When Your Birth Is a State Secret

Texan adoptees argue that they should have a right to see their own birth certificates.


Shawna Hodgson and her birth father Bo Garrison.  Courtesy of Shawna Hodgson

Shawna Hodgson, a mother of four who lives in Tomball, learned about her deep Texas roots the hard way: As an adoptee, she couldn’t just pay $22 and get a copy of her own birth certificate like other Texans. Instead, she had to spend more than 10 years and $15,000 on private searches, court and legal fees, and DNA tests. Finally, she connected with a distant cousin in 2014 after submitting a DNA sample to 23andMe, and then traced her birth mother and father, partly by texting that cousin and other complete strangers. Hodgson felt elated and proud when at age 40 she met both her birth parents—and tracked her roots back six generations. 

But she knew that many other adoptees may never be able to trace their family tree. More than 50 years ago, Texas, and most other states, sealed off adoptee access to their birth records, except through special permission from a judge. Only two states never closed access to those records and over the years, eight others have reopened them. Hodgson is among those arguing that Texas should do the same.

A bill to give adoptees access to their birth certificates in Texas made its way through the Texas House this legislative session but hit a logjam in the Senate—again. The upper chamber first blocked a similar measure in 2015. The legislation has now failed to pass despite attempts in four sessions, despite strong support in both chambers. Hodgson, who is the spokesperson for the Texas Adoptee Rights Coalition, argues that Texas is denying a basic civil right to more than 970,000 adoptees.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Texas Observer: So, what’s the history of closing the birth certificates of adoptees and how does Texas law compare to other states?

 Shawna Hodgson: Prior to 1957, an adoptee in Texas could request their original birth certificate once they reached 21. The 1957 reform that sealed birth certificates was originally meant to protect adoptees who might otherwise be discriminated against through laws that targeted “Illegitimacy” and “bastardy.” It was meant to protect us from the stigma but it was also to protect the newly-created family so that no one knew an adoption had occurred.

 There’s nothing in the law about protecting the birth mother’s identity, but somehow over the years that argument got turned around and opponents of reforms started to say that it was to protect the birth mother’s anonymity.

 Currently 10 states have opened birth certificate records. In Texas, there were two waves of advocacy to restore access. The first wave, lawmakers created the current statute which states that if the adopted person 18 or older already knows the birth parents’ names they can access the birth certificate and that’s how I was able to get my birth certificate in 2014.

Why is this so important to adoptees like you?

It’s about equality, about being treated like any other person. Any other Texan can request their birth certificate. We’re being discriminated against because we’re adopted. Because of a choice that was made when we were children. And we were part of a contract we didn’t sign. This is simply a request by an adult adopted person to have rights to the same record that is available to every non-adopted Texan.

Legislation to fix this problem passed almost unanimously in the House in both 2021 and in 2015. This year, Rep. Troy Harris, the father of an adopted child, strongly supported it.  Why does it keep getting stuck in the Senate?

Five of us testified in a House committee hearing on the bill. [Harris’] laying out of the bill was his own personal story. He has the same fears that any parent has that their child might learn something that’s painful, but he has said his child has a right to know her own story. We have the votes to pass, but we’re not getting through the Senate Jurisprudence Committee.

The main opponent has been State Sen. Donna Campbell, who is also an adoptive parent.

Session after session, Campbell has been the main opponent. In a letter to other lawmakers in 2016, Campbell wrote: “While many adoptive and birth mothers choose open adoption, they are not ideal for everybody. This bill would end that choice for future birth parents and effectively nullify choices made by birth parents years ago.” How do you respond?

On the record, she has repeatedly said we have to protect birth mothers who choose closed adoption. But there is no legal anonymity for birth mothers in Texas law now. It’s sad to me that one woman—just one senator—has a fear and it’s really unfounded. For Campbell to use her power in the Senate to deny 960,000 Texas adoptees the rights to access to their own birth certificates it’s just incredible. I can’t even find the words for it.

If I had stayed in foster care, and was never adopted, my original birth certificate would have stayed with me. Original birth certificates only seal when an adoption occurs. So you see, my birth mother had no legal promise or right to anonymity, and in fact, birth mothers were often told not to search for their surrendered children.

 What if there was a horrible secret?  Something your birth mother didn’t want you to know like a baby being the product of a rape or incest? 

There is no circumstance, no matter how uncomfortable or tragic, that justifies baring a human being from knowing their origins. Adopted people having access to an original birth record does not mean a birth parent has to disclose the circumstances surrounding conception and birth. It is simply a vital statistic document in addition to a genealogical record. 

What was it like for you finding your own family?

People are curious about where they come from. It’s helped adopted people to locate a birth family without accessing their birth certificate. It’s a very tedious and expensive process. For me, this is how I found my birth family.

I submitted a DNA sample and found a second cousin. I texted her: “Do you know someone who gave up a child?” It turned out her grandmother and my grandmother were sisters. 

Within six hours I found my birth mother. I have an older biological brother. They both live in Houston and I learned I was a sixth-generation Texan. I also found my birth father and I have two sisters on my father’s side. I met my father in January 2016 just three years before he died. 

So for me, the reunion part of it was happy. That’s not always the case.

I know other adoptees have sought information via DNA testing to help answer mysteries about their health. How did finding your birth family help answer questions you’d had?

 For me as a woman and the mother of four children, including three daughters, I had certain conditions that were hard to diagnose. I had some conditions when I was pregnant and I couldn’t tell my OB-GYN my mother or my aunt had this. It was more of a guessing game for my doctors and myself.

 In 2013, I had two emergency gallbladder surgeries and the gastroenterologist said this could either be stress related or hereditary. I just don’t know. Once I found my biological father, I discovered that condition was hereditary. If I had a better picture, I think I would have been able to better advocate for my health.

How did you feel when after 10 years you finally got a copy of your own birth certificate?

It felt surreal. After I drove to Austin to pick it up, I sat in my car for about an hour and just held it. I called my birth mother and we talked for a bit. It was a separate issue for me than the search and reunion with my birth family. Having my original birth certificate, probably the most profoundly personal document a person has, made me finally feel like I was actually born and the story of my life, before my adoption, mattered. My birth was no longer a secret held by the state.