Victoria Copeland: Oral Histories of Surveillance
There’s a lot of people who do research on Black families and speak for Black families and it’s like, you have a degree of separation [and] you think you can just separate the research from your personal life and you probably can, because you have that privilege. I can’t. A lot of us can’t. That’s why I think it’s been challenging in that area, but I also think that’s why it was so necessary for me to work with a community organization—and abolitionist ones—to continue to check me, because I’m coming from this place. You know, check me and the way I’m designing my research, the way I’m going about my question, I really needed other people who are doing this work to review it to make sure that I’m not also continuing that kind of framework or that kind of harm and that I’m not staying in this privileged space and that I’m continuing to do good work.
Our Data Bodies (ODB) is excited to present a series of oral histories from organizers, writers, and cultural workers whose work has been steeped in resisting discriminatory surveillance technology and racialized surveillance capitalism, and has illuminated strategies for abolition and abolitionist reform. This oral history features Victoria Copeland, a third year Social Welfare doctoral student at the University of Los Angeles, California. Her research currently explores the use of data and surveillance within the “child welfare” system. The transcript, slightly edited for clarity, follows below.
Mariella Saba: Starting with a general question for folks who don’t know, we’d love if you could help us understand the work that you do. Where are you coming from?
Victoria Copeland: I’m a third year Ph.D. student in social welfare. I also have a master’s in social work. I’m from Las Vegas—North Las Vegas, specifically, and I went to Cheyenne High School. I’m adding that in because that is a very important piece of why I am the way I am and where I’m from… This is kind of tangential, but I was looking at the crime rates of different areas and I was interested in looking at the crime rates of where I’m from, my neighborhood and it’s just off the charts in terms of crime, however ”crime” is calculated on these different websites. I thought it was really interesting because that’s kind of all I know and I would never think of my community as dangerous or full of crime, so it was interesting to think about that. My community is very important to me. The high school I went to was one of the worst ranked in the nation and it’s what made me who I am and is a lot of the reason why I’m where I am today, and I want to uplift that whenever I can.
My current work is around the child welfare system. I actually came into this work because I was working in my community as a youth advocate—so, helping youth on probation—and all of my youth actually had cases in the child welfare system. I was introduced to a lot of the barriers that we as service providers and as systems place on these youths’ lives, and just how hard it was to see my own peers going through this vicious cycle of both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. That really pushed me to pursue social work, which I thought was going to be the answer… Not THE answer, but, you know, I was going to be able to find out why we’re placing these barriers on kids and it’s been a journey, to say the least, through this field. I really wanted to continue that work as I entered the space of academia, so that’s where I started to notice how child welfare really is such a huge problem not just because it funnels youth into other systems, but because in itself it is a policing system, a law enforcement agency. I started to redirect my focus into what it would look like to abolish or dismantle this system after I realized that really no reform would ever work in terms of just the violence that they cause on families.
Mariella Saba: Thank you. Grateful for you in this world, grateful that you’re doing that work. Could you tell us about your first encounters with surveillance in your community?
Victoria Copeland: This is a really interesting question because the place I am now and how much I know about surveillance and how expansive surveillance can be and [that] it doesn’t just mean like, “Oh, these cameras are watching you.” When I was growing up, that’s what I thought of surveillance. Now that I’m an adult—and not just an adult, but someone who’s learned and experienced so much—I look back at several points in my life before I was even conscious of different like surveillance tactics. I remember being fingerprinted when I was younger because there was this whole thing going around about kids being snatched up from the street, and so I was fingerprinted so law enforcement could have my fingerprints on on their files. I remember CPS [Child Protective Services] coming into my aunt’s house and having to go through the entire house investigating—I remember that. So, there were these these different times in my life where I remember some things.
I think I was actually conscious of monitoring and surveillance once I entered high school. At my high school, we constantly had security guards and hall monitors, because they felt we needed it, that that was the answer. I remember security guards just like walking around with these big canisters of Mace or pepper spray and when somebody would get in a fight, they would just pepper spray everybody. Everyone. And this was very normal to me, seeing hall monitors tell us, “We don’t care about your life. Y’all need to get off of campus. Y’all not our responsibilities, so please just leave after school.” I remember the security guard, I remember shootings, and this was all normal to me until I entered my master’s. It was that long until I started sitting in these classes with other social workers and realizing the communities they would talk about was like where I came from. It was kind of an out of body experience, because I was like, “Wait, you’re talking about my home? Like, where I came from, what I’m used to.”
