Reclaiming Identity: Dr. Amy Ritterbusch on International Adoption & Abolition
Dr. Amy Ritterbusch was stolen from Colombia as a child and forced to live in the United States with her adoptive family. Foreign land, foreign people, foreign language.
But, her longing for where she came from and who she came from never died. She spent the rest of her life trying to find her way back home.
In this episode, we discuss international adoption and less violent alternatives to it. We talk about the complicitness of the state in imposing this violence and how guilt is weaponized to catalyze international adoption.
Dr. Amy Ritterbusch is an Assistant Professor of Social Welfare at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
“So instead of criminalizing mothers in need, how do we create support systems so that decisions are not imposed? Rather folks can, can sort of make decisions in, in situations of care and not in situations of repression or violence.”
What I shared
(00:38) Stolen from Colombia as a child
(03:52) Healing through work
(06:25) Meeting her biological mom (under supervision of the state)
(13:34) State violence and adoption
(19:38) Always an outsider, belonging nowhere OR Forced presence
(24:22) Building systems that repair harm
(28:17) Alternatives to international adoption
(33:24) Finding and mourning where you came from
(36:51) Connect with Dr. Amy
Connect with Dr. Amy: Amy Ritterbusch | Latino Policy & Politics Institute (ucla.edu)
Hello everyone, welcome back for another episode of AdoptEase Crossing Lines. We're here today with Dr. Amy Ritterbush and we're going to be learning more about her. So just to tell you a little bit more about who she is. So she's an assistant professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Her work illuminates both the theory and practice of participatory action research. invoking the Latin American origins of this mode of inquiry and focuses on multiple forms of state violence perpetuated against what she and activist co-authors refer to as street connected communities, including children and youth who depend on the streets for survival in the absence of other caring structures. Amy, thank you so much for joining us today. We're really excited to have you here. If you don't mind, can you just tell us a little bit about your adoption origin story as much as you're comfortable sharing?
Absolutely. Thank you so much for inviting me to this space. It's really an honor and I just am so excited to enter into dialogue with both of you and just the broader community. So I was adopted internationally from Colombia and transracially. So I was I consider myself. as taken from Colombia or stolen from Colombia at a very young age. So I was about a month old. And my adoptive parents traveled to Colombia. I believe that at that point, so this is in the early 80s, it was easier for folks to adopt internationally, or there was something, you know. attractive about it, whether that's sort of financially or just in terms of the systems that they were navigating at this point. So my adoptive parents journeyed to Columbia and came back with me to Connecticut. So I grew up on the East Coast in a very, very white... sort of white supremacist, you know, United States context, where I felt, you know, this context for me, I guess, you know, growing up in that context, there were all forms of violence that I think y'all have discussed and really engaged with in this podcast. but just experiencing all the forms of loss of my identity growing up in this town. And so basically my story is about getting back to Columbia, right? Like how can I get back to Columbia? That was my whole life, you know? Dreaming about Columbia as a little girl, dreaming about my mother's face, you know? What would she, what does she look like? What does her hair look like? Dreaming of the land that I lost, dreaming of the language or languages that I lost. And so, just having sort of figuring out different ways to build back toward Columbia, which took me a very, very long time. But I, so I learned. I insisted on learning Spanish in schools, right, which is never perfect. You know, it's basically learning Spanish like as a gringa, right, with a gringa accent. And I first returned to Colombia. I went on a trip sort of for my high school graduation with my adoptive mother. I visited the adoption agency, which was a very surreal sort of also very like, violent, disassociative space. I don't really remember a lot from that trip besides just being really overwhelmed by the mountains. Like, oh, these, you know, as I flew into Bogota, which is the city where I was born, I just remember like feeling the mountains, you know, as the plane landed. But yeah, I don't remember a lot about sort of the human connections, because I think that I was just very numb. And then I returned alone as a student, and so I did sort of a research fellowship position as an undergraduate student that got me connected to doing research in Colombia as an undergrad. And then I sort of built my academic career. around like, I must get back to Columbia, applying to every fellowship possible, you know, returning and making connections with folks, you know. And so I guess a lot of my life and then, you know, my educational trajectory was about like, how can I get back to my people? How can So that's kind of where I'm at. You know, I did that for, so I'm a university professor, as I know Dr. Noel is as well. And I think that that, I think many adoptees perhaps embrace educational pathways also as ways to learn and to repair and whether it's conscious or not because I really, this is the first time that I've spoken publicly about my adoption. But I do, you know, my whole academic career has been about finding my people and finding my mother and kind of building relationships to do that. So.
