The allegations of homophobia are also very concerning. The Charity Commission must carry out a thorough investigation.
“As pathways into care are also within the remit of the Cass report, I would hope she will feel able to look very carefully at the advice Mermaids are offering to gender non-conforming young people.”
Miriam Cates, the Tory MP, added that an investigation by the regulator would be a “good idea”.
“These are huge safeguarding issues,” she told The Telegraph. “Any physical intervention like breast binding, puberty blockers and cross sex hormone is a serious issue and a step that should not be taken without medical supervision and in the case of a child, without parental involvement.
“There are so many question marks over Mermaids. I know of schools where they have gone in and given questionable presentations to children and girls have decided that they are not girls as a result.”
The former teacher added that “Mermaids do not meet the bar for a group that should be allowed to provide resources or visits to schools. They should not be anywhere near schools.”
Mermaids would not comment on the details of the investigation, but said binding “helps alleviate” the “distress” of gender dysphoria for some and it took “a harm reduction position” that providing a binder “alongside comprehensive safety guidelines from an experienced member of staff is preferable to the likely alternative of unsafe practices and/or continued or increasing dysphoria”.
It added: “The risk is considered by Mermaids’ staff within the context of our safeguarding framework.”
Despite the growing body of evidence, Mermaids insisted that: “Puberty blockers are an internationally recognised, safe, reversible, healthcare option which have been recommended by medical authorities in the UK and internationally for decades.”
It says that the NHS gender identity service, run by the Tavistock, and medical experts have noted that “blockers are physically reversible when treatment is stopped. Puberty blockers allow a young person to consider their options while exploring their gender identity, as well as alleviating the distress of gender dysphoria.”
When it was announced in July that NHS Tavistock was being closed down amid concerns it was not safe for children, the call from campaigners was clear: “Mermaids must fall next”.
That call may now need to be considered in hospital board meetings and classrooms across the country because, as Ms Cherry points out, it is not simply the charity’s reputation that is on the line.
“Those who have a training relationship with the charity would also be well advised to consider the extent to which following their advice might expose them to legal risk,” she said.