Colombian Adoptee Katie Betancourt on Searching for Birth Family and Self

Emma, IAMAdoptee Contributor: Do you go by Katie Cicneros?
Katie: My legal name is that, but in terms of Facebook, I have it as Betancourt because that’s my birth name. And I just do it in case somebody’s searching, but my legal name is Cicneros.

Emma: Is that how you would like us to identify you?
Katie: You can use the Betancourt last name, because if I’m using that for other adoptee stuff, it’s probably best to keep it the same.

Emma: How do you identify yourself?
Katie: Usually if I was meeting somebody that I don’t know, I would say that I’m Colombian. I’m adopted. And I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That’s kind of an overview.

Emma: Where were you adopted from and when? And if you want to share any aspects of your life before adoption or anything having to do with that part of your life.
Katie: I was adopted from Colombia in South America, from Bogota which is the capital. The little that I know is all from documents from the hospital and from the orphanage that I was placed in. 

What my documents say – and I make that clear because of my 27 years of searching – I have come to learn of so much corruption (in Colombia), name and date changes and false documents – I tend to say now, “my documents say,” because I don’t know if it’s true. 

But my documents say that I was born in a hospital in Bogota, which I later learned was a women’s hospital that served mostly the poor population. In 1978, my birthday is March 9, 1978. So I was born in this hospital. The documents say that my mom filled out her portion of the documents about herself, had me, and left. The documents say that the social worker at the time, who was assigned to my case, tried to find her and couldn’t. I spent three months in the hospital, and then I was transferred to FANA (it’s a long word in Spanish but the abbreviation is FANA) which is a pretty big, well known orphanage in Bogota. And from what I’ve learned over the years, was one of the most corrupt in terms of coercion of mothers, falsified documents, illegal adoptions, stuff like that. 

In 1978, there were three major orphanages and then maybe smaller ones, but FANA was one of the big ones. I spent three months in the hospital and about three months in the orphanage, and I was adopted in late August 1978. Supposedly, I was six months old. In a picture I have of the day of my adoption, to me I look more like four months old, so I don’t know if that means anything, like my birth date was altered or I was just small. 

My documents also say I was premature but so do a lot of ours. So we really don’t know if that’s true or if that’s just something they say. My adoptive mom told me that when she came to pick me up there, because both of my adoptive parents went down to Colombia to get me at the orphanage, that she noticed a few things that she thought were not right. She said one, I didn’t have the sucking reflex that most babies do. She noticed that they were feeding us with bottles with really big openings, so the babies didn’t learn how to suck well. She also said I had bed sores on the back of my head that were pretty noticeable. So either they neglected on purpose or neglected because they were understaffed. But I’m pretty sure that we were not picked up and cared for as we should have been. And I can imagine at the hospital it was probably even less because that’s not meant to be an orphanage. People aren’t there to do that. That’s pretty much all I know about the before adoption aspect.

Emma: You said that you grew up in Ann Arbor, MI. Do you still live there?
Katie: I still live here now. I spent a few years in the Bay Area as a teen, but basically I’ve been in Ann Arbor my whole life.

Emma: What is your profession, and is it related to your activism on behalf of adoptees?
Katie: My job, I work, as a psychiatric care worker. I guess old fashioned terms would be tech or nurse’s aid, but I work on the child adolescent psych unit at a hospital here in Ann Arbor. Been here for about 13 years or so. One of the reasons why I like it is that we do have a lot of adoptee patients. Out of 14 beds, most of the time we have at least one to four. And they’re teens, so I feel like I can help them in terms of just informing them of things, giving them books, telling my experience, validating what they’re feeling, and for most of them, it’s the first time they’ve been validated. Just to have somebody explain what they’re going through and tell them “you’re not bad, you’re not wrong. What you’re feeling or doing or acting like is totally normal for what you’ve been through.” I think if somebody had told me that during my teen years, because I was very rebellious and self-destructive, it would’ve helped me immensely. I like being able to do that. We get a broad range of patients with various issues.

Emma: Have you been doing that for a while? Has this been your profession since you entered the job market, or is it something that you found later on?
Katie: I kind of found it by accident through a friend of my daughter when she was in kindergarten. We just ended up talking one day, and I told her I was adopted, and she was like, “Hey, I’m an adoptive mom. All my kids are adopted.” She has five kids. I was kind of shocked because she’s White, her husband is Black, and her kids are various shades of brown, so I just figured those were their kids. It was kind of an interesting moment because at that point in my life, I was very anti-adoption, like no way in hell would I do it or support it. It would never be good, whatever. After meeting this person, she really showed me that if done well, like on the side of the adoptive parent, there’s still going to be the trauma and all that for the child, but it can be better than what I had. All of her children were in open adoptions. She’s a psych nurse herself. And she was totally fine with all her kids talking about it, feeling it, whatever. I thought that was really good. I had never seen that before. She kind of softened me a little bit on my total stance against adoption. But still not all for it, but I know that in the right person’s hands, the child can do better than I did.

