Help is NOT on the Way
Season 1, Episode 4
The deadline for art, poetry, and short fiction submissions has been extended to January 31, 2024. Read More
Season 1, Episode 4
In previous episodes of the podcast, we’ve covered the history of family separation and family policing from the era of chattel slavery through the late 1900s. Now we’re going to get into the current iteration of this system and how it functions to surveil, regulate and punish families, specifically Black and Indigenous families.
In this episode, Victoria’s written responses are voiced by our mutual friend Maya Pendleton.
About Our Guests:
Brianna Harvey is a scholar, practitioner, and researcher that engages in community-rooted inquiry. Through her work, she utilizes liberatory praxis that strives to combat the carceral conditions inflicted upon oppressed communities. Brianna received her PhD in Education from UCLA, and her MSW from USC.
Victoria Copeland is a Black and Filipinx researcher, organizer, and spoonie, with training in social welfare and social policy. They are currently a Senior Policy Analyst at Upturn where their work focuses on the use of data and technology in the criminal legal and family policing systems. Their research is centralized around black study and surveillance studies, and is primarily done in collaboration with local abolitionist organizers. Victoria is dedicated to learning more about how we can sustain community power and care from the intersections between racial, economic, & disability justice movements.
Hosts: Josie Pickens & Jaison Oliver
Producer: Sydnie Mares
Editor: Imani Crosby
MODULE FOUR: Manifestations of Surveillance, Regulation, and Punishment in the Afterlife of Slavery
Module Four presents an overview of the carceral logic that undergirds today’s child welfare system and the functions of surveillance, regulation, and punishment that emerge from this carceral logic. This is a companion to The upEND Podcast.
Coming up this episode of The upEND Podcast.
I don’t think that we quite realize how far the reach data goes. And maybe we’re starting to, but there is so much data that’s collected on us. I mean, if you think about our cell phones and our iPhones now, like you mentioned, oh, I decided I want to buy a new leash from my dog. And suddenly you’re getting these sponsored posts for dog leashes. Like the man is always watching and listening. And so I think that there is so much, so many ways that our information is being extracted and within systems that we may think are here to help, and they’re not always here to help. And all of this information is really being compiled and able to be used against us. And so I think that is really scary because there’s so much of it where the internet and all of this data is like the Wild Wild West. And we have no idea how far-reaching and expansive some of this really extends to.
Families separated through Child Protective Services voiced their anger on the steps of the state capital today.
They say the system has a history of racial discrimination.
Stop kidnapping Black children.
This CPS system is just a part of a bigger system. We have to destroy the whole damn thing.
53% of Black children will be investigated by the child welfare system by the time they turn 18.
The family policing system forcibly separates over 200,000 children from their families every year. Can a system that began with racist intent ever become a system that makes all children and communities safe?
We know the answer is no. Absolutely not.
Welcome to the upEND Podcast, a podcast that looks toward the abolition of the child welfare system, which we at upEND more accurately call the family policing system.
In this podcast, we contemplate the history of family separations in the US, the current state of the family policing system, and what a future without family policing can look like.
We’re your hosts. I’m Josie Pickens.
And I’m Jaison Oliver. Let’s get started.
Hey everybody, welcome back to The upEND Podcast. In previous episodes of the podcast, we’ve covered the history of family separation and family policing from the era of chattel slavery through the late 1900s. Now we’re going to get into the current iteration of this system and how it functions to surveil, regulate and punish families, specifically Black and Indigenous families.
Today, our guests are Brianna Harvey and Victoria Copeland, who are long time collaborators with upEND.
Brianna Harvey is a scholar, practitioner, and researcher that engages in community-rooted inquiry. Through her work, she utilizes liberatory practice that strives to combat the carceral conditions inflicted upon oppressed communities. Brianna received her PhD in education from UCLA and her MSW from USC.
Victoria Copeland is a Black and Filipinx researcher, organizer and spoonie with training in social welfare and social policy. They’re currently a senior policy analyst at Upturn where their work focuses on the use of data and technology in the criminal legal and family policing systems. Their research is centralized around Black study and surveillance studies. It is primarily done in collaboration with local abolitionist organizers. Victoria is dedicated to learning more about how we can sustain community power and care from the intersections between racial, economic, and disability justice movements. We’re really thankful to hear Victoria through their writing today and during this episode, their responses will be voiced by our mutual friend, Maya Pendleton. Welcome, Brianna and Victoria.
Thank you. I’m so excited to be here and to have this conversation. So yeah, thank you for having me.
And thanks for having me excited to be back.
Yes, back. All right. So let’s begin. And this is a question for Victoria. First, can you tell us how you began in this movement? What was the journey that brought you where you are today?
Sure. So I’ll preface this by saying that I think many Black people, at least poor or middle class Black people, have experience with family policing generally. each one of us likely has a near or not so distant connection to this beast of a system. My family has been investigated before. My dad and his siblings touched the system after my grandparents both died too young. All of these experiences build up and for many of us it’s not unique. So there’s always a personal stake in this.
