A heated custody battle over a transgender child in California stokes a viral debate

Alexia Carbone walks hand-in-hand with her 5-year-old transgender daughter "A." at a park near their home.
Alexia Carbone walks hand-in-hand with her 5-year-old transgender child “A.” at a park near their home. A’s father, Adam Vena, is under a five-year restraining order as a result of a long custody and domestic violence case.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Conservative social media influencer Chris Elston — who goes by the handle “Billboard Chris” and travels the country denouncing medical treatment for transgender youth — posted a video to his hundreds of thousands of followers in late 2023.

Elston was in Phoenix at AmericaFest, a conservative conference hosted by the right-wing group Turning Point USA, and wearing a sign across his chest that read: “Children Cannot Consent to Puberty Blockers.”

The video showed him interviewing a Southern California father named Adam Vena, who claimed that his 5-year-old had been taken away from him by the state because he objected to the child being transgender.


“Adam spoke out against this, and the authorities consider that abuse. He now has a 5-year restraining order forbidding him from talking to” his child, Elston wrote atop the video posted on X.

“Pure evil,” one commenter wrote. “Heartbreaking,” wrote a second. “Madness,” wrote a third.

Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of Tesla and X, commented with two exclamation marks, which helped draw attention to the post.

The video has now been viewed 5.5 million times.

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The problem is that Vena’s version of events — parroted on right-wing podcasts and at courthouse protests — is incomplete, and the case is far more complicated than the online narrative.

In recent months, such viral moments have made Vena something of a star in the growing anti-trans movement nationally. His backers call him a “hero” and his child’s mother a “groomer.” Some supporters see his case as proof that California lawmakers are stripping away the legal rights of people who don’t buy into the “gender ideology” of the progressive left, or proof that the LGBTQ+ rights movement in this country has gone way too far.

According to interviews with Vena and his child’s mother, Alexia Carbone, as well as a review of legal records from the family and criminal courts where a custody dispute has played out for years, the case is vastly more nuanced than Vena lets on or his supporters make it out to be.

Adam Vena alleges he lost custody of his child because he disputed the child being transgender.
Adam Vena alleges he lost custody of his child because he disputed the child being transgender. The court case is more complicated than that.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Left out of the narrative is Vena’s alleged history of abuse toward Carbone, which she said began before any issues of gender arose with their child and is detailed in court documents reviewed by The Times.

Also left out are Vena’s outbursts in court, which a judge and his own former attorney warned would hurt his efforts to be reunified with the child. Left out are all the careful attempts by two judges, the child’s independent counsel and trained medical professionals to prioritize the youth’s needs, ideology aside.

Left out of the discussion too are the child’s thoughts and feelings, dismissed by Vena as unreliable due to age or as overly influenced by Carbone. Vena says the child — whom The Times is referring to only by the initial A., for privacy — is too young to understand gender and should just be told how to dress and act.

The case raises difficult questions about the weight a child’s gender identity and expression should hold in an already volatile custody battle in which the parents are bitterly divided on the issue.

But it hinges more heavily on traditional family court questions — such as where the line is drawn between alleged mental and physical abuse, and how a child’s best interests weigh against the legal rights of a parent.

In an interview with The Times, Vena and his attorney Ravi Bendapudi said they are appealing the five-year restraining order, which they see as a major miscarriage of justice.


They alleged that multiple state judges and the attorney assigned to represent the child’s best interests have been complicit in an orchestrated scheme by Carbone and her attorneys. The scheme, they said, used secretive parentage proceedings in family court to strip Vena of his parental rights without any evidence of physical abuse.

“It’s absolutely devastating, because nothing I have done deserves the treatment that I have received,” said Vena, a 44-year-old trash collector.

“The whole thing was a setup, and they railroaded my client,” Bendapudi said.

Carbone told The Times she just wishes people who don’t know her family — who don’t know her child — would leave them alone.

“It’s been skewed to be what it’s not,” Carbone said in her first public comments about the case. “It’s become a political circus.”

Origins of the dispute

Carbone, a 39-year-old in-home care provider, filed her first request for a domestic violence restraining order against Vena in June 2020.

