Angela Burton speaking into a microphone.

Unjust Termination and the Preservation of Black Families: A Conversation with Angela Burton

Angela Burton is an attorney, former law professor, and public servant with lived experience in the family regulation system. Her work within the court system led to an unjust termination for doing what she was hired to do: advocate against the destruction of Black families. In this conversation, we spoke with Angela about Black self-determination and how tech and data simultaneously obscure and expand control over descendants of chattel slavery.

Khadijah Abdurahman: What was your role with the court system, and how did you leave? 

Angela Burton: It’s kind of like the situation that many parents find themselves in after the government has come into their lives and done a whole lot of fuckery, and then you’re trying to tell it to multiple different people, over the course of time, while you’re still engaged in it—while it still has a hold on you. I’m currently in that spot right now because it’s so fresh and raw, and things are still evolving. I’m still processing all of it.

But, starting with my role in the court system: we’re starting the conversation at a point in time of over a thirty-year career in government, as well as academia and corporate and all sorts of things. I started at the New York State Office of Court Administration’s Office for Justice Initiatives as special counsel for interdisciplinary matters in June of 2022, on the heels of just about ten years as New York’s first director of quality enhancement for parental representation at the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services. A lot of the work that I had been doing at ILS, I carried over into this new position that was created for me in the Office for Justice Initiatives under Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, deputy chief administrative judge for justice initiatives. 

I continued all the work around improving legal representation for parents, training lawyers, and advocating for resources and better support, oversight, and accountability; working on timely access to counsel for parents, including at the initial CPS [Child Protective Services] investigative stage—which is not a common practice across the country but is growing in prominence and in prevalence. And at the same time, I also continued to engage in the work around ending family policing, working with national and local advocacy initiatives and organizations to increase awareness about the anti-Black roots of the system and how the structure embedded in the federal laws trickles down to the states and determines agency practice and interactions between government and families.

Khadijah: Could you talk about the difference between what you’re describing about investigations in the family policing system and the traditional policing system—while acknowledging that many parents are involved in both? For example, when we have family team conferences, there’s no attorney at all.

Angela: A huge reason why there’s a need for advocacy around what we’re calling family Miranda—that is, people being advised of their rights, people having access to legal counsel during a family police investigation—is because the system is structured to ignore and not protect those rights. And that’s structured from the federal level all the way down. So the local CPS—it’s called different things in different places; in New York City it’s called ACS, Administration for Children’s Services—they have an investigative arm. When a call comes in to the child abuse hotline and someone accuses a parent or other adult of mistreating a child, a CPS caseworker—a government agent—is sent out to investigate. 

So the hotline is like the 9-1-1 of policing systems. A call comes in to the dispatcher. The dispatcher sends an investigator out. But in family policing, that investigator claims huge powers under the law to just knock on someone’s door and say, “I’m investigating a call about a child in this home being maltreated.” There are laws in place that say that if there’s no emergency—if there’s no evidence of immediate or “imminent” danger or risk of serious harm to a child’s life or health—before just showing up at a person’s home, that investigator should be going to court to get a search warrant, just like in the regular policing system. But they most often do not.

So parents are left at the mercy of this random person who has no checks or balances over what they’re allowed to do, up to the point of just walking into a home and taking a child from their parent and placing that child with strangers, or in a facility, or sticking them in an office somewhere, or whatever else they do all around the country. In Texas and in Georgia and other places, they have kids in jail cells for their “protection.” 

Khadijah: Thank you. A lot of times we don’t spell this out. Obviously, people in the hood know this. But since it’s so segregated, this very basic information is often omitted, so I really appreciate you concretely spelling that out. Otherwise it’s all in abstraction.

Angela: You know, that’s just the surface of it.

I was working in a division of the New York court system called the Office for Justice Initiatives. There’s a Court Improvement Project that’s under that division. That project, the CIP, is a federally funded project under the federal Children’s Bureau that’s required for every state that receives child welfare funding under Title IV of the Social Security Act. I worked very closely with the CIP on various initiatives framed around the federal Children’s Bureau’s initiative around “racial equity” and improving the experience and outcomes for children and families in child protection cases. 

My position with the court system was described as focused on elevating the unique perspective of parents’ experience with the court system, with a focus on family justice and racial justice, and that I would be working with the various divisions within the Office for Justice Initiatives on policy and training and things like that. So it was a very broad, open-ended job description that, from my understanding, would allow me to be flexible and continue the work that I had been doing before, and to bring that unique perspective into the court system that was missing.

There was no specific, concrete, “Here’s your assignment” thing. It was just like the job that I had before for ten years at ILS: uncharted, “Make it up as you go along,” which is what I love.

Khadijah: Autonomy.

Angela: Yeah, a lot of autonomy. 

Khadijah: What did you do with that autonomy? What did you spend your time doing, and where were the points of friction that you encountered?