But that aside, when I was in college I began working with peers at a nonprofit in my community as an “advocate.” They were all a little younger than me by about a year or two, and were in the juvenile justice system as well as connected to the department of child and family services. They lived in group homes except one who was with a foster parent. I was responsible for helping them “successfully” complete whatever needed to be done to get them off of probation. So this meant I would take them to and attend all of their community service hours, their drug classes, and their parenting classes. I went to court with them. I went to all the meetings with probation and social work to make sure they were being heard. Picked them up from school and made sure they had food.
What I saw between the two systems was awful. Not only was shuffling between all of the systems and programs horrendous but court was one of the most violent places I’ve ever encountered. It was excruciating to be in the courtroom. I don’t know how people leave “dependency” or family court unphased. And I thought working with the probation officers was gonna be the most difficult part but no, the DCFS workers were by far the worst. Their decisions were weighted the most and yet they were the ones who interacted with me and the youth the least. At the time I didn’t know how they came up with the conclusions they came up with but I felt that it was vehemently violent. Their case notes trumped anything I said to the judge even though I spent the most time with the youth out of anyone.
None of the youth I worked with were let off probation due to systemic issues. None of them. We spent hours getting them to meet the abhorrent requirements of the judge and it always came down to lack of open housing, unsympathetic and racist judges, and straight up lies from the CPS caseworkers. At that point I decided I really wanted to figure out what the deal was with this entire messed up system and the decision-making processes within it. I applied to graduate programs and got into UCLA and from there continued organizing and learning and growing into the work I do today.
Thank you. Thank you for that response, Victoria. And Brianna, if you don’t mind sharing, again, how did you begin in this movement? What was the journey that brought you here?
Yeah, I think as Victoria beautifully said, for many of us that are Black, we have had interactions with the system, whether it be through family members or community members. And that was really kind of the case for me and for my family.
So I had a family member whose children were removed from them and was placed in the system. And my parents actually became certified foster parents. So that way, the children would not have to remain in the system. And it was after that they actually decided to remain foster parents for a little bit and were able to provide care for multiple youth in their family.
And even though I was young, I realized that the system didn’t seem to be functioning the way it was supposed to function, in my mind. And I thought, okay, well, these youth and their parents, they don’t seem like they’re getting the supports that they actually need. And you know, me not really understanding how the system worked, I was like, okay, well,it’s because of the social workers. Like it’s because they don’t have good social workers that care about families. And so I had decided in my mind, I was like, I wanna become a social worker. I want to be that social worker that’s actually going to help families, that it’s gonna help them fight these oppressive conditions that they live in. And I figured that becoming a social worker and specifically a social worker working with the family policing system was gonna be the way to do that.
And so I’m the first one in my family to go to college. And so I ended up getting my master’s from USC in social work. And when you’re getting your master’s in social work, one of the things you have to do is complete an internship or a placement. So my first, well, my second placement actually was at DCFS. And so I got to work firsthand with families that were being investigated by the family policing system and basically worked as a family policing system intern for a little bit.
And when I tell you it only took a very short amount of time for me to be like, yeah, this is not the work that I wanna do. And for me to really realize that these families are not being helped. They’re being harmed. You are removing children for things where really their family just needs help and support and you’re placing them in conditions that are actually more harmful.
And so I think it was at that time, literally after that placement, I was like, there is no way that I could even picture myself working within the system. And so I was like, okay, well, I wanna work maybe adjacent, still supporting the same communities, because I still didn’t fully understand what abolition was or anything like that, and you know, I was just learning. And so I got a job working in family preservation for a nonprofit that actually was funded by DCFS. And at the time I was a family preservation worker and my whole job was really to help support families, to stop them from having cases that would enter them into formal foster system placement.
But what would happen was basically I was just an agent of surveillance. I was a spy, I was reporting for the county and really helping to bring more kids into the system. And I was like, I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore. This is not helping families in the way that I really came into this profession to do and so I completely pivoted, went into higher education, and actually started running a foster youth support program and really working directly with youth that had been impacted. And it was at that time that I became introduced to abolition from the family policing system and started learning more about it. And I was like, okay, yeah, this is it. I found my home.
I want to go back a little bit, you talked about DCFS and for people who aren’t familiar, who might live outside of LA, what is DCFS? Why is it important within the context of family policing and child welfare in the country?
So DCFS, especially here in LA County, is the Department of Children and Family Services. So the child protective mechanism or family policing system as we call it, is known by a lot of different names. And so in some spaces, it may be known as the Child Protective Services or CPS, DCFS, DCS, like it has all of these names and acronyms, but it’s the Family Policing System.
Thank you. What does it mean when we say that the family policing system surveils, regulates, and punishes? Victoria, can you paint a picture of what a family might experience and any specific stories that you’ve seen in your organizing work?
So this is a pretty loaded question. The family policing system is an interconnected web of institutions and people that work together to police families. These systems and people form mutually beneficial partnerships with each other. At any point, most families will have touched many of the systems within this carceral web or nexus, which are the terms that Brianna uses.
