Season 2 / Episode 4
In Search of Belonging with Sana L. Cotten, Part TwoA woman’s 10-year journey to finding family and feeling like she belongs.
Pick up where part one left off with Sana L. Cotten on her journey to find answers about her family history. In this episode, Sana, who has never met her father, goes on a 10-year search to locate her paternal family and find belonging. She reflects on how her unfulfilled need for family connection after entering foster care has impacted her through adulthood. Matt Anderson shares thoughts about the importance of being mindful of the emotional well-being of youth in foster care, in addition to their physical safety, when placing them into care.
S2 E3: In Search of Belonging with Sana L. Cotten, Part One is a prelude to the conversation that continues here.
Sana was removed from the care of her mother because of child abuse and neglect. Throughout her years as a young child and through adoption, she yearned for a connection with her family, as well as an understanding of her family history. In part one, Sana outlines her journey in discovering who her mother was and her beginnings to finding healing through belonging. In part two, Sana describes her search for her father.
“In situations when we need to keep kids safe, we absolutely have a repsonsibility to do just that. And I think that’s what happened when Sana was a little girl,” says Matt. “While we [child welfare system practicitioners] were able to keep Sana physically safe and well cared for, I think we may have missed her needs for emotional safety and relational well-being. For Sana, this meant not only maintaining connections to her family and her culture, but also understanding that she needed to know she belonged.”
To learn her paternal history, Sana takes an Ancestry® DNA test which leads her to finding her birth certificate and her mother’s marriage certificate.
TV personality and specialist in finding long-lost family members, Troy Dunn of “The Locator” (2008-2010) and his team agree to help Sana follow up on the information from her mother’s marriage certificate.
Why do children in foster care want to know their family history? Hear from Sana on what fuels her drive after 5 years of hitting roadblocks in her journey to uncover her family history.
Sana applies to another TV show, “Relative Race” (2016-Present). The producers and their team take control of Sana’s Ancestry® account in search of clues to help Sana reconnect with her paternal family. After one year of little progress, Sana is left with a new family tree, which she discovers while on Facebook Live. As a result of posting online, a genealogist reaches out to Sana offering support.
ana gets reconnected with her uncle and gets an opportunity to ask the burning question, “Do you know who my dad is?”Sana is able to share this name with the genealogist that was able to finally help her get closer to her father.
After a 10–year journey of trying to find her father, Sana describes her internal experience before she contacts the family member the genealogist found in Sana’s family tree.
Hear from Sana on the importance of finding family for youth in care and adoptees.
Sana calls her family contact who she discovers is her father’s brother. He confirms that Sana’s father passed away in 1994 and that she has siblings in North Carolina.
“He said ‘when your genealogist called last night and he shared all that information, and he said your dad’s name, I knew then that you belong to us’,” says Sana. “When he said ‘you belong to us’ I just lost it. I just started bawling because that was the one thing unbeknownst to me that I? had really been searching for—to belong.”
On New Year’s Eve of 2020, Sana calls and meets her siblings, two older brothers, over the phone. Sana shares what she’s learned from family about her father.
Sana meets more of her family at the family reunion for her paternal family in April 2022. She shares her reflections as she finally “fits into her place” and connects with the family she’s been yearning to meet.
“For every foster kid, for every adoptee, some of us never have that moment where we meet our families, and we realize you’re going to walk into the place where you fit. And even if you never meet your family, no one will ever fill that place, because it’s yours,” says Sana
Matt reflects on the impact of Sana’s delayed opportunity in finding family as a result of her physical safety being prioritized moreso over her emotional well-being.
Sana reflects on a photo (pictured here) of her as a young girl when she sat on the stoop of her aunt’s trailer feeling like she didn’t belong and how it captured her feelings from childhood until now.
“That picture to me represents my life up until I met my birth family. Every stage of my life—from a child to a teenager, to a young adult, to an adult—I never felt like I fit in,” says Sana. “I’ve had a birth family, foster family, adopted family, I’ve been married into a family, I’ve never felt like I fit in. I compare that picture now to me at the [family] reunion where I fit in and my aunt hugs me. And I’m like ‘finally somebody got it’.”