I put a lot of thought into reflecting on those experiences because it’s not something we discuss in my own family. We didn’t discuss the school shootings, or constantly being monitored, or constantly being surveilled. We never discussed that. My family was just, you know, get your schoolwork done and carry on. One of my friends, her brothers got stabbed at a party and the next day, we were all just at school. Like, we were just at school. It’s crazy. We has so many security guards but I remember the first time I experienced a school shooting, it was after one of my basketball games. There was no protection at that point and we didn’t even discuss it that week. It was like, you guys are constantly surveilling and monitoring us, but for what? So, high school was when I really, really started to feel to feel that, and to see it, and live it.
Mariella Saba: Thank you so much for sharing that. My heart goes out to that, to ending that and how much we normalize or how much we’re trained to think that that’s just how it is. And what the impact that that has on our health, our mental health. There’s been some fights and some wins, but this is an experience for a lot of youth of color—Black youth, Brown youth, immigrant youth—it gets normalized that we get watched and surveilled and harmed constantly. Where were you when you first decided to organize against policing surveillance, or DCFS [Department of Child and Family Services] or CPS? What moved you?
Victoria Copeland: I think it was incremental. I think definitely in high school, there was this one moment I was invited to… It was called a “Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast” or something. It was just like a bunch of kids from different schools, and we all got to have breakfast with the mayors and their wives. It was just crazy. I got invited by my principal, who at the time was April Key. She’s so dope. She was this Black woman. She was so dope. She’s like, “You’re gonna go, you’re gonna kill it,” and they were just like discussing how much we needed to catch up to China and how bad we were scoring on test scores. It was awful. So, I got up on the mic and was like, “But what are you doing? Like, what are YOU doing?” and I remember just like getting a call from the principal being like, “Ooh, you’re trying to get me fired, but I’m proud of you,” but “you’re trying to get me fired, ” is what you’re saying. That was the moment where I was like, “Oh, this is way above… this is, like, way above even my school.” I just kept that fire within me through college.
When I entered that space as a youth advocate, I really, really, really started to realize the harm that—I mean, I already knew that the criminal justice system and the child welfare system was horrible, but to see how social workers were implicated in it, how nonprofits were implicated in it, how they just engulfed all of these other systems as well—the education system. Like, the child welfare system really puts their hands in every single thing to the point where when one thing is bad, everything is bad. You just continue that cycle that this child is now stuck in and they can’t get out because it’s your, it’s our fault. At that point, I just remember like—Because advocates, we don’t get paid much and we do a lot of hard work—I was taking my youth everywhere, driving them everywhere, finishing their court orders with them, and we get paid nothing.
It was difficult to go to court with these youth and for them to continually be extended probation because of things out of their control—because housing wouldn’t take them because they had past gang affiliation or they didn’t trust the parents to reunify—then the youth would be so disheartened and I would be heartbroken. I would just go home and cry and be like, “This is absolutely just not okay. It’s horrendous. I just can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” My dad was in the system before—briefly, because he was adopted by his aunt. But I think about how he feels so lucky that he wasn’t in that system for so long that it ended up being this cycle. So, I’m like, “How can this be a possibility? How is this reality?” So there wasn’t a specific moment. I think things just built on top of each other and working as an advocate that that year just did it for me. I was like, “No, this is insane. This is not okay.”
Mariella Saba: Thank you for sharing that. Let’s try to go into a story around a typical surveillance encounter that someone in your community has experienced. Maybe thinking about the young folks that you’re talking about—What is the typical ‘day in the life’ of surveillance, at home or in the street or at school or in the foster system? What comes to mind?
Victoria Copeland: There’s one youth—well, there’s a few—but there’s one specifically that I just remember crying a few times when I was working with her. She was a transfer from LA, was on probation, brother was in the military, and she lived with her grandma at the time. Her day-to-day was just like… how stressful to be under the watch of so many systems. Even me as an advocate, what I say in my case notes will dictate if you get off of probation or not… I have power over the trajectory of your life and that was so much for me. That was… that was a lot, and I didn’t realize that it’s I started doing that work.