The request made no mention of their then nearly 2-year-old’s gender, which wasn’t yet a point of contention. It included five pages of abuse allegations going back to when Carbone was pregnant. She accused Vena in the request of constantly berating her, sending incessant texts and making harassing calls, physically threatening her and throwing furniture off her porch.

Alexia Carbone pushes her 5-year-old transgender child "A." on a swing.
Alexia Carbone pushes her 5-year-old transgender child “A.” on a swing at a park near her home.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“Adam regularly uses physical intimidation to scare me, lunging with hands fisted, screaming in my face while I cower in the corner, punching the car dash board or house walls and pinning me up against the car or a wall,” Carbone wrote.

Carbone also detailed her own arrest in April 2020, after Vena called the police amid a fight involving Carbone’s mother. Carbone said she had asked Vena to leave the family home after he “callously” threw a water balloon at her older special-needs son and that Vena had erupted in anger.

She wrote that Vena started screaming at her and her mother, “calling her names and lunging at her.” She wrote that she hit him once in the back of the head with an open hand, in self-defense, before Vena “pinned me up against the wall.”

When the police arrived, Carbone said, she admitted to hitting Vena while Vena denied being aggressive. The officers arrested her, though no charges were filed. From then on, Vena’s harassment and abuse only escalated, she wrote in her request.

“At this point,” she wrote, “my mental health is on the line.”

Alexia Carbone is the mother of a 5-year-old transgender child.
Alexia Carbone is the mother of a 5-year-old transgender child. Her custody dispute with the child’s father has been misconstrued on social media.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The restraining order was denied. The couple agreed to share custody and to communicate only through a court-sanctioned messaging platform called Our Family Wizard.

Vena and Bendapudi said that the denial of the order proved Carbone had no evidence to support her claims. Vena said it is normal for couples to get into heated arguments, but that he has never struck Carbone or their child and never would. Asked about the other forms of physical abuse she alleged, he cited her arrest and said she was the aggressor.

“I would walk away,” he said.

“The whole domestic violence narrative is a concoction,” Bendapudi said.

A pink dress

About a year later, just after A.’s third birthday, Vena said A. told him about owning a pink dress. Vena said he knelt down, looked A. in the eye, and said: “Boys don’t wear dresses.”

Later, according to Our Family Wizard messages reviewed by The Times, he confronted Carbone, asking her if it was true that A. had a pink dress. Carbone wrote back that it was.

Less than half an hour later, she messaged Vena again: “I have 49 missed calls from you. Stop. Whatever you want to say to me can be in writing.”

“No You chickens—,” Vena responded. He also left Carbone a screaming voicemail, reviewed by The Times, calling her a “stupid, ignorant f—” and a “stupid f— c—.”


Carbone messaged that he was harassing her and causing emotional harm to A., who was still using male pronouns, and her other child.

“Gender does not matter. He is three and loves to dress up,” Carbone wrote. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and I will always encourage my children to be true to themselves.”

Vena responded by accusing Carbone of child abuse.

“You have to be a special kind of stupid to think that dressing a boy [in] girls clothes is a smart idea,” Vena wrote. “You are a f— retard.”

Vena’s language and tone in the private messages are different from the more contained anger and sadness he conveys in many of his online posts. But it is consistent with the way he has spoken to Carbone and her attorneys in other private messages, recordings of which have been included in court filings and reviewed by The Times.

“He’s got a way with words,” Bendapudi said, of such messages. “It was rude, but considering what he was going through at the time, like I said — she’s lucky that’s all he did.”

Bendapudi said Vena is a “hothead” with a “severe learning disability” who “can’t really control what he says sometimes” and would admit as much.


“It’s almost like Tourette’s. When he’s angry he can’t control the words out of his mouth,” Bendapudi said. “But it never led ever to physical violence.”

Vena’s online posts are also pointed at times, with Vena alleging Carbone brainwashed and “groomed” A. into identifying as a girl — a claim he repeated in an interview with The Times.

Vena alleges Carbone forced A. into dresses before the child could have possibly conceived of gender. If A. did independently request a dress, Vena says, Carbone should have simply refused.

“It is our job as parents to coach our children in the right direction,” he said.

Raising a gender-nonconforming child, particularly one as young as A., can be confusing for even the most well-meaning parents. It is also something that has been deeply researched for years.