Emma: What motivated you to expand beyond your own search for birth family to helping others?
Katie: I’m 42 right now. I started searching when I was probably 17, actively searching maybe like 20. I say “actively searching” when I was searching things on the computer, trying to do this or that. Before I was asking for my documents, trying to write letters to people I knew in Colombia, stuff like that. 

I remember wanting to find my mom since I was five years old, so it’s been always there. I found a group on Yahoo! groups called “Colombian Adoptee Search and Support,” and I was shocked that there were so many of us; just the typical kind of camaraderie you get when adoptees talk to each other and you find out you’re all kind of dealing with the same thing. Through that group, I first started learning about the investigators in Colombia, stuff like that, documents and all that stuff. 

Over the years, I have used four investigators, been on tv, been on the radio, been in newspapers, publicized my case all over Facebook. I’ve done four individual maternity DNA tests with four different women. All came out negative, but they all had the same name that was on my documents, and they all had a baby stolen from them. All were negative. 

I’ve done 23andMe,, Families Through DNA, nothing. 

Over the years of my trying and doing and learning, I started just giving advice in the different groups I was in. People started coming to me with questions, so that’s kind of how it started. 

In the last seven years, I’ve been doing it a lot more actively. I’m not an investigator, but more like the headway person or the middle person. I help people find an investigator that will fit them because some of us don’t speak Spanish, some of us do, some of us are from different countries in Europe and don’t speak English. I try to match the people with whom I think would work best with them, based on location and city and language. I counsel people on how to interview the investigators, how to choose one, what prices are in the good range, what prices are they taking advantage of you one, what documents you need. I will go over people’s documents and read them for them and help them point out key information that people sometimes don’t even know that they have because the documents are in Spanish. I also help make publications for people in Spanish to post. I have a group that has like 6000 people in it now, mostly in Colombia, all searching. 

I try to tell people that making posts in English and posting them on various sites isn’t going to help you. You need to reach the people there, and they don’t speak English. So just kind of directing people in that way. Also helping people through the emotional sides of searching, helping people prepare, recommending books, talking with them, recommending resources, explaining that searching is an emotional rollercoaster helps. Just kind of taking off that veil of [thinking] everything’s gonna be great after I find my mom. My current partner is actually an investigator in Colombia. While he’s doing the search part, I will help with the emotional part. 

The reason why I do it, I don’t know. I just figure if I can’t have that in my life for whatever reasons, even though it hurts that I can’t have it and other people can, it still makes me feel good to reunite families because I know the pain. If I can help ease that in some way for the mom and the adoptee, that’s why I do it.

Emma: Is there anything that adoptees from Colombia, specifically, need to consider, that’s unique to their adoption narrative?
Katie: I don’t know if I would say unique to Colombia, because I think everybody who’s adopted internationally has to deal with the issues of cultural differences and cultural norms. From seeing so many reunions, [cultural differences] is one of the number one things that gets in the way and starts causing, not a bad reunion, but a little tension. I know Americans, we’re very talkative, we go to therapy, we read self-help books, we’re all about talking about our feelings, and the experience that I’ve had and that I’ve seen is that Colombians don’t do that. It’s very much like, be thankful to God that you’re reunited and let’s look forward and be positive. They don’t want to talk about the past, and it’s not cultural to sit down and have those long drawn out really needed personal conversations that bring up trauma. They don’t like bringing trauma up. But that’s kind of what adoptees need to do. That’s where I see the cultural differences coming into play. If you are able to just take things as they are, and let time pass and start to build a relationship, you can talk about those things. But it takes a long time. It’s gonna be times where the adoptees just don’t feel heard. In Colombian culture, they want you to come to their house, and you’re gonna meet your whole family and that’s gonna be like 35 people or more. You’re not just meeting your mom. You’re meeting your mom, your cousins, your aunts, your grandma, all these people. Where in America, we view family as mom, dad, sister, brother, grandma, grandpa. But it’s a lot more [in Colombia], and sometimes I think people are overwhelmed by that. They are expecting you to come in the home, be in the home, and a lot of us say I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that yet. I might want to be in a hotel so I can get space and decompress. And there’s like, boom, cultural difference right there.