She would have to wake up at like five or six in the morning to get ready. She lived in a group home, so it was sharing bathrooms with other people who lived in the house, trying to go off the schedule of the person who was in charge. So she’d get up at like five or six-thirty to take the bus to school. They have to wear their specific IDs on their necks [and] if they don’t, they can get suspended or have to go home, which is like, again, a form of surveillance and a form of policing. She didn’t want to be there. I would have to pick her up from school after or I chose to pick her up from school after so she didn’t have to ride the bus [and] take her like 45 minutes to another city to do her parenting classes, because she also had a child who was in the child welfare system. They removed her from her care. I would take her 45 minutes across town because if she was five minutes late to this class—across town, mind you, which would have taken so long in a bus.
They told her she would have to go home and restart the whole thing over. Ridiculous. Again, another form, another branch of surveillance is, “We have our eyes on you at all times.” Even me as an advocate, I am a part of those eyes because if you’re late, I have to put that in my case notes, so I was trying to do everything to just prevent that from happening. We would go to the class, and then I would have to take her to the person in charge of the group. I’d have to take her to the rec center because they were doing, like, a Zumba class. Mind you, she still hasn’t had time to do her homework, which is expected to be done by tomorrow when she wakes up at six in the morning to go to school again.
So she’s sitting at this recreation center, like, “Okay, I haven’t been able to get home and do my homework,” so she’s up until super late and if she didn’t check these boxes and do these classes and do these community service things on the weekend, they dangled her visitation with her child over her head, like, “Oh, you can see her for three hours on Sunday… if you’re doing what you need to be doing.” It’s like at every part of the day, someone’s eyes are on you. You’re being monitored. Somebody is writing case notes on you. Somebody is sharing case notes with your PO, your probation officer, or your DCFS, or child welfare worker, who I never saw, by the way. We’re all sharing notes on you about what you’re doing every single day. People think of child welfare as, “Oh, you know, they do check-ins here and there, and they come to your house randomly sometimes and they do random drug tests,” and its like, no. This is an all day thing. It’s every single day for people. It’s constant. And it’s like, “Well, I want to get my child back and I want to get off probation, but I can’t do that unless I show you every day, every single part of the day that I am perfect.”
Mariella Saba: Who have you organized? Or who are you organizing against?
Victoria Copeland: Well, that’s a big one. [laughs] My focus is definitely the child welfare system, although obviously I think it’s very interconnected with abolishing a criminal justice/injustice system and a prison industrial complex. I think those two are very related, those two fights. I’m definitely trying to organize against the child welfare system right now, especially here in LA. There’s some really, really great work happening in New York right now, which I am just inspired by constantly. I’m definitely working on trying to dismantle that system right now.
Mariella Saba: Can you tell me a story about what that has entailed? What has been the outcome?
Victoria Copeland: I would say it’s definitely been difficult, because I am in academia as well as social work. I feel like a lot of times there’s conflict when you’re in this space and you’re trying to organize with community—with your own community—against these systems that we’re so partnered with. I was saying on this webinar the other day, like, universities have contracts with the child welfare system. We supply workers to the system, so what does that mean for me as a social worker, especially in an institution, to be trying to dismantle the system?
I think with that, it’s been very difficult and has taken a lot of reflection on my part and just really trying to stay with community. I reached out to Stop LAPD Spying because one of my mentors within academia recommended that I… I was reading Automating Inequality and then I started just doing more work and research on organizing within LA specifically. I was already working with Youth Justice Coalition in terms of their work on removing fines and fees within LA County. So, doing my research within more abolitionist organizations here and among grassroots orgs in LA. I linked up with Hamid at Stop LAPD Spying and started attending the webinars and everything. I decided that the only way to do a dissertation is to really continue to dedicate myself to doing work with community and doing work dismantling the child welfare system.
It’s definitely been a journey. It’s definitely like all of these conflicts, in terms of like my position in different areas right now. I think people are beginning to be more receptive to abolition and talk of abolition, in academia at least, which has been less challenging for me because there’s some support. Either way, it’s what I feel I need to do, but it’s definitely been challenging.