These systems include the mental health system, social services, community-based programs, immigration, and the criminal legal system on top of child protection services agencies. For these systems to work in the ways they do, they need something or people to deem as other or harmful. They need behaviors to criminalize. Since the transatlantic slave trade, there have been dominant societal standards set by those in power. And this is why people will say that our societies are steeped in racism, classism, ableism, eugenics, because it is literally proliferated from the transatlantic slave trade.
This set a precedent for how we categorize and interpret the norm. To keep up with the societal standard and these norms, the family policing system has to surveil and regulate families or else the entire thing would fall apart. And so the system to uphold the societal way of being targets families in a multitude of ways. Many get involved from schools; I’m sure Brianna will speak more about that. Others are being surveilled through community agencies and county agencies and social services or even policed by their own communities like in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles.
Interestingly, the mothers I work with shared stories that shifted my assumptions about how different communities become trapped in the system. I actually learned that many of my unhoused community members get funneled into the system by housing shelters in Skid Row that criminalize their behaviors. Then this happens through shelter workers or social workers. I also learned about how families are funneled into the system through street surveillance, literally social workers who would rove the streets of Skid Row at day and night. In addition to these two ways of entering the system, I learned that many times parents sought out help from CPS themselves, thinking they were helpers, only to learn that they were against them. It was the ultimate betrayal in these cases. In most of these cases really.
But across the board, once people are in the trenches of the family policing system, most of them feel like they will never escape. They get pulled into different programs, a multitude of court cases, onerous requirements, and many of them actually don’t reunify. Many mothers I work with don’t even know where their children are. It’s profoundly devastating, and this is just the iceberg.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think Victoria and Maya really hit the nail on the head that this system doesn’t work in a silo. This is an interconnected web. It’s a carceral nexus of systems that work together and they collude together to monitor, to report, and to surveil families. So, for me personally, my previous research really looked at the K-12 educational experiences of Black foster youth and really trying to highlight and uplift the ways that schools work as a colluding partner with the family policing system. Schools are the number one reporters of families into the system. And not only just the number one reporter of families, more than police officers, medical, lawyers, but they’re also the number one reporter of Black families. And so it’s like this system and its collusion with schools is really to help entrap Black families and Black children.
So recently I had conducted a study and I was interviewing Black foster youth and talking about their experiences when they first entered into the system. And one of my participants talked about how when she was in fourth grade, she was brought into the system straight from school. That basically social workers showed up at the school, they did not contact her mom to see if it was okay to interview her, they basically just picked her up, interviewed her and took her.
And she was wearing her school uniform, her backpack, and that was all she had. And she said that was the first time that she was actually put in a foster home. And I think what adds insult to injury is not only did the school provide access to the social workers by just letting them come and interview her without her parents’ permission, but they didn’t even have the decency to let her know after she’d been taken that they had removed her daughter.
So her mom didn’t find out that she was removed from her custody until she got to the school to pick her up. And so I’m just like, wow, these are the types of things that I don’t think that people fully understand. We often look just at this system, but it’s like, no, it’s all of these other collusive entities that are really helping to empower it and give it the power that it has.
You’re making me think about how upEND is based in Houston and right now we’re dealing with a lot of harmful policies coming from the state. But what just happened just last night actually, when this is being recorded, is a policy being implemented in one of the suburbs, Katy, of Houston, that is going to require that teachers inform parents when a student wants to identify by a different gender in the school. So it’s really, really harmful. These surveillance policies that are meant to make students afraid to share with their teachers, kind of changing them from supporters to reporters, which is absolutely something that has come up.
Victoria, you’ve mentioned to us in other conversations that you have a particular interest in how data plays a role in this. Can you say more about your ideas there?
Yeah, so I said earlier that the family policing system is an interconnected web of institutions and organizations that form symbolic or mutually beneficial relationships with one another. Of course, one of the underlying connectors between these systems is money, but data, in my opinion, is the foundation of these relational networks. And I firmly believe that if we attack data sharing and collection processes between these carceral systems, we will dismantle a lot of the downstream violence.
Various sorts of data and tracking collections bolster the system. And in my opinion, this is one of the main reasons the system is able to sustain itself and even grow. As it stands, the system needs several forms of data for caseworkers to do their assigned jobs. So caseworkers, of course, use their own case notes, which are gathered through in-person surveillance tactics. And they also use historical data provided by other organizations or institutions like the criminal legal system and social services agencies.
It’s important to know that some of this historical data was collected in physically violent ways years ago, including home invasions by police and agency workers. As such, you might rightfully assume that the data used by the family policing system largely comes from families that were funneled into social services and criminal legal systems over time, which means this data, by and large, is coming from Black and low-income communities. This data is the bedrock of the new algorithms being used in the family policing system. These datasets are what algorithms get trained on. These forms of data get compiled into caseworker files and into technology-assisted decision-making tools, some of which are automated. They help caseworkers make critical and life-changing decisions. If caseworkers and admin didn’t have access to this data through data sharing partnerships and extensive surveillance, they wouldn’t be able to manage their caseloads and they wouldn’t be able to make decisions that separate families.
And so all this being said, if you think about it altogether, the system literally requires and thrives off data collected from surveillance and consequent entrapment of Black people.