Angela: In the aftermath of being fired, I’ve been thinking about those very questions: What did I do with my time? And why did they fire me? When I transitioned from my former position at the Office of Indigent Legal Services, I’d already been working closely with the court system’s Court Improvement Project on training programs and other initiatives around improving legal representation for parents. As a federal mandate, the Court Improvement Project has to work both with court system actors and the statewide child welfare oversight agency—in New York, that’s the Office of Children and Family Services, OCFS. That agency manages the federal child welfare funding passed through to the local CPS agencies and sets statewide policy and rules and regulations for the local agencies.

The CIP program provided a great platform to bring in critical perspectives on the child welfare system. My goal in working with the CIP was to think about how we can educate the broad spectrum of system players, both within the court and within agencies, as well as lawyers who represent children and parents, as well as case workers, supervisors, commissioners, et cetera. How can we create a training and educational platform that is not the same old, same old? They’re in this bubble. A lot of them don’t even understand or know there’s this huge movement happening around abolishing the family policing system. So, as described in the announcement that went out, my goal was to bring our New York State family policing system actors into this conversation about what’s happening nationally, and indeed internationally, about abolition and justice for Black families targeted by family policing. In our trainings, we centered parents and youth who survived the foster system, and brought in people like Dorothy Roberts, Miriam Mack, Dr. Tricia Stephens, and Jey Rajaraman. I think that caused a stir among some people within the court system.

Basically, I was fired for doing what I was hired to do—heighten awareness about the anti-Black, racist roots of the family policing system and its ongoing harmful impacts on Black children and families. I was scheduled to speak at two events in July 2023: an educational briefing for the Congressional Foster Youth Caucus on the issue of “hidden foster care” and a public briefing held by the New York State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights studying anti-Black racism in New York’s family policing system.

My bosses at the court system told me that, as a court employee, I was “denied permission” to speak at those events. They said my proposed remarks had nothing to do with court administration or operations and were just “analysis, opinions, and conclusions about existing executive branch and legislative child welfare policy.” 

I said, “Fine. I’ll make it clear that I’m speaking in my personal capacity as a private citizen and not as a representative of the court system.” They were like, “Nope. If you speak at these events while employed by the court, you will be terminated.” When I insisted that I had the right to speak, they fired me the week before I was scheduled to speak. Ultimately, I didn’t speak at either event, but my written remarks submitted to the Civil Rights Advisory Committee are included as part of the public record.

Khadijah: I’m reminded of this amazing Black tech scholar, Mimi Onuoha. She talks a lot about data omissions when it comes to Black people. There’s so much data that’s obsessively collected about children in foster care, or their parents, who are considered pathological contaminants. There’s very little data collected on foster and adoptive parents, very little collected on the racial composition of family court. Could you just comment a little bit on, when you’re talking about [this], who are you training?

Angela: You mentioned that there’s very little data collected on that, right? There was an internal study that was done about the practices of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, and it talked about the fact that there’s that kind of stratification; the line workers, the people who go out into the community, are mainly Black and Latinx, and the upper management is pretty much white, with a few token people of color. 

So, as you say, there’s no good data on the workforce. But in large part, if you look at reports that have come out about racism in the New York court system—the Jey Johnson report, the Franklin A. Williams report just last year—there’s that similar stratification in New York’s court system. The upper levels are much more white oriented—you know, the decision makers at the top. Although, in recent times, we now have the first Black chief judge of the New York State courts, Rowan Wilson. There are four deputy administrative judges right underneath the chief judge. One of them, my former boss, Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, is a Black woman. So there’s some diversity, if that’s what you want to call it. I don’t—that word doesn’t really catch it for me, but I’ll use it because it’s commonly used.

But that doesn’t really matter in the final analysis, because it’s not only, or primarily, about the people individually, or where they come from; it’s about the structure of the system, and what the structure mandates and dictates.

The construct of data is a whole other manifestation of the harm of the system; because the data that is collected is all about what happens, and who it happens to, as opposed to who does it, and who does it to who. They’re not collecting data on who the operators are, and what they’re doing to cause this harm. As a whole, it’s an unexplored aspect of the system. But again, I would take it up another level, just to say that in the final analysis, even if you put more Black people in higher positions, the structure of the system is still the same. It’s still going to be doing the same thing if they’re not critiquing or trying to tear down the system. If they’re just following the rules, you’re still going to see the same outcomes.

Khadijah: “Black” is not a universal category; I’ve observed African Americans being targeted specifically, and as somebody who’s a first-generation African immigrant, there are structural ways that I have more advantage because my family has been here for less time and therefore is less likely to have been criminalized or entered into the state central registry.