Matt shares his final thoughts.
Matt (host): Hey everybody. This is Matt Anderson. And welcome to another episode of Seen Out Loud. On this podcast, we bring you the stories and conversations that recognize child welfare transformation starts with seeing families for who they truly are. Today’s episode is part two of my conversation with Sana Latrease. If you haven’t listened to part one, I’d like to ask you to stop here, go back, listen to part one, and then come back to part two. I also want to say that both this episode and part one may be a little bit triggering for some time.
So just to recap, some of Sana’s story from part one, she was removed from her mother and grandmother at a very young age. This was as a result of significant abuse and neglect. But we also learned in part one, that Sana continues to have this deep need, to be connected to her mom, to her dad and to her family. And that need to belong to fit in, to be connected. It’s exactly why I want to bring you this story, you know, in situations when we need to keep kids safe, we absolutely have a responsibility to do just that. And I think that’s what happened when Sana was a little girl. But one thing I’m realizing even more through Sana is that there’s a difference between physical safety and emotional safety or relational wellbeing. While we were able to keep us on a physically safe and well cared for, I think we may have missed meeting her needs for emotional safety and relational wellbeing For Sana, this meant not only maintaining connections to her family and her culture, but also understanding that she needed to know that she belonged and that she fit in.
Okay. So let’s get back into the story. In part one, we learned that Sana was able to learn more about who her mother really was and ultimately was able to find forgiveness and even compassion for her mom. In part two, we’re going to follow Sana’s journey as she goes on a search to find her dad.
Sana: So for most of my life, I never thought about the fact that I had a biological father, never thought to ask a question about him in the times that I did get to spend with my mom or letters I wrote, I never brought them up. Like he just didn’t exist. I began to, start searching for my dad. And I started by actually having my records opened. And when I got those records, it didn’t mention anything about my dad. His name wasn’t listed. There was no mention of him at all. So then I did a ancestry DNA test.I got the results back and I didn’t know what they meant. It was just a bunch of names and numbers. So I was like, this is pointless. So I kind of pushed that off to the side.
Then, because I had the ancestry DNA results. I had opened an ancestry account. So now you can start looking at like all these records and all this stuff. So me and a friend of mine were playing around at home, on the computer. She’s like, let me just look, you know, let me look through ancestry.
So she starts looking, she’s like, what’s your mom’s name? So I gave her the name that I have from my mom. She puts it in and she’s like, are you sure that’s your mom? And I’m like, yeah. Why? She’s like, because I found a woman that I believe it’s your mom, but her first name is not Alexis. And I’m like, what?
She’s like, yeah. It says her, her name is Willet and Alexis is her middle name. she’s like, yeah. And here’s her social security number? Here’s the date of birth? Here’s her, her death certificate. So I was like, this is crazy. So I said, I’m going to, in the morning, I’m going to call Bridgeport for vital statistics. And I’m going to see if I can get a copy of my birth certificate. So I call and I’m like, try this name. So I gave Willet, and they’re like, oh yeah, we have a birth certificate.
I’m like, are you serious? They’re like, yeah. Oh, and we have a marriage certificate. really? Okay, I’m coming to get us. I have to, my car drove that hour and I got it. I was like, this is it my dad’s name is going to be here. So I get down there. I get the birth certificate. I get the marriage certificate. There’s no name on the birth certificate for a father, but there’s a name obviously for the marriage certificate. And wouldn’t, you know, it, the last name is my last name. So I’m like, oh, this is it. I found my dad. I have a name. So I start looking for this man cannot find him. I find like the church that they got married at, I drive over to the church.
The church just had a flood three months ago. All the records have been damaged in the flood. So everything’s gone. So I . Remember sitting outside the steps of the church, like this is a joke.
So now I start watching the TLC channel and they have this new show Reuniting Families. And so I reached out to them, go through their website and Troy the Locator, that’s what it was called, Troy the locator. So they have a fee though, right? If they don’t choose you to be on the show, you can still use their people to search.
