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The long fight for adoptees to gain access to their original birth certificates in Texas

Adoptees protest in front of the state Capitol in support of unsealing original birth certificates in May 2021.
Courtesy Ferera Swan
Adoptees protest in front of the state Capitol in support of unsealing original birth certificates in May 2021.

There’s been a slow but steady movement across the U.S. to unseal records for adoptees, but bipartisan efforts have repeatedly stalled in Texas – and one state senator has consistently stood in the way.

During Texas’ recent 88th legislative session, and a year after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, several bills were passed to support family preservation through strengthening programs for families with children in foster care, as well as helping those who are pregnant and low-income.

Yet at the same time, a bill that would allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates – which could potentially help adoptees reunite with their birth families – was again stalled in the Senate.

Texas wouldn’t have been the first to unseal these records for adoptees; it’s been a slow but steady movement across the nation for the past 20 years and has started to pick up momentum over the past three. This year, South Dakota and Vermont became the 13th and 14thstates to restore access.

I myself am an adoptee, but I was born in New York: a state that gave access to original birth certificates in 2020. Although I haven’t requested access to my own birth certificate, I’m glad to know that when I’m ready, I can. And readiness is important – the more I have dug into adoption-related issues in my reporting, the more I have come to learn the emotional risks that come with unveiling one’s origins as an adoptee.

An original birth certificate is a legal document that everyone in the United States seems to have. It proves when and where we were born, who we were born to, and what race or ethnicity we are. It’s a document that is a statement of existence.

And yet, adopted adults in Texas don’t legally have access to this proof, although the fight to gain this right has been going since the early 90s. Bills didn’t start making their way to the House or Senate floor consistently until 2013; bills have typically passed through the House easily before stalling in the Senate.

One reason legislative changes on this front have been so slow is because there are a number of misconceptions about why birth certificates are sealed in the first place.

Whenever an adoption takes place in the United States, the adopted person’s original birth certificate is legally sealed, and an amended birth certificate is created to take its place. If you look at an adoptee’s amended birth certificate you wouldn’t know they were adopted. For example, my amended birth certificate shows my adoptive parents’ names on it, as if they gave birth to me. This is left over from adoption practices that date back to the 1920s.

Texas Standard intern Amanda Kari McHugh's birth certificate.
Courtesy Amanda Kari McHugh
Texas Standard intern Amanda Kari McHugh's birth certificate.

Up until 100 years ago, adoptees had access to their original birth certificates, and adoptions were somewhat rare. Then, in the 1920s, a woman named Georgia Tann came into the picture. She operated the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an unlicensed adoption agency based out of Memphis.

Being unlicensed was the most innocent of its offenses: The home was a cover for a business in which Tann kidnapped and sold an estimated 5,000 babies to wealthy families on the black market. In some instances, the children were abused or even murdered.

She is also credited with creating many of the practices our modern adoption system still uses. Celebrities and politicians had adopted through Tann’s agency, so to hide where the children came from, she started falsifying birth certificates for adoptees. Even after her crimes were exposed in 1951, this remained the standard practice in the U.S.

Then, with the post-World War II baby boom, more people were looking to build families than ever. Except that to be an infertile couple – or more specifically, an infertile woman – was an embarrassment that many people preferred to hide. Doctors even prescribed adoption as a “cure” for infertility.

Subsequently, to be an unwed mother brought so much shame to a woman’s family that she was at risk of being cast out from society if anyone had found out. In a 1966 broadcast specialon ABC, being an unwed mother was seen as a problem to be “solved.” The host, Murphy Martin, said, “Giving up the baby for adoption is the price the unwed mother must pay to avoid being ostracized by society.”

The standard practice was to secretly send women away to unwed mothers’ homes, where they were told the only right thing to do would be to place their child for adoption.

Eileen McQuade was one of those women. She relinquished her child into adoption at birth in 1966, after going to a Catholic unwed mothers’ home in New York. She said it wasn’t until her daughter found her in 1997 that she started to come to terms with what had happened to her.

“If you got pregnant without being married, you were a bad girl,” she said. “We were all subbed into the system – whether it was a Catholic church, whether it was the Salvation Army, whether it was the Gladney Network – there was such a systemized way of handling it that was so ironclad. And once you were in the pipeline, there was only one pipe to go down.”