Mariella Saba: Can you share a little bit more about why it’s challenging? Or what’s challenging about it?
Victoria Copeland: I think it’s challenging because, well, one, academia in general is not a common space of organizing, right? What does that even look like, in terms of being in an academic space and organizing? I don’t know, I’m still grappling with that. It’s very different because I see myself as part of the community, or as we say, “The Community.” When I talk about, “Hey, I’m doing research with community,” it’s this weird binary, this dichotomy that’s so separate. But, I get it, because academia has been so harmful to people. Like, the research we have taken part of, the research that we still produce to this day… I wrote this article, and it was like, there are still people who really pathologize and individualize child welfare involvement, victim blaming all the time. It’s still happening. It’s not this old thing and academia produces a lot of that work. There’s a lot of pro-surveillance literature within child welfare, and what does that mean for the system and for families—for my community—to be pro-surveillance or pro-tech? “We need these algorithms to predict risk, and we need these algorithms to predict risk while they’re still in the womb.” It’s like, what is this research? That’s academia. I’m not of that frame of mind at all, but I’m still coming from an institution that produces that work.
That’s why I say it’s very challenging when I’m coming to like, my advisor or other people in academia with this paper, like, “Here, I want to burn this whole system down,” you know? They’re like, “Wait, hold on. Hold on. Let’s talk reform,” and I’m like, “No, we’re done talking reform.” I’m not just doing research with community like… For a lot of Black people, Brown people, other people of color, if we’re not in the system, we know somebody who is, like, directly. So, this isn’t like this fun paper that like we’re just gonna reshare with other academics. People are dying. People are being separated from their families. And this isn’t some fun game where we swap abstracts. This is real life. You know what I mean?
That is what’s challenging, because then people are like, “Well, that’s advocacy, that’s not research.” And for me, it’s the same thing. That separation, I can’t just… there’s a lot of people who do research on Black families and speak for Black families and it’s like, you have a degree of separation, [and] you think you can just separate the research from your personal life, and you probably can, because you have that privilege. I can’t. A lot of us can’t. That’s why I think it’s been challenging in that area.
But I also think that’s why it was so necessary for me to work with a community organization—and abolitionist ones—to continue to check me, because I’m coming from this place. You know, check me and the way I’m designing my research, the way I’m going about my question, I really needed other people who are doing this work to review it to make sure that I’m not also continuing that kind of framework or that kind of harm and that I’m not staying in this privileged space and that I’m continuing to do good work.
Mariella Saba: May your path keep clearing as you navigate that space. That’s what I’m wishing. It’s very moving to hear you.
Can we get into a little bit about the algorithms that you’ve learned about, just so that we could document some of the surveillance technology that’s coming out from the DCFS system. When I got into the Our Data Bodies project, that was one of the initial pieces that I was intrigued by, that there were these freakin risk assessment algorithms. If you could share some of what you’ve learned about that, that’d be great to hear.
Victoria Copeland: I started this work just looking into decision making processes, like how are caseworkers making decisions? What does that process look like? Doing that research brought me to automated decisionmaking and I was really intrigued by that. I found this article that’s buried—it’s not widely shared for a reason, I think—on DCFS’s Project AURA, and they were basically using an algorithm to predict risk and they had to shut it down because it was something like—It was in the 90s, a 90% false positive rate. It was just marking a bunch of Black families as “high risk. ” It was just astonishing to me, because I’m like, “Where was this? Why is this not more known? Why are people not, like, furious that this is even a—Enraged at this?” I was just baffled. Every time I asked somebody about it, they’re like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” which is insane to me. That [Project AURA] was in collaboration with researchers, academic researchers, as well, so there are these harmful ties. They didn’t actually say that they were stopping it—I think they were just trying to make it better [and] trying to improve the algorithm. Again, it’s like, “Why do we need… Why? Why are you guys trying to do this? This is not necessary at all.”