So I was like, okay, I’m going to do it. They call me that night and they’re like. Yeah so we spoke Todd and, um, yeah, Todd is, he said, he’s not your father. And I said, what do you mean? And she’s like, yeah, he and your mom were married. they separated and never got a divorce. So by the time you were born, you ended up with his last name.
And I was like, that’s impossible. So we did a DNA and, he wasn’t my father. So now I’m like, I felt like I was further behind because I had nothing again, I had no name anything.
Matt: Let me jump in real quick here, because here, you get your, your foster care record that doesn’t really get you any closer and then ancestry, it gives you some clues, right. But that doesn’t really get you a whole lot closer. The marriage certificate, you know, maybe a little bit, but it doesn’t get you there, the church, Troy the Locator. Right. So all of this is playing out So what’s, what’s the need driving all of this what’s fueling all of this. What need is there underneath all of this?
Sana: So initially it started, like, I really want to know my dad, I want to know what he looks like. I want to know what his name is. Do I act like him. you know, I have a twin brother, I don’t feel like me and my twin brother look alike. I’m lighter skin. He’s darker skin. He’s got like long lashes I don’t. So that’s where it really started. Like, I just wanted to see his face. I just wanted to know. But as the disappointment came now, it became like I’m going to solve this case, I’m going to figure this out. And so that, that was like driving me. It’s like he doesn’t exist, but he does exist.
Matt: So how long into the search are you now? So it started around 24?
Sana: So now I’m probably like 5 years.
Matt: 5 years in okay. And at some point the genealogist gets involved. Right. And let’s talk about that.
Sana: So I had applied for this, another TV show called Relative Race. They’re really interested in the story, they take control of my ancestry DNA account because they start looking for family. And so it’s going back and forth for like a year. But while you’re in contract with them, you don’t have access to your Ancestry account. Because they don’t want you to look and you find somebody before them. So in 2020, I’ve reached out to the show. I said, listen, I know you guys haven’t really been making any progress. It’s been over a year can we be released from the contract? They agreed, they released us from the contract, but they also give you like any parts of the family tree that they had started putting together. So now I have like a little bit of a family tree. So I had did this live on Facebook. So people were like really into this. It’s like a lifetime movie thing, like people are into this. This gentleman inboxes me on Facebook and he’s like, listen, I’m a genealogist. I have a small company that I just started. I would like to help you. I called him and he starts just saying, listen, I really think I can help you. I’ll even do it for free And I was like, okay, well free you can’t beat free. And he’s like, well, I’m going to be honest. It could take like two years. Cause you really don’t have any information. And I was like, okay, you know, by this time we were into like six, seven years. So I’m like, I’ve waited all this time. So whatever, go ahead. I didn’t hear from him for a couple months. I really wasn’t thinking about it, I randomly am sitting on my couch one night I get a message from this guy who is a cousin of mine on my birth mom’s side. He’s like, listen, Gary just died. And I was like, oh, okay. And so I said, can you tell me again how we’re related? And he was like, yeah, my dad, Gary, and your mom were cousins. And I was like, so is he related to my uncle, my uncle Jesse. Cause remember I told you, my mom had a brother and he’s like, yeah. And I was like, have you talked to Jesse? And he’s like, last time I heard he was in North Carolina. So in my mind, I said, if anybody would know who my dad is, it would be my mother’s brother.
Matt: You might remember from part one Sana’s, uncle Jesse turned out to be someone who unlocked a lot of her story. He was there when Sana was removed as a little girl, but then they eventually lost connection. When Sana was able to find him again in 2020, he was in hospice in North Carolina. Sana, made the trip to see him where she was able to ask him the burning question.
Sana: Do you know who my dad is? Do you ha do you know who he is? And he was like, yeah, his name was Pete Joyner. Just like that. His name was Pete Joyner. So I texted my genealogist. I said, this is the name, Pete Joyner look for that. Three days later, I get a text message from him with a picture and he said, this is your grandmother your dad’s mother. And I’m like, what? And he’s like, yeah, I found them. And when he sent me the message, I was doing a coaching session. So I’m reading the message, like looking down and my, I start crying. So the people are like, what is wrong with her? So I’m like, I think my life just changed forever. Like, that’s what I say on the recording. And I’m like, I think I phoned my dad and I’m crying and all this stuff. And so he’s just sending me back to back pictures, And he sends me, a picture with a bunch of men and he said, I don’t know which one, but one of these men is your father.