So think about it this way. The system collects data from mandatory reporters in different institutions. It feeds data into algorithms and tech-assisted decision making tools, which builds on past historical data. This drives decisions in the present about who gets funneled into the family policing system, who goes into community surveillance programs, who gets pushed into residential treatment centers, who will be marked for the rest of their lives. It spits out risk scores that increase capture of certain communities for generations. It’s a very self-fulfilling and relational system that relies on certain data sharing collection practices. And that’s why analyzing these relational networks within the family policing system and the data being used is essential to consider when we talk about abolition.
Anything you want to add there and thinking about these relational networks between systems Brianna and also just how it’s trapping families for generations through the data that creates, or recreates this regulation and punishment system?
Hmm. Yeah. I think all I would add is that I don’t think that we quite realize how far the reach data goes. And maybe we’re starting to, but there is so much data that’s collected on us. If you think about our cell phones and our iPhones now, like you mentioned, oh, I decided I want to buy a new leash from my dog. And suddenly you’re getting these sponsored posts for dog leashes. Like The Man is always watching and listening. And so I think that there is so much, so many ways that our information is being extracted and within systems that we may think are here to help, and they’re not always here to help. And all of this information is really being compiled and able to be used against us. And so I think that is really scary because there’s so much of it where the internet and all of this data is like the Wild, Wild West. And we have no idea how far-reaching and expansive some of this really extends to.
I think back to my time when I was an intern at the family policing system. And I remember there was one time they showed me the systems that they use to monitor families. And they were pulling up stuff from people’s grandmothers and their mother, they’re like, oh yeah, their grandma had a case and here’s, you know, her files from the DMV. Here’s this, here’s that. And I was just in awe and shock that they literally had the ability to pull up that much information that far back on families. But it’s like, this is what’s being kept and stored.
This is the first episode where we’re really getting to the present, which is great to look at how data is really informing a lot of this and so many of these systems are being updated and tweaked to supposedly change the outcomes and change how things are working, but we’re seeing the same harm being done to families.
In previous episodes we discussed the connections between family separation and regulations during chattel slavery and Jim Crow era policies. What imprints, Victoria, do you see of that in our current policies?
So I’ve already shared a little on this. I’m gonna let Brianna take this one. She just wrote an amazing dissertation on this. So I’ll let her share what she’s learned from her work.
Aw, thank you. You know, honestly, the family policing system, like, nothing is new under the sun. It is literally just utilizing tactics from slavery and really reproducing the same type of harm and parent-child separation that was occurring during slavery. And so, when we think back to that time, there was always this threat and this fear of removal. And for many Black families, that is what they live under on a constant basis.
And even going beyond that, when we’re thinking about the day to day practices of slavery, when a parent was parenting their child, they really had no autonomy over them. They had no ability to really make decisions or control the autonomy of what was going on with their own lives and their children when they were living under this enslaver.
And so it’s like, if their enslaver was like, you need to be in the fields, you need to be doing this, a parent couldn’t be like, oh, my child’s sick, they’re gonna go ahead and sit this one out and get some sleep today. That wasn’t an option. It was just like, nah, you are going to the fields or you’re going to be disciplined and whipped and however.
And so that’s not to say that exact same thing is happening in the family policing system, but instead what you have is Black parents who don’t even have autonomy over what schools their children are going to, what clothes they’re wearing, what foods they’re eating, what values and beliefs that they’re being taught. They have lost that autonomy over how to raise their own children and really essentially like the state has taken over the parenthood of their children and that’s exactly what we saw as a tactic that was used during chattel slavery and so it really is just a reproduction and a remnant from those exact same practices.
We hope you’re enjoying The upEND Podcast. A quick note: upEND is funded through the generosity of people like you who believe that ending the harm of the family policing system will help us to create a safer future. If you’re enjoying this podcast, we hope that you’ll consider donating to our work. Visit upendmovement.org/donate for more information.
You’ve both been collaborators on a collection of papers from up in called Help Is NOT On The Way that explored carceral logic, like this idea of carceral logic and helping people understand it better. Can you give a brief explanation of carceral logic for our listeners who may be hearing that phrase for the first time and Victoria, if you can offer that to us first.
Yeah, so carceral logic is what it sounds like. It’s been referred to as a punishment mindset, but we can also think about it as the reasoning and our principles underlying and or surrounding carcerality. Although this was originally pertaining to jails or imprisonment, I think we can consider it to include confinement and enclosure. In my dissertation, I actually talk about the principles of carcerality or the principles constitutive of carceral logics, including punishment, control, and criminalization. In my opinion, these things are always underlying or bolstering a carceral logic. Imprisonment relies on or is a source of punishment. It is a way to control people, place, and things, and it’s, of course, reliant on the criminalization of certain behaviors and communities.
Thank you. Brianna, do you have anything to add?
Yeah, I think like Victoria said, carceral logic really derives from this punishment mindset that really perpetuates prison-like practices outside of the prison walls. And so a lot of the work that I do is within the realm of school and school abolition. And a lot of school abolitionists talk about the ways that schools help uphold carceral logics through their practices and through things like an overuse of exclusionary discipline policies, but also even in their physical makeup.