This practice of secrecy thrived in mid-century America – a time period that saw an estimated 1.5 million adoptions take place and is now referred to as the Baby Scoop Era.

McQuade now dedicates her time to advocacy work. In 2017 she co-founded the nonprofit Catholic Mothers for Truth & Transparency to help get birth certificates unsealed for adoptees in Connecticut.

“We felt that the Catholic organizations in Connecticut were representing the voice of mothers who lost their children to adoption, but we were perfectly capable of speaking for ourselves,” she said. “So, we organized a testimony, and we were instrumental in getting that bill finally passed in Connecticut.”

Nowadays, it’s no longer considered shameful to be a pregnant, unmarried woman. And starting in the mid-to-late 80s, closed adoptions – meaning there is no knowledge of who the birth parents are or how to get in touch with them – have started to become a thing of the past. In fact, open adoptions are what is recommended, as they have proven to be best for the mental health of everyone involved.

So why are we still using these old systems?

Adoptees want access to original birth certificates for a number of reasons – one being that there’s no guarantee that the information on an amended birth certificate is actually correct.

When Monica Meyers got pregnant in 1976, her parents sent her from her hometown in Indiana to an Edna Gladney unwed mothers’ home in Fort Worth to have her baby in secret and relinquish him into adoption. She said that if she hadn’t gone, she would have had to cut ties with her whole family.

“I have nine brothers and sisters, and I’m number five, the middle child, quintessential middle child,” she said. “I was not only an embarrassment, I was the example of who they should never be.”

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The Edna Gladney home and adoption agency oversaw more than 10,000 adoptions in the 1950s alone. It has unfortunately also become known by those in adoption reform as being notorious for falsifying birth documents.

Four years ago, Meyers’ son found her via DNA testing, through her nephew who has his DNA information public. Her husband and her siblings knew she had lost a child to adoption, but she hadn’t told her other kids.

“So, you know, we had to sit down our daughter and tell her. And, life is just funny sometimes, cause you know, that relationship is wonderful, too,” she said. “I think they’re both happy, you know?”

Meyers said that while finding out in such an unexpected way was challenging for everyone involved, ultimately the reunion with her son has been providing a lot of healing, as it forced her to confront what had happened to her.

“I’m not going back to the lies they told me at the beginning, that this is the way you look at it and there’s only one way to look at it. Now we’re tearing this thing apart, and we’re looking at all of it,” she said. “I think about the moms my age who are dying with never getting to meet their child and longing every day and nobody cares.”

The reunion also allowed her to give her son some answers – some he likely didn’t even know he needed. When he told her the birth date that was on his amended birth certificate, she realized that he had been celebrating his birthday five days late every year.

‘This is an emotional thing’

And the date of birth isn’t the only thing that amended birth certificates can falsify.

Ferera Swan, an Austin-based adoptee who advocates for unsealing birth certificates by raising awareness online and through music she writes, said her amended birth certificate says she’s Chinese American – when she’s actually Filipino.

Ferera Swan performs at Adoptees R.O.A.R Fest, a fundraiser hosted by Support Texas Adoptee Rights Adoption Knowledge Affiliates in October.
Kaili Rose
Ferera Swan performs at Adoptees R.O.A.R Fest, a fundraiser hosted by Support Texas Adoptee Rights Adoption Knowledge Affiliates in October.

“They had the ethnicity of my adoptive parents down. So basically everything was modified,” she said. “When I saw that, I just started bawling. It was so angering … I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t even the truth. Like, it wasn’t real. It was just the wildest thing to see.”

Learning about the name an adoptee was given at birth can be an important experience as well: “Ferera” is a mix of Swan’s biological parents’ last names. Her husband, who is donor-conceived, just learned about his biological father’s last name.

“People who grow up in their biological families, I think, take these kinds of things for granted,” she said. “I guess it might not be important to every adoptee out there, but I know for the large amount of adoptees that I’ve connected with, names are kind of a big deal. It’s sort of like a personal reclamation.”