Sana: So by the time I finally get off the session and I call him, he says, listen, I made connection with, one of the men. And I don’t know if it’s your father or if it’s your uncle, but I explained what’s going on you know, he listened really intently. and he said, he’ll call me back. I said, he didn’t say if he’s my uncle, my father, I said, did you tell him, Pete is the name Pete is my father. And he was like, he wouldn’t give me any information. And so he gives me the number. I said a quick prayer and then I called him.
Matt: So let me ask you this before you call him or tell us that part of the story. So you’re about to call this man who might unlock this now 10 year?
Sana: yup. 10-year journey.
Matt: Search of where did I come from? And what are the emotions there? Is the need that you’re trying to search for and fill changing? Are there fears, are there what’s happening before you pick up that phone?
Sana: So at this point I am in a place where I just kept having these dreams of my dad, of me sitting in my dad’s lap and him rubbing the top of my head and calling me daddy’s little girl. Even as a 38-year-old woman, like that was the vision. I felt like all my life, I just didn’t fit in but I just want to belong somewhere. And I want to, I want to be loved. And the closer and closer I got, it felt like my heart just was beating out of my chest like this is it.
I think the other thing that was really, really special to me is growing. I had heard a lot of people tell me, like, you were in foster care, you came from nothing. You know, you, you had nothing and, and all this stuff. And I began to believe that lie because that was my past. I came from nothing. I would be nothing. When I look at my birth mother’s family, they all have mental health issues, drug addictions, and incarceration, like that’s their life. And even though they’re still my family, I didn’t feel like I fit there. But that narrative of I come from nothing, it looked to be true because when I look back, that’s, that’s the life that they lived.
Matt: All of that right there, I think. brings clarity to why I think these conversations are so important to have and why these stories are so important to get out into the world. Because when I think about it from a systems point of view, you talked about your great-grand mother. and who she was and what she was about and where she came from and what she was about. And then something changed with your grandmother and your mom, but there’s goodness in your mom’s side of the family, too. That I think that in these conversations, I’m hoping we can see and find that right. And not just categorize people based on a set of circumstances that occurred. But we see the wholeness, right? We speak of the wholeness and the goodness of all people. And then we didn’t even acknowledge that you had a dad and that there was a whole nother side of your family, we missed so much as a society, as a system, as a group of professionals that were working with you and your family. And that’s why I think these conversations and stories are so important because they do bust so many of those myths and tell us that the narrative are not the complete story, right. It’s not the full truth. And if we’re going to do things differently, going forward, we have to speak the whole truth.
Sana: The whole truth
Matt: And I think that’s, that’s what you’re, that’s what you’re bringing here.
Matt: It’s often about the little things. That you didn’t even know you needed to know, but then now, you know, them, you know, gestures, looks, way that people talk, you know, you just, just those little things. That only family has in common and when you start to see it and feel it.
Sana: It’s major. It’s it can heal decades of pain. And it can answer a thousand questions.
Matt: So with all these emotions going on, Sana finally calls the man her genealogists found in North Carolina and might be able to finally help her find her dad.
Sana: And so I call him and he picks up the phone and we start to have this conversation and I’ll never forget it because it was like he was singing the responses. So phone rings and he says, hello? And I said, hi. And he said, how you doing? And I said, I’m good. And he said, do you know who this is? And I said, no. And it’s like this awkward silence. And then he says, I’m your dad’s brother? And I just started balling, just balling. And I remember him say, and I, and I was saying through tears, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. And he said, it’s okay. Take as much time as you need. I know you’ve been searching for a long time for this.