Thank you so much, Dr. Amy. It's so amazing to hear the sound of your people in your voice. Can you talk to us a little bit about what it was like meeting biological relatives? Who have you connected with? And what has it been like to be immersed in your people and your culture?
Yes, it took me a very long time. And so I arrived to Columbia in 2008 as a doctoral student and then just like threw myself into activism. Like, you know, I'm fighting with the people and you know, always kind of, you know, working with folks and looking around and thinking like. that could be my mother or that could be my brother or, you know, and fighting each day. Like it was, it was the end of my life, you know, for those people. And that's kind of like how my career unfolded. And it took me, I just found my biological family in 2020. And so it took me all of those years. I lived in Colombia for 10 years, actually, finishing my PhD. And then I. worked as a university professor in Colombia at a research university for seven years, still couldn't find my family. And having the connections and the language and even becoming like a public intellectual figure in Colombia still couldn't find them. Traveling and living many worlds of heartbreak trying to do that, right? So it took me a very long time. In 2020, I met my biological mother. I met, I've met different family members, brothers, cousins, you know, and I have to say that, you know, after having built up this imagination of who my family would be for so long, and I think so many of us probably experienced this in reunion, you know. For me, there's been a lot of heartbreak and new experiences of loss, but also discoveries that are beautiful. But it's complex and it's pretty recent. I think it'll be three years in November. And so it was right in pandemic. the world was exploding kind of. And so it's been, it's still very much a journey for me. I did a lot of traveling, trying to find my biological mother when I, and had sort of many failed attempts, right? Like... taking the few documents that I had and going to the town that I thought she was from. And like, this is a rural area where the homes are, or they're very far apart. And so I was just like trying to find people and going home by home and just feeling heartbreak in each time, like when I couldn't find them. And I, That's kind of what the journey was like, just lots of, a lot of sort of moments of despair, moments of thinking, you know, oh, this is never gonna happen for me, you know. And when it did, I kind of got to a point where I was like, oh. I didn't imagine that this was gonna happen. Now I'm not really sure what to do with my life because my entire life has been about this moment, right? Like my entire life has been about this finding this woman and understanding who she is and what she cares about and the history of her family and our ancestors. And... And then I got there and it's still a lot. I think I'm still kind of trying to put the pieces together. And there's a lot of pain there. We were connected by the local child welfare agency here, which is the legal process that you have to follow, which I have to say was extremely violent and they're just pretty useless, to be honest. Like the social worker, they put us on a WhatsApp call. and this social worker was just there looming. And I was kinda like, this is the moment I've imagined for my entire life and this person is just peering in on us, right? On this moment when both, my biological mother was like, is that you? And both of us kind of just looking, at one another's face and trying to process that. And then this strange presence of the state there, just sitting there with us. When they hadn't really been invited, they just had to be there, right? So just lots of moments like that. I searched for years and basically had to found them through my own archival research and that of a researcher, an anthropologist who's a very close friend, who I ended up just giving all the archives I had accumulated throughout my life and being like, help me because I can't do this anymore. I'm trying to find them. And she actually found my biological mother. But then the state had to... like sort of formalize the connection. Like I wasn't allowed to just reach out to her. It's a, so anyways, we gave them all of the information saying like, this is the person, can this happen? So, yeah, it's been a quite a complex process. And then I kind of have multiple families here, right? Cause I grew up, you know, in my sort of as an academic in Colombia and built this activist family who I love deeply and still fight with, who, you know, and then, but, and now I have this other family that I'm trying to make sense of, so it's, now I feel like I'm navigating all of these worlds and not doing any of it very well, probably.