Emma: What conversation do you think the inter-country adoption community should have more?
Katie: At least in the Colombian [adoptee] community, we hit a lot of stuff. I don’t know if it’s different in others. Maybe just the cultural differences is a big topic to start talking about as more people are starting to reunite, which is sort of a new thing in the last eight years. Just really talking about people’s experience with reunion and how that is a journey that could last 10-15 years or more, and all the different experiences people have I think is important.  I think we all still just hold on to that idea of, “I’m gonna go there, I’m gonna find my mom, and everything is gonna fall into place.” I guess post-reunion realities and stuff like that.

Emma: What would you say is the best part of being an adoptee, and what is the hardest part?
Katie: I don’t know if there’s a best part [laughs]. That’s hard.

I think for me, I would have to say something positive would be just having the unique experience of being able to help others, like what I do for my job. If I was never adopted, it just wouldn’t be something I’d probably be interested in or know about. Just being able to be an asset to young adoptees is positive for me. 

The worst part has been two things: the emptiness that I’ve felt my whole life, that I’m missing something, that’s just always present and hard. And the other thing is just losing out on my language, my culture, and everything like that because you lose so much. It’s not just family, it’s a lot more. I think that part is hard.

Emma: Have you found any ways to incorporate parts of your heritage or culture into your daily life?
Katie: Definitely. I think I was pretty lucky in some ways, even though I did not have a good relationship with my adoptive family, my mom always kind of pushed me to make connections. My dad really didn’t care. But my mom introduced me to a friend of hers who is married to a Colombian guy when I was 11 or 12, and their family kind of took me under their wing. I learned a lot from them. I have three or four families (in my life) who were Hispanic. One was from Venezuela, one was Colombian, one was Puerto Rican, and another from El Salvador. Through those four families, I think I sucked up as much Latin culture as I could. I think I do feel a little bit more comfortable going back to Colombia than other people because cultural things I can latch on to a little bit. If there’s an old song and everybody’s like, “I love that song!” And I can be like, “Yeah I do too!” because I listened to it when it came out in the 80’s. Or just cultural norms seem normal to me now, just going into a house, giving everybody a hug, kissing everybody. The large number of people, all that, is pretty normal to me. I’m very proud of it, to be Colombian. With my kids, I’ve instilled that in them too. I’ve got flags all over my house and I listen to Spanish music. I’ve definitely incorporated it.

Emma: Do you speak Spanish?
Katie: I do. I wouldn’t say I’m fluent, but I definitely can speak with people. I’ve spoken to probably over 100 birth moms in Colombia who are searching, so it’s really forced me to learn.

Emma: And how did you learn it and how do you maintain your language skills?
Katie: I took Spanish in high school probably like a lot of people. It didn’t really stick that much. I had a Spanish teacher who was Colombian in fifth grade who taught the basics. What’s really helped me over the past six years is talking on WhatsApp or the computer with people. For me it’s helped to be able to write, because when I first started hearing Spanish, it all sounded like one word. I couldn’t even pick out separate words. But when I’m writing, I can read it at my own speed. If I don’t understand a word, I immediately just go look up that word. It kind of sunk in more rather than being in a class, just memorizing lists of words. So that really helped, and then just speaking it, being forced to speak it. Luckily, I’ve always had people in my life who speak Spanish so I have the opportunity to practice. My current partner does not speak English very well, so [laughs] I practice every day with him. But I still feel that adoptee thing when I go back to Colombia. People automatically [think], why is she talking like that? She’s not from here. It’s a double-edged sword still. I can do it, but I can still be spotted very quickly that I didn’t grow up with it.

Emma: If you could have a conversation with your birth parents, what would you tell them?
Katie: First off, I would tell them that I love them, that I’m not angry with them, that their reasons [for relinquishing me] don’t matter to me at this point, that I just want a relationship now. I would tell them that I’ve always needed them and wanted them, and more my mom than my dad, but just I really needed that. I never have had a family experience, and I’ve always wanted that. That’s been one of my biggest things that I’ve wanted. I’m ready to start that, and I want to become part of the family, and I want to be involved.

Emma: You previously said that you didn’t have the relationship that you wanted with your adoptive family. Is there something that you would want to say to your adoptive parents about anything related to adoption?
Katie: Not really because I have kind of already told them all of that. I think I separate very much that part of my life. I know that some people have a great relationship with their adoptive parents and they bring them down to Colombia for reunions and want to meet family together. That’s great, I just don’t have that, so for me, it’s easier emotionally to keep them both very separate. I feel like I could tell them and they would listen. I don’t know that they would say much, but they would definitely listen.