Sana: And so I finally gathered myself and I’m like, um, is my dad alive? And he said, no, he’s not. He died in 1994. And I remember that moment where you, where you hear that your dad, that you’ve been searching for, for 10 years, I thought that I would be like, crushed, like, oh, you know what I mean, crushed. But for whatever reason, I wasn’t.And I just said, okay, do I have siblings? And he said, yeah, you have two older brothers. They’re 10 years older than you. And I’m like, what do they know about me? And he’s like, no, we don’t know about you. We didn’t know, we didn’t know anything about you. And, he said and I’m going to tell you, he said, when your genealogist called last night and he shared all that information, and he said your dad’s name, I knew then that you belong to us. And when he said you belong to us, I just lost it. I just started bawling because that was the one thing that unbeknownst to me, that I had really been searching for. Was to belong. And in that quick phone call, it is. I belong somewhere.
And he just, you know, he’s like, yes, he said, I just needed to call the rest of the family and prepare them and he’s like, there’s so many people that want to talk to you. There’s you have so many family members that want to talk to you. and so that’s how that call went. And it just, you know, later on that day, so now I’m spending the rest of that day waiting to talk to my brothers because I’m like, in my mind, like, are they going to accept me? Will they believe I’m their sister, like, you know, I have all these questions.
Matt: This all went down on new year’s Eve of 2020. And after Sana got off the phone with her uncle, he said, let me give you the phone number for your brothers.
Sana: So I called and I was like, hello? And I heard two voices say hello, hello. And I’m like, oh my brother. And they’re like, yes, you’re a little sister. And it was just like, oh my God, I’m going to die. I’m going to just die. This is just amazing.
Matt: It’s amazing to listen to it. And it’s amazing to think about after 10 years you’ve been on this search. Right. And then all of a sudden you get this phone call from your uncle, and then right after that, from your two brothers, people you didn’t even know existed in the world. I mean, what a game changer and 24 hours after you’ve really been on a lifelong search for belonging, as you say, but 10 years looking for your dad and here you are now, It’s yeah, it’s incredible.
Sana: It was incredible. And then, so that’s how I brought in my new years. I, my brothers and I stayed on the phone straight through new years. We didn’t hang up till like three o’clock in the morning, just talking and in the conversation with my brothers is when I discovered that my dad had passed away from aids.
Matt: Okay. I was going to ask you that and just in those first, you know, day or two, what, what other things did you learn about your dad that stood out to you?
Sana: So well, number one, my next question was like, do I look like him? And you know, they sent me some pictures and I was like, okay. He looks like he looks, my brother looks like my dad. And I looked like my mom. And then there were pictures that my family members started, you know, now they start going through my social media and looking at different photos and stuff like that. And they’re like, wow, there’s pictures where you look like your dad. Those are things you want to hear that you’re waiting on your whole life to hear that you look like somebody.
Matt: So a few months go by and Sana starts meeting more and more of her relatives from her dad’s side of the family. All of this is happening during the pandemic. So of course it’s virtual, but then her family starts talking about hosting a reunion where she can finally meet everybody in person. The reunion is scheduled for April, 2022. So just a few weeks ago. Sauna makes another trip down to North Carolina.
Sana: So we get to the reunion and now I’m meeting all these people that I’ve been, because at this point, these are people I haven’t met yet in person, but I’ve just seen on the Zoom call. So now it’s like I get there. My cousin runs up to me and she’s like, oh my God, this is the first time I get to meet you, you know, and so we have the reunion and I remember there was a moment where we had like a little dance contest and I’m watching everyone just dancing and laughing and you had some people playing with the kids. And I just had this still moment where I just stood there and I watched it. And in that moment, I was like, there was a place for me in this family all these years and today I just fit into my place.
Like this was my place and it just worked and it was just the most amazing feeling. Because like for every foster kid, for every adoptee, some of us will never have that moment where we meet our families and we realize like, you’re going to walk into the place that you fit. And even if you never meet your family, no one will ever fill that place because it’s yours.