Amy, I felt like so much of your pain as you were telling your story and just so much of the violence that the state continues to perpetuate. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more about the other ways that the state perpetuates violence. And also maybe if you can speak a little bit about some of the nuances of international adoption that I think a lot of people just aren't aware of.
Yes, yes. Oh, so many, I think many of us experience the erasure of our identities as like a first moment of state violence in our lives. When we first come to the world, they're changing our names, erasing our identities. And, you know, I was given a German name published with for an entire academic career. And I'm like, I really, you know, I don't know how to feel about this, you know? So I think that with birth certificates and all of the legal documentation and just, I remember I requested to my adoptive parents to see any documentation that they had. And I think that I was 15 when they actually let me see. the documents that they had. And at that point I had learned enough Spanish to understand the abandonment statement that my biological mother wrote, which just, those words broke my heart. And I still am working through a lot of these things, but just like, you can see how. these statements, or can just imagine sort of the interactions of social workers and other child protective service officials and whoever else is in that space, how they're sort of navigating and manipulating and pressuring. You know, as the paperwork is done, You know, so I think that us, or at least for me, reading the documents in itself just felt like, you know, these are like the archives of, you know, all of the trauma and violence and, you know, being forcibly moved or displaced from one country to another and like seeing a passport picture as an infant and all of these, being naturalized as a US citizen, right? There's a video of me in the naturalization ceremony. I think I was three or something along those lines because it takes a while, right? And I'm like, it's a news. it was captured on the news, right? The news of like these international adoptees that had been naturalized and oh, it's a celebration, right? Of us losing our humanity or having it stolen from us. And I was like running around and waving an American flag, right? Like at three, you know. So just so much. imagery of an imposition of a culture of language of, you know. I think there's so much that's lost in language, especially. It took me a long time to be able to communicate in Spanish and be able to fight for myself. Because it's one thing to kind of communicate and it's another thing to navigate the legal system and fight with state officials and explain. I mean, I'm still experiencing this. after so many years just like renewing passports and doing all these things where I have to like relive and retell my life story to the state to justify who I am and to be allowed to move across borders. Yeah, so I think so many forms. of state violence, the violence of the border, the violence of forced movement, the violence of all the legal paperwork, the violence of the erasures that we experience of our identities, names, languages, histories, and the denial of, you know, I felt there's a system, and I'm sure a lot of international adoptees similar stories. And I think actually just this goes for adoption in general that some agencies, you know, want to collect photos of folks as they grow. And so my adoptive mother would write letters and send photographs. And then when I went to this agency, as I was graduating high school, and like saw my photos on the wall of this adoption agency, and I'm like, you don't have the right to have my face on your wall, right? I don't think I could even articulate that rage at that point. But, you know, just how these agencies feel like they own us, right? And how they've taken part in, you know, sending our lives, our livelihoods. to other places, across borders, you know, and then just like, then we just become pen pals, right? And that's supposed to be OK. You know, so I also see that as state violence, I mean, so many layers of it.
So you keep using the word allow, and that just resonates with me, right? The ways in which the kept people who are not adopted do not have this term, this allowing of self and allowing of belonging that we have to face. And I'm just wondering before we get to the... what you're really focused on. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about belonging and allowing in two different countries, what that has been like for you.