Emma: Is there a book, or film, or movie that you might recommend to fellow adoptees and why?
Katie: I really like “The Primal Wound.” That’s the first book I read that showed me that I wasn’t crazy, and I wasn’t flawed. That’s the first book I recommend. I feel like it really explains why we think the way we do, our attachment issues, why things trigger us. I think that just helped me a lot because for so many yearsI just felt like such shit inside, like I was so worthless and crazy and all this stuff. And then when I read that it was like, oh, this makes sense! I think it relieved a lot of that for me. There’s another good one that helped me. It’s a little bit more psych-based, so I don’t know if a lot of adoptees would be interested, but it’s by Bruce Perry, and it’s called “The Boy Who Was Raised By A Dog.” And he’s a child psychiatrist and he’s just talking about all of these cases he’s had and how they’re all connected to trauma, and how they can all basically stem back to how you can heal them by giving them what they didn’t have. He talks about babies in orphanages. He talks about kids who are neglected, and just how you can help them heal, how it actually affects the chemistry of your brain and how to start changing those things. Also normalizing how I feel and how I am.

Emma: How has your identity as an adoptee changed, evolved, or developed over the years?
Katie: I think it has changed a lot. From a very young age, since I was conscious, [I remember] wanting to know my mom, see her, talk to her, ask her why she wasn’t with me, stuff like that. But when it came down to learning about Colombian things or talking about it with my adoptive mom, I didn’t want to do it. I wanted no part of it. I think that’s because at that point, you know when you’re a kid, you just don’t want to be different. I was raised in a place that was predominantly White, so I was teased for my appearance. I really didn’t want to know about that. When I was about 12, I started having an interest. In between my friend, who is Venezuelan, my Spanish teacher, and watching TV in Spanish, I just started delving into the culture, feeling really proud of it, and wanting that all the time, all day long. When I got older and started the whole searching thing, I think that’s when I became more aware of the pain I had. Reading books and all that stuff changed my opinion. I think my opinion was just very angry, like this is not fair, how could this happen to all of us. Why would the country support it, society support it? I started getting very angry about it for a while. 

I think now I’m struggling with coming to peace with it all because I’m 42 and I’ve been searching for 27 years, and I have done so much. My biggest fear has always been that I’m going to be too late, and she’s (birthmother) going to be dead. And so now as I’m getting older, I’m like, well she has to be at least 15 years older than me, if she had me young, so it’s like time is ticking. You can’t really deny that. 

I turned my anger into advocacy and helping people, so that’s helped with that. Now, how do I become at peace with never knowing? And is that even possible? I’m at a strange point where I don’t really know what I feel about it.

Emma: Is there anything else that you want to add?
Katie: One other aspect, in terms of stuff we need to be talking about, is just the racial identity stuff and cultural identity stuff is super important. Growing up as a Latina in a White area, White family, that’s your normal. You don’t see it really. Then when you go out in the world, you’re treated as a Latina, or as a Black person, or as an Asian. It’s like people see you and they don’t know your story, so they assume your story by the way you look. That maybe needs to be talked about a little more, especially now, with everything that’s going on in this country, it’s just very important. Also for adoptive parents, that’s something that’s huge for them to acknowledge. One of the things I say is that, “If you’re not comfortable with your child having another mom, another dad, another culture possibly, and wanting these things in their lives, then don’t do this. It’s not going to be helpful to the child and it’s not going to benefit your relationship with them in the end.” 

Emma: I’m glad you brought that up because I’ve been hearing from lot of adoptees that they’re having sort of a revelation that their parents are really racist or at least a recognition that they were raised in a colorblind way where they never discussed race.
Katie: I think it’s interesting, it goes kind of both ways. You can get treated that way by your parents, but I’ve had it in the reverse, where I’m hanging out with a bunch of Latino kids or Black kids who were economically more disadvantaged than my parents were. I bring them to my house and they’re meeting my White family and my big house and they look at my like, you’re not one of us. What am I then? I’m not this, I’m not that. So that kind of stuck in the middle feeling and getting labeled by both sides, that’s when we just have to find our own way.

Emma: Thank you for taking the time and energy and effort to speak on all of this. It’s not always easy, but I know people will appreciate your perspective.

Many thanks to Emma, adopted from China, contributor, interviewer and editor at IAMAdoptee.

To learn more about searching in Colombia, click here.