So having police officers that are walking the halls that are arresting children when they’re supposed to be there, you know, being able to learn and get an education, having drug sniffing dogs and surveillance cameras and having metal detectors and all of these things that you would expect to usually see within a prison within a place of education. And so I think that for me, carceral logic is really the ways that prison-like practices and features are extended and the ways that they’re able to exert control, surveillance, and violence against, especially those that are most marginalized and most vulnerable in spaces outside of a formal prison structure.
Yes, and I also think that it’s important to think of carceral logic from a personal perspective. I know when I started learning about abolition, it was very important for me to think about, okay, well, how do I adopt carceral logics in my own ways of thinking and ways of being? And how do I kind of like, you know, get rid of the cop that lives in my head as well, I think is something that we all have to do as a part of that process.
So I think many people don’t think about it from that personal perspective. People think about and understand carceral logic also in terms of broader policing and punishment systems, like prison. I think that is easier for people to understand the way that carceral logic shows up in those types of systems. But how does it show up in terms of family policing, which I think a lot of people are confused by?
I think if we think of the family policing system as a nexus of carceral institutions, it’s pretty clear to see how carcerality is embedded in the need and needed for the system to thrive. Again, carceral logics are about imprisonment and confinement. So the family policing system isn’t just CPS. It’s literally a network of carceral institutions that work together to separate and surveil families.
It polices families by punishing them for not meeting constructed and biased standards and penalizing or criminalizing certain behaviors and environments. And this happens for the purpose of regulating who can remain unscathed that largely protect white or affluent families. In doing this, it literally traps generations of Black people in the system.
I’d also say it’s ironic that the system is so carceral, even though even caseworkers and mandatory reporters are working under the threat of incarceration or fines if they fail to report suspicious behavior. Meaning that the system in some ways also entraps its own workers and partners through carceral threat and coercion.
Yeah, I think Victoria definitely nailed it on the head, but I do think that family policing, the system itself exercises control mechanisms, just like you would see within a prison-like feature. And it’s seen as acceptable or necessary. It seems like, okay, well, we have to not allow this parent to be able to have a visit with their children unless they’re being surveilled, because there’s a threat to safety.
A lot of the practices that I feel like the system uses, they’re doing it under a guise of necessity and necessity for safety and for child wellbeing. But really it’s like families are continuing to be surveilled and parents are not having the opportunity to have any sort of control or autonomy over their children or even themselves or their own actions.
I think we often forget to really think about the youth that are caught within the system and the impact that this has on them. They can’t just leave. It’s not like they can be like, I don’t like this home. I’m gonna return back to my home of origin. That would be great if that was the case, but that’s not what happens. The minute that these youth are taken into this system, the state becomes their parent. And so they no longer have any autonomy themselves to determine what school they want to go to, where they want to live, if they’re going to share a room or not.
I think that we sometimes forget that sometimes these logics aren’t as large and expansive as some of the broader topics that we talked about, but it could be something as small as taking autonomy from children and from youth and from individuals that basically are entrapped and caught within the system.
Yeah, so much of this is people saying that this is for the children. We’re taking these children into this harmful system for their betterment. We’re putting or punishing students and suspending them so that they learn what’s right, they learn how to behave properly.
Let’s shift a bit and talk about how carceral logic and this punishment mindset makes its way into policy and legislation. For example, in the last episode, we talked about how the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, also known as CAPTA, established the idea that parents who are unable to meet their children’s needs due to poverty were responsible for maltreatment and subject to intrusive state intervention. Could you give us a brief on the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA)? What do people need to understand about it and how it functions?
So I’m gonna refer to it as Family First because I struggle to say that acronym. So there are a lot of resources about Family First online. I think the Imprint covered some of this as well as Khadijah Abdurahman, apologies if I messed up the last name.
For me, something I want people to understand is that Family First is one of those pieces of policy that were meant to look good to appease advocates. So if you don’t dive deeper into what it’s actually trying to accomplish and how, you’ll likely miss it. Dorothy Roberts used to say, there’s a pendulum that swings between family preservation ideology in which society wants children and their families together, and child protection ideology, in which society leans towards separation.
I believe that when reading these policies now, you see that there really isn’t this pendulum between two separate ideologies. Truly, it’s just often carcerality or fake attempts to appease a societal trend while masquerading as family preservation. So Family First is one example. The policy is meant to keep families together, but it only applies to some youth. The Family First not only added data tracking requirements for agencies, but the meat of the policy has a requirement for youth to be placed in evidence-based programs that are listed in the clearinghouse.
So why is this important? Because we know that many community programs and also healing and accountability work through the community is not and probably never will be considered evidence-based. And I don’t think that will ever be a goal. We have to let go of the notion of randomized control trials stemming from academia are the only valid source of uppercase Science when it’s really just one method that frequently contributes to gatekeeping and violent processes that ensure families continue to be regulated.
This sort of thinking also continues to contribute to the othering of communities and their practices, as well as diminishes the significance of storytelling and the truth that lies within testimony. Family First really requires us to question who sets the definitions of what’s considered as evidence. In addition to this issue, many of the Family First programs we have, have reporting requirements that require us to send data back to the CPS agency, which increases the family’s day-to-day exposure to surveillance in the first place. Families I work with tell me it’s like being on pins and needles every day of their life. It really impacts their mental health, their physical well-being, as well as their housing and job prospects. These families can’t mess up at all. It’s not a way to live.