In the event that my kids were taken, we’d experience the violence of the system. But I’m more likely to have a family member that they could be placed with, versus somebody who is a descendent of chattel slavery in this country and who has been subjected to the system since the antebellum period; because my family is simply less likely to have been subjected to investigation and incorporated into the State Central Registry. From your vantage point of your professional and personal occupation, how do we disaggregate this category, “Black”? And how does this get lost in how the data is collected?

Angela: Like you said, tech and data both obscure and expand control over descendants of chattel slavery—African Americans, Black Americans, however you want to term it specifically. This is demonstrated by data that’s been coming out from Nora McCarthy, most recently, but also Hina Naveed’s Human Rights Watch report. It’s not just poor African Americans; the system also targets African American descendants of chattel slavery, no matter what their income level. The data is showing that, as well: that more affluent African American are more likely to be caught up in the system than other people, other groups of that same higher socioeconomic status.

I do use the term “Black,” but I always tie what’s happening to that subset of people in the system to the through line of chattel slavery. That is why I reject the focus on “disproportionality” and “disparity.”

Khadijah: I despise those terms, so I’m so happy to hear you bring that up. 

Angela: Right, it’s not about, “Oh, we’re disproportionately represented,” like we just kind of walk into this shit on our own volition. No. We’re fucking targeted, okay? And the targeting of people of chattel slavery descent in this country is built into the fabric, the structure, the architecture, the funding of this family policing system as a continuation, in my estimation, of the profitmaking machine that was and continues to be chattel slavery.

Khadijah: I think strategically, for our public comms perspective, it has been useful to talk about the system as family policing, to call it carceral. To draw from Foucault: discipline and punishment is emanating from the prison. But I feel like there’s a limitation to this articulation because when you think about the direct through line of chattel slavery, auctioning of Black babies—not all forms of discipline and punishment originate from the prison. In my mind, heavily relying on the lexicon from traditional policing in some ways obscures how the system operates. I gave the example of not having as many family members on the State Central Registry, but I also think about AFSA [Adoption and Safe Families Act], and how during [National] Adoption Month they’re having auctions of children that are severed from their parents—auctions where being Black has a financial implication. They’re labeled “hard to place” or “special needs” and therefore have an automatic subsidy attached to them. Could you walk us through a couple of concrete examples of how targeting African Americans is built into the system and has this throughline to chattel slavery?

Angela: The kinds of situations and circumstances, mainly around poverty and the lack of access to resources, that create the baseline for government intervention into families are directly related to the conditions and circumstances that too many Black families, as a result of chattel slavery, exist in. So the whole system is built around the conditions that were created by chattel slavery through the definition of “neglect” that targets Black families, descendants of chattel slavery, and leads to the “disproportionate representation” and disparate, harsher treatment of Black families; because it is still the same system. It’s just created in a different structure and framework and called something different.

The profit-making motive around child protective services can also be seen in the kinds of punitive “services” that are inflicted on families in response to the conditions that have been created from time immemorial. 

Khadijah: I think a lot about time. Time is actually an empty referent. If you look up the dictionary definition of “time,” it really just is tautological. It’s like, what are the rites and sets of things that we do to mark time. And so much of family policing is about being subjected to white time, having a nine-to-five, being in a “program,” which is keeping people inside during the specific set of time. And who they target is people who are not on that rhythm, right? And to be African American in the conditions that followed the end of the Civil War—there’s a lot of rejection of the kinds of capitalist productivity that people would like, right? And I think about diagnoses like drapetomania, which was a clinical pathology of running away from the plantation, captivity.

Angela: Freeing yourself. Freeing yourself is a mental illness.

Khadijah: Or “protest psychosis,” right, during the 1960s? And I really appreciate that book and how it talks about how Haldol was targeted at African American men. They would turn the fist backwards, so instead, the Black power fist becomes a form of pathological aggression.

Oh, rhythm—that’s what I was going to say, about rhythm and time. It’s not just the negative conditions in terms of poverty, but it’s also the positive conditions. African American culture itself becomes targeted. You see examples of AAVE [African American Vernacular English] being evidenced as an intellectual disability, as if it doesn’t have its own coherent grammar, and that then being used to legitimate the removal of a child. So there’s aspects of African American culture and refusal to comply with white time that are specifically being targeted. 

I see this also with “substance use.” Whether or not it’s even true that a Black parent is using substances, the idea of people—I think of, like, Reefer Madness, right? Who is being targeted by family policing are those refusing the rhythm of white society, and that is all entangled with these accusations of polluting the behavior of the upstanding citizens [with] drugs. It’s all mixed together, whether or not it’s true at any given time.