Daryn Watson, a 53-year-old Canadian-born adoptee, grew up knowing his first name was Lyle but didn’t know his middle or last name. In Canada, he said, it was relatively easy for him to get access to his adoption records, since in 1995, Alberta restored access to them for adoptees who were born between 1966 and 1985.

“When I first opened it, I just kept staring at it,” he said. “I knew it was a key to finding my birth mother, but it was just kind of in shock.”

Watson lived in Austin for 30 years and was active in the fight to unseal birth certificates for Texan adoptees during the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions.

“The blank slate mentality and thinking you can put one baby into a family that wants to have to grow their family through adoption – that’s not realistic,” he said. “We’re not blank slates, and we don’t always fit in like a glove. And even after reunion, many adoptees don’t feel they fit in with the adoptive or birth families.”

Using the information he got from his adoption records, he was able to find and reunite with his first mother in 1995. He says that a lot of reunions don’t work out because, with the culture of secrecy that still hangs over adoption, many people – whether it’s the adoptee or birth parent – haven’t come to terms with the injustices they have experienced through adoption.

Daryn Watson and his birth mother in December 1995, the day after they met in person.
Courtesy Daryn Watson
Daryn Watson and his birth mother in December 1995, the day after they met in person.

And since there’s not exactly a playbook for it, Watson decided to become a coach to help those in reunion. He says that it can be an incredibly healing experience for all parties involved, which is one reason why, despite the risks, adoptees still search.

Darlene Denton as a baby with her adoptive parents, Beatrice and Bob Deuel, on Christmas 1941.
Courtesy Darlene Denton
Darlene Denton as a baby with her adoptive parents, Beatrice and Bob Deuel, on Christmas 1941.

“There is not an intellectually satisfying answer. This is an emotional thing,” said Darlene Denton, a Fort Worth-born adoptee, adopted through the Edna Gladney home just before World War II. “And then if it’s emotional, then why are you emotionally disturbed? Because you had to be emotionally disturbed, otherwise you wouldn’t ask.”

She was able to reunite with her birth mother in 1979 after petitioning the courts and getting some help from a birth mother who belonged to the Concerned United Birthparents, a nonprofit that supports those affected by adoption to this day.

In 2005, Denton was part of an effort that was the first step forward in opening up records for adoptees. She joined the Texas Coalition for Adoption Resources and Education, which helped to get a bill passed that allows adoptees to get a copy of their original birth certificate if they know the names of their birth parents.

While this poses a catch-22 for most adult adoptees, it did make it possible for people adopted via kinship or step-parent adoptions to gain access. But most other adoptees would have to search for their parents first.

While not all adoptees want to search for their birth parents, the ones that do sometimes have to come to terms with the fact that by the time they find out who they are, it’s too late.

“Finding my family was great, but everything surrounding it has been the most devastating of my life because I discovered that my mother died before I found her,” said Kimberly Longsworth, a Fort Worth-born adoptee. “I did not find any living parents or grandparents. I have uncles and cousins and maybe two half-siblings.”

She was born in 1968 and, like Denton, was also a Gladney baby. She said she started looking when she became involved with the adoptee community online, which awakened her curiosity about where she came from. She had to jump through a lot of hoops to get her adoption records from Gladney, which wouldn’t have been possible at all if she hadn’t already been in reunion with her birth family.

“I wanted her hospital records, and I also wanted the application forms that my adoptive parents had submitted,” she said. “And I wanted the legal document that my mother signed relinquishing me. I wanted all of it, painful as it was. I wanted every last shred of everything they had on me, because it’s mine – my information about me.”

From left, Linda (Darlene's half sister), Juanita (Darlene's birth mother) and Darlene Denton in reunion in 1979.
Courtesy Darlene Denton
From left, Linda (Darlene's half sister), Juanita (Darlene's birth mother) and Darlene Denton in reunion in 1979.

‘What’s your family medical history?’

Another reason adoptees go looking is to get updated medical history that might affect them or their children. Historically, the only information that has been given – if it’s given at all – is done so at birth. That information isn’t always correct. And since people generally relinquish their children when they’re pretty young, they don’t have all of the information that will become more and more relevant as adoptees grow up.

Without medical history, many insurance companies won’t cover potentially life-saving tests or preventive measures.