So we have to ask ourselves, does this policy help solve the housing crisis that lands people in the system? No.
Does it fundamentally change the definitions of neglect that funnel people into the system? No.
Does it shrink the system? No. It expands its reach.
So we have to consider all of this, even when reading between the lines of policies that are touted it to be progressive or geared toward family preservation.
Oh, mic drop. I feel like that was such a beautiful answer. The only thing I would add is just I feel like it connects to a lot of the stuff that we’ve been talking about with data sharing and just the ways that these other organizations and entities are really helping to aid in harmful practices versus maybe thinking that they’re a partner in this legislation that’s going to be so helpful for families. And it’s like, no, you’re just being used as another arm that’s going to help surveil and impact them.
And it’s like, what type of life is that? To live under this threat of constant surveillance? I mean, I don’t think any of us could live under this constant fear of, am I going to mess up and then lose my kids, which is really the ultimate social death.
And to think that families are supposed to live under this permanently and that is just how they’re supposed to function if they want to receive supports and services is just insane.
Yeah, it’s one of the things that I was so surprised about when I started really investigating the family policing system is that most children who are separated from their families are separated for quote “neglect”, right, which is usually related to poverty and not abuse in the ways that we believe we know how to define abuse. In our introduction episode with Alan Dettlaff, we talked about how neglect became such a dangerous designation for parents. And in reading his book, I learned that the battered child syndrome, which was a highly influential paper, presented in 1962 by Henry Kempe, is still being considered today. It put forward the idea of individual pathology among parents rather than any societal factors as the cause of child abuse. His descriptors of the abusive parent match stereotypes of poor Black parents rather than those of middle-class white parents. What do we lose when we conflate abuse and neglect? And what are the effects of labeling parents as bad or abusive? Victoria, we’ll start with you.
So this is a great point, and I actually want to take it a little bit off track, because it’s such a good example. So the individualization of blame is really important to highlight because of how these unfair descriptors of neglect create a perfect storm to capture Black people. But it’s not just that Kempe’s descriptors match stereotypes of poor Black parents but that the creation of these standards are rooted in the gendered and racist stereotypes as well as other harmful ideologies.
What I think is important to say is that I’m not convinced that conflating abuse and neglect is the actual problem as much as it is the fact that some people have the power to both create the definitions of abuse and neglect and dictate how these definitions get implemented over time. Where in a time where having your child wearing a mask could be considered abuse or having your child receive gender-affirming care can be considered abuse.
That’s because the problem is not actually the conflation of abuse and neglect, but that some people or someone has the power to create these definitions and deputize others to carry out harmful tactics and violence based on them. Though I do get that there’s harm reduction benefit, and being clear about the issue of neglect being conflated with poverty, I think what we miss is the opportunity to organize by not focusing on the larger issues of who and what upholds and dictates these standards.
In addition, it’s important to say that abuse does happen, but we need to think about who is being regulated to the system and captured and why. If you think about it, everyone knows Kempe. It’s that one person who gave the ability to shift the trajectory of reporting or what conditions allowed for his ideas to proliferate. How can we get to that issue? How can we dismantle those powers? A lot of people who don’t get that deep into it because it implies the medical system and deeply implicates academia. We have little groups that meet up in Los Angeles behind closed doors, the Office of Child Protection where I was able to access certain spaces and shadow a judge because I was a grad student.
Those spaces matter so much and so does highlighting and interrogating those privileges. We don’t interrogate the question of those spaces enough because I don’t think people know about them or they aren’t a part of them and fail to critique them. So I think all of this is actually where energy should be focused on more so we can actually get to the root.
You know, I agree. And I would also say that I think that when we look at neglect and we look at the ways that Black youth are disproportionately brought into the system under the guise of neglect, I think that it really imparts what like a really amazing scholar named Dr. Subini Annamma calls the rhetoric of responsibility. And I think that we really perpetuate that against parents.
So we look at a parent that maybe has a medical health issue that makes it so that they’re not able to work and they’re struggling to provide housing and food and we blame them. We hold them completely responsible and we don’t look at the ways that systems have helped contribute and really engage in systemic neglect that have enabled that parent not to receive the necessary medical care and/or medication and housing and all of the things that they need. But we’re looking at this parent and holding them personally accountable and really not taking into consideration the ways that these systems are continuing to perpetuate inequity.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore talks about this concept of organized abandonment and what it means to live in communities that are really neglected and forgotten. And it’s like living in a place that because of the capitalistic, neoliberal state, you don’t have the resources that you need. You don’t have access to supportive medical care, mental health care, food, all of these different things. And instead, you’re living in an environment that perpetuates violence and racism and instability and lack of resources. And so, yeah, I just feel like we don’t necessarily put the responsibility on these systems that are helping to uphold these conditions. And we really instead put this responsibility on the parents.
Thank you for that. How has your work changed your understanding of concepts such as harm and risk?