Angela: Right. In the article that Joyce [McMillan] and I wrote about liberating the Black family from family policing, ultimately it’s about freedom to be, right? Freedom. It’s ultimately about freedom, and being relieved from this control and oversight of every intimate aspect of your life and your family’s life. Partly as a result of family policing, and ultimately all of these other oppressive systems—armed policing, et cetera—a large swath of Black people in this country, as a result of the ongoing imposition of badges and incidents of slavery, have not yet been able to just be and to develop an educational system, health system, et cetera, et cetera; to develop and grow into who we need to be as ourselves outside of the white gaze, outside of the white rhythm, outside of the white. We ain’t y’all. We don’t want to be y’all. We’re not trying to be y’all. We want to be ourselves. Leave us the fuck alone.

Khadijah: Motherfucking encore. That was so concise. That was perfect. 

Angela: That’s really what the ultimate thing is. White people: Don’t y’all have something else to do? Go do your own thing. Leave us alone. But, again, it’s the profit motive. It’s the fascination and fear with Black bodies. 

Khadijah: The fear also of Black power.

Angela: Yes. Our power is embodied within us, and so to control our bodies is to control our power. And that’s part of the reason why, for me, getting fired is liberating as well. Even though I was trying to do what I was trying to do within the system, the freedom that I have now is more about working with our people on the ground. Like all this talking and articles and journals and conferences, and all that, is fine and good; hopefully you can reach some of the people who are decision makers, who can actually make some changes and get some shit done. But the power, to me, lies in sharing this information that I’ve gathered over thirty years with parent groups, with former foster youth, to help them understand. A lot of people are sort of misguided into, “Oh, if I tell my story,” or, “If I change the narrative”—you can’t tell your story and change the narrative without a real clear understanding of what this system is. Everybody tosses that word around, but not everybody understands how it actually operates, how it’s actually set up, how what happened to you and what happened to sister girlfriend next to you and down the hall from you, around the corner from you, is the same thing. It’s not a result of anything that you did, said, didn’t do, what you are not, or what you are; it’s an inevitable result of the system’s operations, and it’s catching up to all of us.

Khadijah: I really struggle with family policing organizing—not because I’m ambivalent about the system; burn that shit down yesterday—but one of the things that I despise is when we’re made to rehearse scenes of abjection, to rehearse the story about the worst date in our life. There’s nothing worse that you could do to a Black woman than take away their child. And we tell this story, and then we do spoken words for these white women—who are typically the defense attorneys that I have encountered, anecdotally, although, like we talked about earlier, there’s often not data on this. They’re often white women, and they’re like, “This is so powerful,” right? And it’s almost an S&M dynamic, like, “Oh, beat me,” you know? “Beat me. We’re so bad.” And it’s so gross, and so sexual and systematic.

Angela: Yeah, and they get to feel this fucking saviorism bullshit, right? What it allows them to do, and to keep their jobs, and to feel like they’re this and that. And they’re the same ones that are the descendants of slaveholding women, and the child savers, and whoever else—Catholic Charities and Child Welfare League of America and all these other bullshit organizations—that came for our children, and Indigenous and immigrant children as well, white immigrant children, to Americanize them. 

Khadijah: Orphan train system.

Angela: Instead of railing against the system, and railing against their own privilege and how they benefit from it, they get to frame themselves as champions.

Khadijah: I think half the time, people are like, “Khadijah, I don’t know what predictive risk modeling is. I don’t know what all this data shit is.” But the data shit is this, you know? This desire to enumerate, count, measure, study, terrorize Black people, and subject them to a series of processes and procedures that they themselves are never collectively subjected to. And this is not just a continuation, to me, of chattel slavery, but also colonialism—thinking about anthropology, and how that went along with colonial bureaucracy. Even the tech critics often are married to the people who are designing these systems. So it’s all this incestuous, entangled mess.

But the data stuff really just is this: this desire to not leave Black people alone, to not allow them to have peace, but to count them up, and also say that we have a moral, benevolent obligation to protect the next generation, and to protect us from this parent–child dyad.

Angela: The message that I am living and the truth that I feel that I’m being called to bring is that in this day, in this time, family policing is one of the most egregious attacks and assaults on Black families, Black children. And particularly disgusting is the way Black children are treated at the hands of government and used as pawns in their despicable destruction and continuing control over Black families, and profiting off of the misery that they’re inflicting on us generationally. This statistic that 53 percent of Black children will be investigated by CPS—and of course, investigation is not a neutral or benign thing—by the time they reach the age of eighteen reverberates generationally, to the point where at some point, somewhere in some generation not too far off in the future, every Black child will be affected. Because this is fifty years (in 2024) of the CPS system established by the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. Fifty years from CAPTA, we now have 53 percent of Black children being investigated. And with technology and predictive analytics and all that, I can imagine that within seven to ten years, every Black child in America will be investigated by CPS. 

Angela Olivia Burton is a social justice lawyer with over 30 years of public service as an educator, practitioner, and scholar, and is the co-convenor of the national Repeal CAPTA Workgroup.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 20, "policy: seductions and silences". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.