“Every office in America that I know of, most of them have on the questionnaire, what’s your family medical history?” Watson said. “Adoptees have to put, ‘adopted. I don’t know’ if we don’t know. So just minimizing the importance of our medical history as well.”

Joellen Peters, an adopted person and a psychologist who works with people impacted by adoption in Austin, reunited with her family in 2000. Soon after, her birth father died of melanoma; based on that information, her doctors told her to get tested for skin cancer twice a year, which her insurance would now cover. Twenty years later, her dermatologist spotted a mole that didn’t look quite right.

“It was a freckle. And sure enough, it was a stage 0 melanoma, so she caught it right away,” Peters said. “I would never have thought that was a melanoma. Having this information basically saved my life.”

Joellen Peters has a scar on her forearm where she had melanoma removed, which wouldn't have been possible without learning family medical history after finding her birth father.
Renee Dominguez
Texas Standard
Joellen Peters has a scar on her forearm where she had melanoma removed, which wouldn't have been possible without learning family medical history after finding her birth father.

Peters is also the board president of Support Texas Adoptee Rights, a nonprofit that has been working to restore access to original birth certificates. She says that while a birth certificate can’t give you your medical history directly, it can give you the information you need to find those who do have it.

She’s been sharing her expertise and personal stories to help unseal records, because she understands how psychologically and physically beneficial it can be.

“I think that any information that adopted people can get about their family history is really important in them developing their sense of identity and psychology,” she said “Psychological theory has, I think, kind of forever focused on identity being important in a person’s development and psychological development and their sense of who they are.”

Peters, among many others – not just adoptees but adoptive parents, adoption agencies and birth parents – have been testifying in support of a bill to unseal original birth certificates for roughly a decade. Their testimonies are often met with empathy and sometimes even applause in House public hearings.

In this year’s legislative session, Shawna Hodgson, a Houston-born adoptee and the spokesperson for the Texas Adoptee Rights Coalition, ran over the 3-minute limit people are usually given to testify in support of or against a bill, and no one stopped her because they said they were listening so intently that they forgot.

“If Texas is to pride itself on being a pro-adoption state, it can start by treating those of us who live adoption from the cradle to the grave with dignity and most of all equality,” she said at a Public Health Committee hearing.

This year’s bill, House Bill 2006, and past ones like it have historically had bipartisan support. Hodgson says that’s because Texans care about heritage.

“I’m a sixth-generation Texan. I didn’t find that out until I found out where I came from, who my birth family was,” she said. “But a lot of these legislators, too, they take pride – I mean, it’s on their campaign pages: ‘I’m a sixth-generation Texan.’ ‘I’m a seventh-generation Texan.’”

House Bill 2006 easily passed through the House before stalling in the Senate. That’s been the pattern since 2015 – the only exception being in 2017, when Senate Bill 329 made it to the floor for a public hearing and more than 40 people showed up to speak in its favor.

Shawna Hodgson, with the Texas Adoptee Rights Coalition, speaks during a 2017 Senate hearing, in support of unsealing original birth certificates.
Shawna Hodgson, with the Texas Adoptee Rights Coalition, speaks during a 2017 Senate hearing, in support of unsealing original birth certificates.

‘We have one opponent in Texas’

So what – or who – has been blocking this bill all these years? If you talk to any adoptee rights advocate in Texas, they will tell you that it’s been one person this entire time.

“I’ll be so clear about this. We have one opponent in Texas, one opponent, and her name is Senator Donna Campbell,” Hodgson said.

Campbell, a Republican state senator who represents parts of Austin and San Antonio, said this topic feels very close to her because of her role as an adoptive mother. She has four adopted children: three whose mother had died and one who was adopted at birth through a closed adoption.

She said that her 17-year-old daughter has not expressed an interest in finding her birth parents – and that she would not encourage her to look because she promised the birth mother that she would keep her identity a secret.

“That can be a grenade dropped at a door,” Campbell said. “Every reunion, if you will, is not guaranteed happy.”

Campbell’s campaign against unsealing birth certificates for adult adoptees has left a bad taste in the mouths of those who have gone up against her, partially because they believe that she’s been using her adopted daughter to sway legislation.