Most children between the ages of 18 and 24 months can recognize gender groups — that is, distinguish between boys and girls — and understand their own gender by age 3, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic.

Prominent U.S. medical associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Assn. and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry support gender-affirming care for children with gender dysphoria, and urge parents to provide nonjudgmental, supportive environments that allow kids to explore gender safely.


Bendapudi, who is gay, disputed that medical consensus and cited heavily contested data to suggest that a vast majority of children with gender dysphoria simply grow out of it. He also said gender-affirming care for youth should be of “particular concern to gay people” because it targets “the future generations of gay kids” — like boys who just happen to be feminine.

Mainstream LGBTQ+ organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign strongly support gender-affirming care, and emphasize that gender and sexuality are not the same thing. Medical experts and ethicists interviewed by The Times said that, while more data is needed, modern studies support the efficacy of gender-affirming care.

A large, longitudinal study on socially transitioned transgender youth out of Princeton University in 2022 showed that such kids “retransitioning” to their gender assigned at birth was relatively rare. It was slightly more common for children who began their social transition before age 6, but “even in these youth, retransition rates were very low.”

Carbone, who lives in an L.A. suburb, said she has friends in the gay community, but had never given much thought to gender-nonconforming identities.

But slowly, at A.’s prompting, that changed, she said.

At first, A. just started showing interest in more traditional girl things, which Carbone said she thought was just kind of cute and harmless. Then A. started getting more persistent. She said A. begged for a dress every day for a week before Carbone relented and bought one.

When the dress arrived, “it was like I had given her a puppy,” said Carbone, employing the pronouns A. now uses. “She pulled the dress out of the box and pulled it on over her pajamas and ran around the house.”


At that point Carbone said she did not think A. needed a diagnosis, but she started paying closer attention to A.’s feelings around gender.

The more Carbone let A. explore, she said, the angrier Vena grew.

Escalating tensions

In July 2021, Carbone again applied for a domestic violence restraining order, alleging an array of abuse from Vena since he’d learned about the pink dress.

Carbone attached the Our Family Wizard messages and a log showing Vena’s 69 calls to her in the span of 90 minutes. Carbone said she was concerned for her safety because Vena owns guns and “is unable to manage his anger.”

During a subsequent hearing, Vena asked the court to deny the restraining order as a baseless attempt to separate him from their child. But he undermined his own argument by repeatedly erupting in anger over A.’s gender, according to court transcripts.

“That is not right to put a boy in a girl’s dress,” Vena said at one point. “ He’s three years f— old.”

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Harvey Silberman and Vena’s attorney at the time begged Vena to calm down, the transcripts show. Five deputies were called in to ensure courtroom security.


“If you’re yelling and screaming at everybody in the courtroom in the most formal of all settings, how does everybody think you behave when you’re not in this formal setting?” Silberman asked.

The judge granted the restraining order. He also ordered A. be assessed at the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Silberman limited Vena’s interactions with A. to two 10-minute FaceTime calls per week. He ordered Carbone to dress A. in “gender neutral” clothing from the waist up during the calls, and said A.’s clothing was not to be discussed.

Silberman told Vena that he hoped when they next reconvened that they could have a calmer discussion.

“But if you come and you ... can’t control yourself, you’re not going to gain my trust that you can control yourself with a child,” Silberman said. “I don’t want that to happen. But the next step is yours.”

Bendapudi said Vena’s frustration in court was “completely understandable” given he was losing custody of his child on what he believed were outrageous grounds.


“His outbursts don’t look good to the judge,” Bendapudi said. “But legally speaking, and from a fairness perspective, that’s not enough to extinguish your parental rights.”

Turmoil and agreement

The month after Silberman issued the civil restraining order, Carbone called the police to report Vena had violated it.

During a FaceTime call, A. had mentioned having a dress in the dryer, and Vena soon exploded, saying: “Boys do not wear dresses” and screaming profanities at Carbone, Carbone alleged to the police. After she hung up, he called and texted her directly rather than via Our Family Wizard, she said.

Vena denied yelling profanities at Carbone.

Officers reviewing Carbone’s claims found Vena also had not properly surrendered firearms as required by the order, Carbone said in court records. Bendapudi said Vena had turned in his guns, and just hadn’t filled out the correct form needed to get a receipt that proved it.