Oh, yeah. In Spanish, I would say, ni aquí ni allá. Like, I feel like I belong neither here nor there. Right? I've spent years building a connection to Colombia, and I think I've been. fortunate just through my insistence and probably just stubborn, you know, I'm going to learn this, I'm going to learn Spanish, I'm going to fight with these people for our rights. But there was always a sense of feeling, you know, an outsider, even in Colombia, right, because of my accent. taught for so many years in Spanish. I mean, that for me was like a huge insecurity as I was doing research and connecting with folks in the streets because that's kind of the… I was told early on in my search process that my mother was a street vendor. There are actual different types of truth around that, but I just became obsessed with this idea of the streets. I have to get there. That's… Like, I'm going to find my family in the streets. That's kind of where my brain went. And yeah, I think that that, you know, there were moments in our collective fight and like doing the activist work that I felt a sense of joy just connecting and fighting with people, but I never really felt like I belonged. as a university professor here, I think, in Colombia, I think that my German last name actually gave me legitimacy and it sounds terrible, but there's so many different forms of colonialism that operate in the academy that it's like, oh, you know. So even, just so many layers of the ways that my identity was. legitimized or not by different people. And I think in the U.S., I mean, I've always felt like this is a space of violence for me every time I come back to the U.S., even though I grew up here. I mean, this is, you know, where I've spent the majority of my life. And it's now where I have a job. that I really enjoy. But just the going back and forth, each time that I'm crossing the border feels like reliving that trauma and the loss. Every time I'm taking off from Colombia, I just feel something in my gut as the plane, you know, you feel it as the plane's taking off anyways, right, but I feel it in this, just like something's being taken from me. Right, and I guess that's how I've always felt here. I felt like that in the United States, like it's a forced presence. My presence here is forced. I didn't take part in that decision making. And even in Colombia and having found my biological family, I mean, I've heard so many. you know, beautiful reflections here in this space, in the podcast about just, you know, how moments of reunion are also painful. And there are like so many thoughts that go through our heads as we're sitting in spaces or in family, in these new family spaces or. trying to feel, do I belong? Am I part of this? Am I not? The sadness, the rage. So I think that might just follow us everywhere, maybe.
Amy, I'm wondering, I know that you are an abolitionist, and that's one of the reasons that we connected, but I'm curious if you can talk more about that, like what informed your belief to even become an abolitionist, and like, what does that mean to you?
Mm-hmm. Oh, yes, thank you. So the work in street spaces in Colombia, and then our collective, our activist collective was invited to then do this work in Uganda as well, in Kampala, Uganda. So I also have work, working in the streets against police violence, right? That has been sort of part of my academic trajectory is just. documenting harrowing forms of police violence exerted against communities in the streets. So street vendors, sex workers, unhoused communities, drug users, right? Folks who depend on the streets either for, you know, just basic livelihood or for shelter, for connection, for finding family. And so my... sort of just after years of documenting these, this, the relationship, sort of the ways that poverty is criminalized, right? And I believe that also, you know, so poverty is criminalized in the streets. Poor mothers in the global South are also criminalized and have their children taken from them. Right? The same thing in any country context. Poverty is criminalized. And so I think that one of the ideas or one of sort of the. Central ideas of abolition is to not only eliminate these logics of prisons and policing. Right. And so the child welfare system. and child protective services and just sort of the family policing in general, right, like taking children from poor families. That is the criminalization of poverty in any country context. So the idea is not only to eliminate these violent systems that are, you know, criminalizing so many folks around the world, but the idea is to build alternatives. Right? So how can we build alternatives of care, sustainable structures of care that actually uplift folks and uplift mothers who are struggling instead of criminalizing them, throwing them in jail, taking away their kids. So I think for me, the notion of policing, just, it became a central part of my work, but it's also, you know, my entire life has been sort of subjected to policing, to family policing since my first days of existence, right? So working against that system, I think is just in my blood probably. You know, and so it's about in any context, how do we build systems that can repair harm, the harm that has been done by these systems in multiple contexts.
Dr. Amy, when you think about your own situation in particular, but broadly for international adoptees and maybe more specifically for children in international spaces who are in need of homes. What is the solution? What would have been the solution? a better route for you? What would have made your life easier or more whole, more authentic, other than an international adoption?