“In 2015 Donna Campbell brought her adopted daughter, who was 7 at the time, onto the assembly floor, at least once,” Watson said. “To myself and others, it was kind of a veiled – or not-so-veiled – message, like, ‘this is my daughter. You need to protect privacy.’ And just kind of used her as a political prop, it looked like to us.”

Hodgson, among others, has seen a pattern: support for bills that would make it easier for couples looking to adopt, but not a lot of support for adoptees once they are adopted and then later grow up to become adults who realize what they have lost and are trying to get back.

“I mean, we’re always used as political footballs because I think the issue of adoptee equality has been a bipartisan failure across the board,” she said. “We’ve had supporters from both sides of the aisle, obviously. And, you know, in Texas we’ve had staunch supporters that are Republicans. But I think what happens is it’s advantageous for some of these legislators to be champions for adoption – not adoptee rights, but adoption.”

Campbell said she has heard from birth parents who have asked her to keep birth certificates sealed because they don’t want to be identified.

Eileen McQuade, who formed the Catholic mothers’ group to help get original birth certificates unsealed in Connecticut, sympathizes with those women who are still living in secrecy. Her group’s testimony to the Connecticut legislature stated:

“We heal when we speak up, which we have done for many years. Over the last five years, almost 2,000 of us have gone on public record by submitting personal and/or collective testimony in support of this bill. But ’the one woman who doesn’t want to be found’ dominates the airwaves. Ironically, many of us were once that woman, but we have come to discover that the guilt and shame piled on us was necessary to render us powerless so we would relinquish. Shedding the shame is part of the healing. We are here, and we have been talking to you for years, yet ’the one woman’ seems to be the only one at the mic.”

Birth mothers like McQuade say that when adoptees have access to their original birth certificates, there is less risk of their secret being unwittingly exposed in a more traumatic way, like through DNA testing.

The current process many adoptees have to take in order to gain access to their original birth certificates.
Chart courtesy of Adoptee Rights Law Center and Adoptees United
The current process many adoptees have to take in order to gain access to their original birth certificates.

That’s one reason birth mother Ann Bingham testified in support of unsealing birth certificates in Texas in 2017.

“Some argue that this bill violates birth mother privacy. Far from it: I did not have a voice, and I did not have a choice in my adoption,” she said. “Even those of us who have not lived in secrecy prefer private direct contact to the public exposure that is currently happening with DNA testing and social media. This bill protects our privacy by making our wishes clear and simultaneously gives adult adoptees access to essential medical and identity information.”

But Campbell says privacy of birth families isn’t her only concern. She also believes that without the option of secrecy, expectant parents might make another choice.

“I believe if the option of closed adoption is taken away, there may be more abortions,” she said. “The choice to have a closed adoption where the baby is given to parents who want to raise a child, that’s wonderful. Contrast couldn’t be greater between the two.”

It’s an argument that Hodgson is familiar with.

“On one hand, they’ll say, you know, abortion is wrong. They’re anti-choice. Let’s go adopt all these kids,” she said. “But when we turn up as adults, you know, they don’t know what to do with us.”

Studies actually show that for most who have placed children for adoption in recent years, abortion wasn’t part of the equation.

Footnote 46 from the leaked Dobbs opinion, before it was redacted.
Footnote 46 from the leaked Dobbs opinion, before it was redacted.

After the Dobbs Supreme Court opinion was leaked last year, adoptees expressed their outrage online that on footnote 46, banning abortion was being seen as a way to increase the supply chain of babies for parents on waiting lists hoping to adopt. Many adoptees on Twitter even started adding “domestic infant supply of…” then adding the year they were born as a way to clap back at this notion.

‘I made a promise to the birth mother of my daughter’

Campbell said that for those who are interested in reuniting, there are options beyond unsealing records, such as going through the state’s Vital Statistics Central Adoption Registryfor adoptees 18 or older.

This requires both the adoptee and the birth parents to register to be matched. And some say one reason that doesn’t happen is because many birth mothers were forced into closed adoptions or told not to look for their kids.

Katie Perkins, a licensed clinical social worker who works with adoptees and families involved in adoption in Dallas, testified against a bill Campbell co-sponsored that would put funding into that registry. Perkins said many adoptees want their birth certificates first – not necessarily a reunion – and that the registry, on top of being an old, clunky system, is often missing pertinent information that would yield a match.