I think my work working with foster youth, doing the research that I do, just continues to shape my understanding of who’s really helping to perpetuate harm. I think it causes me to look a lot more critically at things, at entities. Even looking at the field of social work, which is a field that I joined and became a part of because I felt like I wanted to become a helper and really looking at the ways that this profession is really helping to aid in perpetuating harm against families.
So I think that because of the work that I do, it makes me look so much more critically at the partnerships, the organizations that I work with, the practices and the policies that exist and the ways that these systems really work collaboratively and collude with one another. So yeah, I think it definitely has shaped my understandings of harm.
Yeah, I’ll say that thinking through family policing with Bri and also my work with tech and data, and again, Black Studies, continues to help me think about the social construction of harm and risk. And again, who’s creating the standard, who was able to put it into a policy and what relationships, whether individual or organizational, make these processes run smoothly and expand.
Harm can mean many things, as I said before. It’s how we view repairing harm that has to differ from what’s been considered the norm and also how we view risk. Every day I walk out my door as a disabled person and it’s a risk, but I’m often defenseless. And yet a white person can call my family risky because there’s not enough food on my table and can change my life and generations after me forever with ease and little oversight. Understanding this dynamic and who is holding or shifting the dominant perspective is so critical in how we begin or continue to deeply interrogate everything.
Bringing back what you just talked about in terms of this idea of interrogating everything, we talk about this in each episode, but why do you think people still view this system as benevolent? What changed your views over time and what would you invite people to sit with as they examine and dismantle harmful beliefs about family policing?
Yeah, so last week I read this article about a man who surveilled Indigenous families in Brazil because he believed logging companies thought they were a myth. He thought that by revealing that they do exist, by photographing them and recording them, he could stop loggers. To many people, this seemed like a noble deed. But again, I implore people to reflect on who is holding the dominant perspective.
One of the big issues here is that there are logging companies purely benefiting from extracting colonialism, capitalism, which is leading to premature death and climate collapse among other awful things. Another issue is that there’s this man who thinks his discoveries are key in recording Indigenous people and their movements as the solution. And further, the belief that Indigenous people don’t exist, that’s a problem. Because who holds this belief? Not the Indigenous people, not the Black people. So it’s clear who is being centered here. Surveillance is only fit to be a suitable answer if you were looking at it from a skewed perspective.
If we shift our gaze, we can see that the true solution would have to be those with social power to put pressure on and dismantle logging communities. The answer would be to sacrifice time and labor to protect the lands and educate other non-Indigenous people who’ve been complicit. Instead, Indigenous people are caught in the middle of violence and surveillance. I use this example to say that the issue in believing in the façade or the benevolence of the carceral system and carceral tactics isn’t just a family policing system problem. Everyone is constantly being sold a dominant narrative that these systems and ways of doing things are normal, needed, and helpful. We have to shift this frame and change our gaze. We have to prioritize voices and feelings and experiences of those impacted. If you look through their stories, you will be told the truth and find the answers. Due to laziness, capitalism, ego, and racism, people don’t do this enough.
I want people to question everything, to maybe say I’m wrong. Maybe this isn’t needed. Maybe this process won’t be good. Maybe we need to sit with this and process this. Maybe I just need to stop. My own views over time always go stronger due to sitting with my comrades and people most impacted. It gets shaped by sitting together, reflecting, and doing the work through organizing.
You know, I think for me, because of the work that I do, I think it’s easy for me to see that the system is not benevolent and that that is a false narrative. But I think that a lot of people still really hold to this belief that children are brought into the system because they’re being physically abused and that if we don’t stop physical abuse and there’s not an entity that’s gonna stop that, then this is gonna continue to be perpetuated and that this is for the well-being of the child.
I think that people really still believe that. And I think that people see this system as being put in place to help remove children from environments that they deem that aren’t safe. And I think it’s only because I’ve had the experiences that I’ve had firsthand being in the system and working with youth in the system that I know that that’s inaccurate and that’s not true. And so I think that I would really invite people to continue to read and do your research. Like I said, when I first started out, I was not an abolitionist. I didn’t know what that was. I was probably closer to a reformist, but it took me doing my own research and seeking information to really understand.
And then, lastly, I think we have to talk to those that are most impacted. And I think that for me, that’s one of the things that I love the most about upEND is that I feel like you all always make sure that impacted people are brought to the table. And so it’s like, if we’re not listening to those people that are currently caught in the system, we’re not listening to youth that are in the system, we’re never gonna fully understand its true impact. And it’s only because of the work that I’ve done directly with foster youth that I know that for many of them, they’re like, I experienced more harm when I was in this system than I ever experienced when I was at home with my biological parents.
How can we continue to resist the oppression of family policing and advocate for its abolition? How have you seen organizers bringing people into the fight who aren’t directly impacted by family policing? I know we talked about this a little bit, right? There’s definitely been some conversation about study and struggle, which comes up in the upEND world and community quite a bit, but Victoria, what do you have to share there?
So like I said before, this is multifaceted. Since it’s a network of institutions, it’ll take people and other movements to care. It takes social work strikes and mass refusal to demand justice for Black youth like they did for white trans youth. It’s about stopping and sacrificing a job opportunity for true justice. It’s about creating new jobs and new creative ways to help. That is, after speaking and partnering with those most impacted.