In February 2022, a judge issued a criminal protective order requiring Vena to stay 100 yards away from Carbone and A.

Months later, according to court records, Vena entered a 12-month diversion program involving anger management and parenting classes. Bendapudi said such classes are standard requirements.


Carbone continued to argue that Silberman’s civil restraining order should remain in place, as well — accusing Vena in court filings of repeatedly violating the terms by bringing up and getting visibly angry about A. wearing traditional girl clothes.

Carbone said in a later court declaration that such outbursts were “very harmful to [A.] psychologically,” and that she feared they would “escalate into physical violence” if Vena saw A. breaking gender norms in person.

In November 2022, the parties were back before Silberman with an update on A.’s first clinical assessment — and a surprising agreement.

Beatriz A. Pelayo-Garcia, an independent minor’s counsel representing A., said a Children’s Hospital doctor who assessed A. had been unable to provide a diagnosis because A. had reacted emotionally whenever the doctor asked questions about gender, the dress or “anything like that.”

The doctor recommended annual visits moving forward, and for the child to see an outside therapist. Carbone said she was encouraged to support A.’s self-expression around gender. Silberman said he liked the idea of therapy, and would require it.

Bendapudi said the first assessment was proof A. did not have gender dysphoria.

Pelayo-Garcia then outlined an agreement between Carbone and Vena.

Vena, she said, had agreed to give Carbone sole legal custody of A., and to relinquish his visitation rights save for one last goodbye visit. The agreement cited a “complete lack of alignment” between A.’s development and Vena’s “personal beliefs” and said Vena was giving up visitation “out of the greatest love” for A.


In return, Carbone had agreed to drop her restraining order request.

Silberman asked Pelayo-Garcia if she supported the deal, and she said she did because Vena was incapable of having positive interactions with A.

The judge said he didn’t agree with Vena’s decision, but wouldn’t try to talk him out of it. He said he hoped Vena would think more deeply and come back if he wanted visitation to resume.

“I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, and we’ve had very difficult situations with various people who didn’t align with the other parent’s thinking, with society’s thinking, with the court’s thinking, with the expert’s thinking — but I always felt it’s still worth it to sort of fight through,” Silberman said.

Vena, representing himself at the hearing, said he was not walking away, but had discussed the issue with his family and decided that relinquishing custody was the best thing for A.

He apologized for his previous outbursts in court but said he hadn’t felt heard.

“I feel that this case has been extremely one-sided on a lot of things,” he said. “This court and this state have stripped my father’s rights away.”

Bendapudi said Vena was duped into thinking that the agreement undid all of the orders against him even though it left the criminal restraining order in place.


“No one said anything about it,” he said.

Another restraining order

Two months later, according to court filings, Vena showed up outside A.’s preschool demanding to see A. — which school officials knew was not allowed.

In a declaration in court, the school’s director wrote that Vena was “upset and frustrated” and left only after she told him she would call the sheriff’s department if he didn’t.

Carbone reported to the sheriff’s department that Vena had violated the criminal protective order by getting within 100 yards of A. She also filed a request for a new civil restraining order from Silberman.

“I only dismissed the last [domestic violence restraining order] because I thought he was finally accepting the way things are and would calm down, but just two months later he’s at it again and I’m afraid of what will come next,” Carbone wrote.

Carbone said she wanted the civil order to bar Vena from contacting A.’s school and care providers, whether she or A. were present. Additionally, she wanted Vena to be restricted from accessing records about A.’s “evolving gender identity.”

At a February 2023 hearing, Silberman granted the new order.

Bendapudi called the preschool director’s declaration “hearsay” and said there was “no admissible evidence” that Vena violated the criminal protective order — and therefore no legitimate reason for Silberman’s ruling. He would not directly answer whether Vena went to the preschool.


Carbone said A. first identified as a girl and started using female pronouns that same month. In March 2023, A. received a second assessment at Children’s Hospital, which was reviewed by The Times. This time, A. was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

The assessment recommended that A. be allowed to explore gender freely, and should not be forced toward stereotypical gender behavior in any direction.

Online versus in court

As the legal battle dragged on, Vena’s story started picking up traction among right-wing commentators.