That's a great question. I think that these are the alternatives. That's the work that we have that's sort of waiting to unfold, right, is to build alternatives that are sustainable and viable, right? Like if we're not, if the system of international adoption is to be abolished, then how do we support children and families who are struggling? Right? I think that, you know, one of the things for me that, so the logic of international adoption, of any adoption in fact, but the logic of international adoption follows this logic of extractivism, right? this logic that follows, this extractive logic of that sort of, and colonial legacy of taking things, taking people, feeling like we, like folks from certain cultures and racialized identities are entitled to other folks' things and children and, you know. So what does the alternative look like? I think supporting families. I mean, not being moved across the world and completely, you know, having to kind of put the pieces together to learn what I could learn in like a North American-centric, you know, magazine about Colombia. Colombians are completely essentialized, right? Like I didn't have access to quality information about my country and my people until like, you know, past several decades and went through education and tried to get information and discern things for myself, you know. So I think having access to information is so important. I think having structures of care that are outside of systems of family policing, right? So instead of criminalizing mothers in need, how do we create support systems so that decisions are not imposed, but rather folks can sort of make decisions and in situations of care and not in situations of repression or violence or, you know, sort of how guilt is weaponized, right? In different, in these processes, so. I'm not sure that I answered your question, Dr. Noel. What would I have needed? Oh, I think we would have all needed so many different things. But definitely, I think the thing that for me, it just is, you know, and I've kind of built my entire life again, like countering the extractivism that I experienced, you know. So. if I had not been extracted from Colombia or stolen, I think that that, you know, I would have remained in a violent context that was, you know, in the 80s in Colombia, the reality of sort of... for many folks would have been very, very challenging. And so I'm not suggesting that it's easy to remain, but I think that the state should exist to create structures of care, not structures of criminalization and harm and separation and extraction. And so how can we create logics like that? But I also think it's like generations of work. I think it's, you know, I mean, it's gonna take time.
Thank you for that. So I heard a lot about structures of care and family policing and things like that. I hope that folks are listening to that because I don't think a lot of people recognize the child welfare system as family policing and as violent and just as criminalizing poor people. I talked about this in an earlier episode that America just really hates poor people. Like we don't feel like they deserve, you know, basic rights or the rights to raise their children. And so instead of supporting them through that, we take their children away from them, which is causing, like you said, like it's causing intergenerational trauma. I know for me, like my mom was adopted too. And so it was like, oh, like we're just gonna continue this cycle instead of like doing something about it to fix it. So thank you so much for touching on that. Amy, I'm wondering what do you want to leave our listeners with as it as it pertains to adoption, international adoption, abolition? What thoughts do you want to leave our listeners with?
I think that, you know, don't give up. It took me a very long time to sort of build a connection to Columbia and there are so many different ways to build connection with the land and with the people that you've lost. And it may not be through family because sometimes that might not be possible, but there are other ways to sort of build a connection to the land and to the people that you have lost or that you mourn. And so I think just, you know, searching for that hope in different places. For me, I've found that places can be really healing in Colombia for me. maybe even more so than connections with people for right now, because it can be really painful and overwhelming, but even just like sitting in a place where you know that your ancestors once sat or sitting and absorbing a sound or embracing a story or listening. So I think that even that the connection with the land might be a way. I think it's about taking tiny steps instead of, I kind of feel like I've been running and running and running my entire life in this fight, running forward, I have to find it, I have to do it. And I never... took time to like sit and absorb and listen and I think that healing and repair requires that. And I have, I'm just attempting to begin that on that path but so I think that might be, that might be one thing that I'd like to leave with folks. Multiple ways for connection and building and repairing.
Thank you so much, Dr. Amy. Can you tell us, tell our listeners how they might connect with you, how they might have the opportunity to see more of your work? Where do we find you?
I, you know, and I'd love to connect in any way. I guess, you know, I'm not as much on social media because I'm on Twitter, which is how I found y'all. I'm just so grateful, grateful that Twitter exists only because of this community. So I'm on Twitter and then on my page at UCLA, links to my work. And I do write in ways that are radically vulnerable. And I kind of speak, and that has often not been embraced by universities and colleagues, but that's just who I am. So yeah, they're different. On my page at UCLA, there are different connections to my work. But I really like finding y'all has really inspired me to, I'd like to do more of this work and right from like with these new, with a new sense of hope about countering extractivism and surviving international adoption. So I thank all of you and. both of you for continuing to open this space, because for me it really is a space of healing and a space of hope. So I just, I thank you both.
Thank you so much. We really appreciate hearing from you and bringing us to this place where we get a chance to think more about adoption internationally. The added layers of loss and grief that you talk about are so incredibly resonant. And you just brought it to us beautifully, so thank you.
Thank you so much.
Yeah, thank you so much for joining us, Amy, and just for sharing your story and sharing so much of what you're passionate about. I hope that our listeners walk away and take the time to listen and look into some of the things that you spoke about. So thank you again.