As a community, it’s about deeply reflecting on what the goal is collectively and deciding and dedicating time to dive into political education and intentional action. We do our best work together across different movements. We do our best work by being in community, not speaking unsolicited for a community. I also think that during this time, I’ve been able to see how desperately our movements need to be more inclusive.
They can become really siloed and intimidating for folks trying to learn and even folks who want to connect, but who aren’t able to due to ableism or transphobia or misogynoir. It is going to take all of us. And lastly, I’ve learned that resisting family policing means reconnecting what it truly means to take care of ourselves, others, and redefining what community is and community care means.
I think the pandemic has really opened my eyes to the way that restoration and grief practices have been robbed from us and how much we need to prioritize both as a way to heal and demand liberation for ourselves and others. Organizers are constantly depleting themselves without knowing it’s too late, and we deserve better. So I’m focusing a lot on trying not to give into capitalistic practices that are deeply ingrained in our day-to-day lives and use that as a means to show up better in movement spaces.
Yeah, I think it’s continuing to educate people in all the spaces that we’re in. So, like I said, I’m really lucky that my research and my work is very interdisciplinary. I’m a professor of sociology, even though I have my social work, but my PhD is in education, so I’m kinda all over the place. But when I’m able to be in each of these spaces, I’m talking about these issues. And in the school space, in the education space, they know nothing about family policing. So my work to them, they’re like, wow, they’re just so surprised.
And I’m like, how do y’all not see the connection? You’re focused on, you know, the carceral logics that are perpetuated in school based off of discipline and all these other things. But y’all don’t see the huge one, which is mandated reporting and the ways that families are reported. But once you do bring it to their attention, people are like, oh, well, we have to do something about this and how can we intertwine this in the work that we’re doing? So I feel like I’ve been really lucky that because I’ve been in some of these other spaces, people are starting to think about it more. And they’re asking questions about ways that they can incorporate this frame of thought with their work and things like that.
So I think it’s like continuing to have these conversations. I think it’s also continuing to, as I mentioned before, include impacted folk. I make a point that whenever I’m doing a research study or anything that the individuals that are helping engage in this work with me are folks that have been impacted. And so I’m really excited because I’m starting a new study soon in the LA area, looking at anti-Blackness in education and its impact on Black foster youth. And I have a Black foster youth that’s gonna be working as my graduate research assistant and helping me really engage in this work. We need to have impacted folk with us at the table at all times.
Is there anything else? We’ve talked about so much. You both have shared so much on this topic of carceral logic and how we surveil, regulate, and punish Black and Indigenous families. Is there anything that you would like to add as we work towards closing this episode?
So I hope that everyone reads and enjoys Alan’s new book. I also wanted to give a small plug to my newest report with the STOP LAPD Spying Coalition and Downtown Women’s Action Coalition called DCFS Stands for Dividing and Conquering Families which is about the history and pervasiveness of family policing in Skid Row. So the two would be great to read in tandem.
And I’ll just say as Maya here that I really hope that we were able to honor Victoria’s work and spirit and bring her into the room today.
I definitely agree. The only thing I would add would be to plug, I have a really cool article coming out with some really dope scholars, disability scholars, Subini Annamma, Brian Cabral, who does work on educational carcerality, and Jamelia Morgan, who is a legal scholar and does work around law and disability. We have a piece coming out about multi-system engagement and incarcerated girls. We’re looking at the ways that different systems such as schools, incarceration, and all of these systems work collaboratively to impart harm and talking about carceral logics and stuff like that. That’ll be coming out in the Journal of School Violence. I’m just really excited for that piece to come out because I think it’s gonna make some of those connections that we were talking about before and being able to bring this conversation into spaces where it’s not necessarily being talked about.
Well, I’m always so excited to read your brilliant thinking, Brianna and Victoria and Maya too. So again, thank you all for sharing with us today.
Before we go, I’d like for you to tell listeners how they can connect with you and your work. You’ve talked a little bit about your work, but how can they connect with you out in the world, online, share what you would like.
I mean, you can catch me at your local conference, but no, you could definitely reach me. So I do have a website, it may or may not be updated. But BriannaHarvey.com is the best way you can actually send me messages through that. If not, email is always the best way.
I would say that’s the best way to reach me is either if you see me in the streets, please say hello, and then if not, hopefully through the website.
And you can find some of my work on empwrtc.com and follow me via LinkedIn for updates. My name on there is also Victoria Copeland. If you have any particular questions regarding data and technology or wanna talk about tech related work, please reach out to me.
And we’ll put links in our show notes where you can find Brianna and Victoria’s essays in Help is Not on the Way, as well as the other resources that they’ve mentioned to stay connected with them and resources to continue learning and sharing, hopefully in community. We will see you in the next episode. Thank you both for joining us.
Thanks for having us.
Thank you for joining us for the upEND podcast as we explore family policing system abolition. To learn more about upEND and our work to strengthen families and communities, visit our website at upendmovement.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @upendmovement.