Also, I was on a training and they had a guest speaker from DCFS and he was talking about how the hotline now has an automated feature where literally, it will just like, listen. It’s hosted by Amazon—by AWS [Amazon Web Services] or whatever—but it’s housed by them. And basically, it listens to what the person saying, and it will flag certain words. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, we’re already there. We’re already there. Things have already been automated.” That was only one person speaking for like 20 minutes, so how deep is this even, at this point? That was this summer, and that was just the hotline.
So, I have no idea what else, what else is happening. I have no idea where that Project AURA, if that’s been updated or if they’re using a newer version of that. Those are two of the things that I know for sure are happening. I read a data brief—I don’t know how recent it is—but they were talking about how to better predict the risk of the child while it’s in the womb. So, while somebody who’s about to have a child is in the hospital or is in care, are they able to predict the risk of the child being harmed? I was like, “We’re damned in the womb.” It’s harm, and I can’t believe that people don’t see why that’s violent and why that’s harmful and why that surveillance before somebody is even existing in a physical form in the world is like… right? So that’s where I’m at with the knowledge that I know right now.
Thank you so much for sharing that. I appreciate that you’re, you’re lifting up the rage that needs to be felt and known and that we can move that rage into something. You did mention organizing in New York—I think for this oral history, it’ll be great to know what you were referring to?
Victoria Copeland: I’ve been looking a lot to Movement for Family Power. They’ve just been doing great work, not only just being vocal and advocating for change, but also just the different mediums that have come out—some briefs, videos—ways to convey the message that child welfare needs to be dismantled. I think during COVID, there’s always this question about, like, how do we mobilize? How do we face this during this time where you can’t even see somebody? I think that’s been a huge difficulty, in various organizing spaces that I’ve been in this year and they’ve really just stuck to it and figured out ways to get the message out, that it needs to be dismantled and just have not given up, whether that’s through direct action or not and I think that’s incredible.
I think that LA has a great opportunity to do similar work. There’s a petition that just came out calling for the removal of cops from DCFS. Of course we need to go way further than that, but I think it’s a start. I think Movement for Family power and even Joyce has been doing just really great, amazing work as someone who has also been impacted by these systems and just speaking out constantly and doing that work is so inspirational and I think that’s work that we can continue to do here in LA as well.
Mariella Saba: From interviewing through the Our Data Bodies project, I’ve found out how common it is to remove children, to separate families—I feel like it’s more common than we talk about because there’s so much stigma and shame around it. So much internalized oppression that happens with having your children removed and this bad parent thing that is very real.
I want to pick on one more thing before we close. When you were talking about the story of the young person who was being surveilled day-to-day, you mentioned the case notes. It sounded like there was a mandatory kind of reporting there and that case, notes were being shared. I’m curious about what’s mandated. I’m curious about what programs or databases you’re using where this information is being shared.
Victoria Copeland: I think it might be a little bit different. I was in Vegas at the time, so I think it might be a little bit different. As an advocate, I wasn’t their social worker at all, in any way. I wasn’t their caseworker. I had to do basically case notes for the court date to advocate for my youth. So, even if my youth didn’t finish community service, I’d be like, “She did a great job in community service!” I would be like, “Alright, you’re gonna sit with me for an hour and we’re gonna read together, and I’m marking as community service because this is stupid.” That was what my case notes were, and that was really my time to really advocate for my youth to get out of this freakin’ system, because that’s the least I could do with me being eyes on you as well.
We didn’t have electronic databases at the time, either. It was all hand notes, but these would go to the court. It would go to the judge. We would share with the probation officer. That’s mostly who we were working with, which the POs were awful. I barely saw the child welfare caseworkers, which was concerning for me. I think in retrospect its is like, “Okay, cool that you weren’t surveilling them,” but by the time we got to court and I realized that that the child welfare caseworker was the one doing a lot of the talking, I was like, “Oh, this is concerning.” Like, I’m seeing this kid every single day—almost every day of the week—and you’re the one reporting to the judge. We would have like, if the school reported something or the caseworker was concerned out of nowhere, we would have a CFT [Child and Family Team] meeting with all of her workers. It would be the advocate which—I would be with the youth because I’m taking them everywhere. They would notify us sometimes hours before, so of course grandma’s not going to come because you didn’t give her time to plan. And they would hold that against her. It would be the social worker, the probation officer [and] we would all be in a room discussing this youth. Mind you she’s not really saying anything because it’s just a bunch of people talking with their case notes about her, which was just… If that doesn’t mess you up as a worker, you’ve become way too normalized to this. It’s just… I would… like my heart. I would just have a real conversation with my youth after, like, “I am so sorry.”