Last April, a woman named Lindsey Graham — who goes by the moniker “Patriot Barbie” — shared a video claiming Carbone had “medically kidnapped” A. in order to force the child’s transition, which racked up thousands of likes and shares on Facebook. Graham also launched a fundraiser for Vena’s legal fees.

In May, Vena went on One America News Network, where he spoke in front of old framed photos of A., mentioned the gender dysphoria diagnosis and said it meant it was “no holds barred for this state to do whatever they want.”

Conservative groups fighting LGBTQ+-inclusive policies in California public schools picked up Vena’s story and started protesting outside court hearings.


When Vena started calling out people involved in the case by name on social media — including Silberman; Kate Forrest, Carbone’s attorney; Pelayo-Garcia and A.’s doctor at Children’s Hospital — they also became targets of online vitriol.

In a statement to The Times, Pelayo-Garcia said the case has unfortunately “moved so far away from little [A.] and it’s more about politics than it is a child,” and she wished Vena “would love [A.] as perfect as [A.] is now.”

Silberman and the doctor declined to comment. In September, Silberman recused himself from the case without providing a reason publicly.

The online campaign didn’t help Vena’s case in court.

Shortly after Silberman’s recusal, a new judge issued a permanent restraining order barring Vena from seeing Carbone or A. for five years.

Judge Mark Juhas barred Vena from contacting or getting within 100 yards of Carbone or A., Carbone’s work or vehicle, A.’s school or any of A.’s healthcare providers when A. is present. He also blocked Vena from accessing A.’s medical records.

A copy of the order reviewed by The Times included the reasons for Juhas’ decision, with checkmarks indicating Juhas had found a risk of Vena taking A. without permission, a history of abuse, a lack of cooperation and “expressed motivation/desire to take [the] child to a more cooperative state to prevent access to gender affirming care.”


Juhas, who declined to comment to The Times, also barred Vena from holding a passport.

Bendapudi called the idea Vena wanted to kidnap his child a “bald faced lie” that was contrived in large part based on a “stranger’s comment” on one of Vena’s social media posts — which Vena “liked” — that said Vena should “grab” A. and go to Florida.

“That is absurd to say that that amounts to a criminal intent to kidnap a kid,” Bendapudi said.

Bendapudi also acknowledged that Vena had a “breakdown” during the hearing, repeatedly screaming at Carbone from across the room in front of Juhas.

“I was trying to hold his hand. I was trying to console him. He was crying,” Bendapudi said. “He had a complete and utter meltdown.”

Vena’s following on Instagram has ballooned from fewer than 100 people to more than 14,000 as he continues making the rounds on podcasts and at political and religious events. Supporters have donated more than $30,000 to his legal fight.

Elston declined to comment. Graham defended Vena when asked about Carbone’s allegations of abuse, calling Carbone’s credibility “questionable” and describing Vena as “the most mild-mannered, polite man” she’d ever met and someone who deserved to be angry.


Moving forward

Vena said he will never stop fighting to be in A.’s life., because although Carbone generally provides for A.’s needs, she is “twisting” the child’s mind.

Bendapudi said that in addition to appealing Juhas’ order, they are working on federal legislation that would ban puberty blockers and other gender-affirming care for minors — which they said amount to child abuse and are what they fear the most for A.

They want to name the bill after A., he said.

Carbone shuddered at the thought.

Once again, she said, Vena’s ideas are the opposite of what their child needs.

The care plan created after A.’s diagnosis is simple, she said: Carbone was encouraged to provide a safe and supportive environment, to avoid shaming or correcting A. about gender expression, and to be open to A.’s thoughts on gender changing and evolving.

Carbone said she will continue to allow A. to choose how to identify, dress and use pronouns.

There are no plans for A. to start puberty blockers or any other medications any time soon, Carbone said. Such interventions — designed to temporarily slow a child’s development while they consider their identity — won’t come for years, if ever, and only after careful discussion about the pros and cons with A.’s medical team.

For now, Carbone said, she is focused on ensuring A. is happy.

On a recent Tuesday after school, A. wore purple leggings and a favorite purple, pink and white striped dress while running around a neighborhood playground with a friend from kindergarten. A.’s shoulder-length blond curls bounced.


“Where’s my purse?” A. asked Carbone at one point before bounding off again — bubbly and beaming.