Shawna Hodgson was adopted as an infant in the seventies and, she says, “raised in a great family” in Houston. But despite her happy childhood, she always had an underlying need to know more about her birth family. When Hodgson became an adult, she decided to request a copy of her original birth certificate, something she had always assumed she was entitled to receive, from the Texas Department of State Health Services’ vital statistics office. Her request was immediately denied.
“I didn’t know that my original birth certificate was sealed. I just kind of assumed they would hand that information over to me when I was [of age],” says Hodgson. “So imagine my surprise when I marched in there like, ‘I’m ready for my file,’ and they were like, ‘No, no, no. You don’t have the right to that.’”
Birth certificates are a hot-button issue for Texas-born adoptees, some of whom have spent decades trying to change a state law that makes getting the records a Kafkaesque challenge. Many adult adoptees say that by restricting the ability to obtain their own records, the state denies them the opportunity to access potentially life-saving information about their medical and family histories.
Under current Texas law, a child’s original birth certificate is sealed when he or she is adopted and the adoptive parents are sent a supplementary birth certificate that lists them as the child’s parents. Adoptees who do not know their birth parents’ names must petition for access in court in the county that granted the adoption and must show what the law calls, without defining the term, “good cause.”
Hodgson, who did not know her birth parents’ names, went to court twice, and both times she was denied. A judge in Harris County even told her she needed her adoptive parents’ permission, despite the fact that she was 38 years old. She ultimately spent five years conducting her own search, during which she says she spent more than $15,000 on everything from DNA testing to private investigators. After all the arduous effort, Hodgson says, “When I met my birth family, it was like a photo that was blurry came into view.” The search fired her up so much that she became an advocate for other adoptees, and is now a spokeswoman for the Texas Adoptee Rights Coalition. (I met Hodgson during my search for original birth certificates for my two adopted children.)
Adoptees have long said these restrictions violate their civil and human rights. But as a result of increasing awareness of the topic, recent laws granting unrestricted birth certificate access in nine other states including New York and Colorado, and a newly introduced bill in the Texas Legislature that’s more streamlined than bills in previous sessions and has bipartisan support, many advocates are hopeful that this will be the session when things change.
The new bill was introduced in the Senate by Democrat Nathan Johnson, and in the House by Representative Cody Harris, a Republican who represents an East Texas district that includes Palestine and Corsicana and who is an adoptive dad himself. Harris said his experience of adopting his daughter Chloe, now seven, out of foster care and “just seeing how guarded and limited the information is from an adoptive parent’s perspective” greatly informed his decision to sponsor the bill.
“I believe everyone should be able to know where they came from and gain access to that information. It covers everything from knowing your own family medical history about things you might be predisposed towards to diseases that you could take a preventative approach to if you only had the information,” Harris says.
If passed, the bill would allow any adult adoptee to receive a copy of his or her original birth certificate without a court order as long as the adoptee was born in Texas, was previously issued a supplementary certificate, and is now eighteen years old. Unlike previous versions, this simpler bill does not include the option for birth parents to fill out a form saying whether they’d like to be contacted by the adopted person or provide him or her with family medical history.
Because of the size of Texas’s population, changing the law here could affect 800,000 Texas-born adoptees, says Tim Monti-Wohlpart, an advocate who worked on the similar New York bill that passed in 2019. “A lot of eyes are on Texas right now,” he says, adding that, if passed, the Texas bill could help inspire similar legislation in other states.
While thirty years of advocacy within the Texas Legislature have left lawmakers well-informed on the topic, advocates’ inability to get the law changed up to this point can be attributed in large part to the decades-old culture of secrecy surrounding adoption. Whether it was promises made by adoption agencies to unmarried birth mothers who wanted privacy or politicians seeking to protect adoptive parents from intrusion from birth families, adoptees argue that the laws have rarely been about them or their own needs.
The Gladney Center for Adoption, a national agency based in Texas that has completed 36,000 adoptions since 1887—the majority of which took place in Texas—is among the organizations now voicing support for adult adoptee access. Mark Melson, CEO, president, and Gladney parent, said via email that one of the main requests that the Gladney Center for Adoption’s post-adoption team receives is access to birth records by adopted adults.
But not everyone agrees that all adult adoptees should be able to access their original birth certificates, including Texas senator Donna Campbell, an adoptive mother herself. Campbell said that because 90 percent of adoptions that occur today are open, respect should be paid to the birth mothers who choose closed adoption.
“It is rare for a woman to choose a closed adoption—meaning she desires no contact with the child. … She does not do this lightly or without justification,” Campbell said via email. “I am an adoptive mom who understands the unintentional consequences of this bill. We are in no position of trying to undo her decision. This is not the proper role of government.”
Instead, Campbell offers up the state’s Central Adoption Registry, in which adoptees, birth parents, and biological siblings of adult adoptees can register themselves in hopes of locating family members without going through the court system. The mutual-consent adoption registry, she says, “allows both consenting parties to come together on their own accord.”
Adoptees in search of biological family members can also turn to DNA tests like 23andMe and AncestryDNA—a process that advocates say can become emotionally loaded. “As greater access to DNA records exists today, we are seeing more ‘accidental’ reunions by family members who are not ready or prepared to meet,” Melson said, adding that Gladney believes it’s preferable for adult adoptees to gain information through birth records rather than through a genetic relative. For many adoptees, learning about family history from a birth certificate allows them greater control over how to use that information, and can be less stressful than sourcing information from unsuspecting members of their birth family. After all, sliding into the Facebook messages of a potential second cousin who may or may not be able to connect you with your birth parents is quite different from learning their names directly from an official state document.
Getting the bill passed this session will come with challenges, as the Legislature is also tackling major issues like the state budget and redistricting, as well as the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and the state’s electricity grid failures during the recent winter storm. Still, thanks to the new bill’s bipartisan support as well as the force of well-known Texas agencies like Gladney, advocates are cautiously optimistic.
“It’s way past time for people to understand this issue,” Hodgson says. “Can I predict what’s going to happen? No. But I feel optimistic. I have to, because that’s how we keep going.”