And, and what snapped me out of that moment is that one of my aunts just came up from behind me and she put her arms around me and she just hugged me. And it was like the perfect ending to that moment.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. It’s the, it’s a combination again, of just decades of your story. It’s not the only part of your story Sana, but it’s a beautiful part of your story. When you say that, that you just fit in and sealed with this hug from your aunt, you know, it’s incredible. I mean, it brings tears to my eyes hearing you tell that story honestly, and I’m so glad you get to have that moment and that we all want to know we fit in, right? I mean, it’s just part of the experience. We all want to know we belong and that we fit somewhere. And that it’s validated for us by that hug. That this is where I belong. And, you know, it makes, it makes me think too. What is my job at the end of the day, working in this field as I work with kids and families, what is my job? And if nothing else, it’s to make sure that Sana fits in and belongs. And if what we’re doing, doesn’t give you a sense. We haven’t gotten it right.
Sana: It’s it’s important. So I have this picture. I would love to send it to you guys. Maybe you could put it in show notes or I don’t know somewhere,but I have this picture of me as a little girl I’m sitting on the stoop of the trailer that my aunt lived in. And I just kind of have my head cocked to the side and I must be looking at a flower or the ground or something.
But I remember that picture. I remember sitting in that stoop and I remember feeling like I didn’t belong. Like I don’t fit in. And that picture to me, represents my life up until I met my birth family, every stage of my life from a child to a teenager, to a young adult, to an adult, I’ve never felt like I fit in. I’ve had a birth family. I’ve had a foster family. I’ve had an adopted family. I’ve been married into a family. I’ve never felt like I fit in. And so I compare that picture now to the moment at the reunion where I fit in and my aunt hugs me and I’m like, finally, somebody got it because I was standing by myself in that moment, just still just looking around. And somebody from across the room felt how I felt. And they came and they just hugged me.
Matt: I’m just so grateful and appreciative of, of you and just letting me in, you know, letting me to be able to be here and experience here, your story and all that you’ve been through it. It, uh, I hope it helps me be a better person at the end of the day.
Sana: Yeah you know, I, I don’t think it’s a coincidence even that like you and I would have this depth of, of a conversation that, I mean, what we found each other on like clubhouse, I think we started following each other on clubhouse, like random and that you would even be in the state that I’m from, that my family is in like that to me is just so like, It’s major for me, because I think one of my goals is to eventually relocate to North Carolina. And so to me, this is like confirmation, like, yeah, you need to be in North Carolina. Like, you need to be with your family.
Matt: I saw the pictures of you guys at the park. You look, you looked good. And that Carolina blue, you got to get the colors right at the, at the family reunion.
Sana: Oh, it’s funny. Cause my family is very split between uh, Carolina and Duke. So it’s like this big thing, like how did, who pick this color? We’re supposed to have Duke and I’m like, oh God.
Matt: And before we bring it to a close I just want to thank Sana Latrease again for joining me for this conversation, sharing her story with you. I hope you learned as much as I did. And before we close, I’m going to kick it to Isaiah to share a few credits.
Isaiah: Did you guys enjoy Sana’s two-part episode? Because I sure did. And your journey with Sana doesn’t have to end with this episode, look below in our show notes or on our website at SeenOutLoud.com for ways to connect with Sana and see exclusive photos of some of the moments she talked about today.
This two-part episode is sure to be a favorite for some of you all, but it was only possible because we have the best podcast team ever behind the scenes building each and every episode. Our executive producer is Michael Osborne, mixing, mastering and sound designed by Morgan Honaker. Our composer is Christian Haigus and our creative team members are April Dilon and Candice Kearse.I’m Isaiah Strozier and I just want to thank you guys for listening and we hope to see you in the next episode.
Sana L. Cotten
Sana L. Cotten is the Founder and President of Unashamed Inc., a 501(c)3 non-profit organization which fosters emotional health in disadvantaged families that have experienced incarceration, foster care, and teen pregnancy. Sana has a passion for advocacy work and youth within the foster care system. She has worked alongside the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in various roles including as a QPI (Quality Parenting Initiative) Champion and as a speaker and for the Queen Esther Initiative. Sana is a published author whose mission is to liberate others to own their truth, find their voice and boldly live unashamed.