Like, we’re not even in court yet and it feels like we’re in court because you have to talk about why you’re skipping school and why this and that and they don’t see you every day working so hard to just be done with all of this… To then go to court and have these papers—Especially if the CFT doesn’t go well and the PO is like, “No, you got to stay in. There’s no housing options for you, you got to stay in. Grandma didn’t show up, you got to stay in. Your caseworkers case notes didn’t look good, so you have to stay in.” That’s what they’re telling the judge, and the judge is like, “Okay, cool. Everybody said you have to stay in so you’re staying in.” And then they wonder why you’ve run away. You know what I mean? So, that was my case notes. It was paper, but I would share it with all the workers because that’s what you do. I don’t know specifically what DCFS was using. I know in LA, they use CWS CMS, so they share databases with law enforcement, police. They have specific shared databases here. I know that from a project I was working on. They definitely share databases. But as an advocate, I didn’t have access to those databases. It was just my written case notes that I would just pray they did something.
Mariella Saba: Having other people talking about your life and making decisions is so dehumanizing. It’s really gross.
Victoria Copeland: I tell people like, “Have you ever sat in court?” because it’s literally the most gut wrenching—It’s an awful feeling. It’s horrendous. Even when you’re just waiting and see people come out crying and stuff like that?
Mariella Saba: If you had a song to describe the vision that your communities are working towards, what would that be? Or a song to describe this work?
Victoria Copeland: I don’t have specifically a song. It would probably be a Nipsey Hussle song, though, because I love Nipsey. When he died, that really shook me. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, is a poet, writer, scholar. Amazing. I don’t know their pronouns, so I’m just gonna use they/them, but they wrote a book called Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity and it’s just, it’s beautiful. So, if that could be in song form—it basically is in song form—that would be like… It’s beautiful, it’s like a masterpiece, it’s one of my favorites and I think that, you know, even just reading the poetry and the lines just kind of come out. That would be it.
Mariella Saba: Is there anything you want to add that’s on your heart and your mind right now from what you shared?
Victoria Copeland: There was something that you said that really stuck with me. You were talking about being able to reclaim your body and I think that’s huge for me. I was on this webinar two weeks ago with the Shriver Center, and we were talking about this carceral web—I like to call it “carceral ecosystem, ” because I think it’s really based on these relationships. And sustaining these relationships has been able to sustain the state violence.
People constantly are asking, “Well, what can we do? What can we do?” and, “If there’s no child welfare system, what’s gonna help?” and it’s so sad. I’m glad that people are asking. But it’s also so sad to think that like us as people—like Black people, Brown people, people of color, Indigenous people—don’t already have these infrastructures. We need to uplift the ability to have a doula, the ability to have a midwife and not to have to go to the hospital. We have these forms of care, but some people just aren’t connected to them, there is not enough money to sustain these services [and] the community infrastructure. So, just to uplift that… like, just give people money. Give communities money. I don’t understand why that’s so controversial. It just always goes back to that, especially because we see that so many cases of neglect are coming into the system. Just… I don’t understand.
In terms of like, reclaiming the body—I think that’s so important because even with this predictive analysis or whatever algorithm they’re trying to use to predict risk in the womb, it’s like, how can I reclaim a thing that’s in my womb that’s not even out yet? You already claimed it. Especially with Black women, like, when I have my child, you already have a claim over it. That’s violent. So, by dismantling this system you’re dismantling so many forms of violence and that’s why it’s so, so, so important to me to uplift the harm. People are like, “Oh, it’s risky or it’s necessary because it’s child protection.” And it’s, like, no. It’s violent. It’s literally so violent. I don’t understand. Why? Why?
[I’ll] just uplift the amazing work that organizers are doing right now, activists just trying to get through pandemic, and just everything else on top of trying to do this work. So just uplifting those spaces and just trying to remain grounded in that and take care of ourselves during that as well.
Mariella Saba: Yes. Thank you so much for sharing all of this. Thank you for your time.