“The system requires a printed PDF, a computer, a printer and a check. I’m the only person I know under 50 that still has checks,” she said. ” So many people cannot register, and they’re skipping the registry option altogether.

Ultimately, advocates for unsealing birth certificates say having access to them is a civil rights issue. And it can be costly – if not impossible – for adoptees to try and track them by paying for multiple services like Ancestry, 23andMe and TruthFinder.

Campbell has heard all of these arguments. But her concern is unsealing birth certificates in Texas would effectively end closed adoptions altogether, which would not only impact birth parents but also the amount of control an adoptive parent would have in how they raise their children.

“It’s a wonderful option to continue having closed adoptions,” she said. “I made a promise to the birth mother of my daughter that I would keep it a closed adoption. And my husband at the time, my daughter’s father, he did not want biological parents in the picture. So it was important for our side, as well as the birth mother’s side.”

Joellen Peters, with Support Texas Adoptee Rights, said in a statement that proposed legislation would not alter an adoptive parent’s right to raise their child in any way:

“Adoptive parents can determine the degree of openness and exchange of information between the adopted child and any biological relative – in essence, whether the adoption is ‘open’ or ’closed.’ If this legislation passed, the ability to make parental decisions would not change.

“No adoption agency now or in the past has made a contractual agreement about the future behavior of adopted adults. The State of Texas does not dictate the adopted adult’s relationship with their biological relatives, nor should it. The proposed legislation is solely focused on how adult Texans are treated in regards to accessing their vital records.”

But Campbell fears that opening up records would ultimately become a detriment for her own adopted daughter.

“The advocates who are saying, ‘oh, the records have to be open, have to be open’ – I don’t know that they care about how the birth mother felt at the time they made the decision. And I don’t know that they care about a child being rejected,” she said. “And as a mother, I do not want my child rejected and carry that for life – a memory – ‘I didn’t want you then, and I don’t want you now.’ And that may not be what’s said, but I’m telling you, all those reunions are not happy ones.”

This illustrates a pattern that many adoptees have echoed: They feel as though they have been infantilized, without regard for the fact that adopted children do grow up and as adults should have agency over discovering their birth history.

Republican state Rep. Cody Harris, the parent of an adopted daughter, co-sponsored the most recent bill to unseal records in Texas. While he similarly recognizes the potential landmines involved with his daughter searching for her origins, he has a different take on things from Campbell, which he expressed while testifying in support of unsealing records in 2021.

“Her story is one that will bring many questions and create new wounds, but it’s her story,” he said. “It’s not mine; it’s not my wife’s. Nobody but hers. And when the day comes that she’s ready to know, who are we to say no?”

Harris’ chief of staff, Jeff Carlson, believes that adoptee rights organizations have to be more open to compromise, in order for things to change.

“I think the line is pretty drawn in the sand on the negotiation of it, which is too bad because I think that my boss is kind of open to negotiation on this thing,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s more going to the offices that oppose and say, ‘what do you want? What do you need? What can we do?’ … there’s always fixes to bills.”

While adoptee rights organizations are often concerned a compromise would send them backwards in their efforts, Peters said that Support Texas Adoptee Rights would like to keep the conversation going and consider compromises that don’t create additional discriminations for adopted adults.

“Our goal is to come to a solution that will both address any concerns that anybody has as well as benefit the over 600,000 adult adoptees in Texas,” she said.

After 10 years of fighting for opening up adoption records in Texas, people are exhausted. But no one seems to be giving up or giving in. For Hodgson, the most important thing is to end secrecy in adoption altogether. When she met her older brother after reunion, she found out he had been told she’d died during birth – they even added a gravesite for her so he would have a place to mourn.

The fake gravesite for Shawna Hodgson, created by her birth parents.
Courtesy Shawna Hodgson
The fake gravesite for Shawna Hodgson, created by her birth parents.

“We went to the cemetery together on my birthday, actually,” she said. “I always tell the legislators, you don’t understand how ridiculous secrecy is until you’re standing over your own grave. I mean, basically they faked my death, and the state helped them cover it up.”

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Amanda Kari McHugh