Five Children Taken From Family Following Marijuana Arrest Are Returned Home Amid Outcry
“The family is planning a celebration in their hometown.”
By Anita Wadhwani, Tennessee Lookout
Five young children taken from their parents after a traffic stop in Coffee County nearly two months ago have been returned home, a family attorney said Friday.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Service took custody of the children of Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams after state troopers pulled the family over for driving with “dark tint and traveling in the left lane while not actively passing” while on their way from their home in Georgia to a funeral for an uncle in Chicago on on February 17.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol arrested Williams for possession after an officer said he smelled marijuana during the stop and found five grams—a misdemeanor offense in Tennessee—after a search of the family’s Dodge.
Clayborne was cited, but told she was free to leave with her children, the THP said.
Instead, within hours, all five children—ages 7, 5, 3, 2 and a nursing four-month-old baby—were taken from their mother as she waited to post bond for Williams at the Coffee County Justice Center. The children have remained in foster care since, first split between three different homes then taken in by a family friend in Nashville who agreed to serve as a temporary foster parent.
The family is Black. Their case drew widespread condemnation and demands the children be immediately returned from the Tennessee NAACP, Democratic lawmakers and others after the publication of a story in the Lookout chronicling the incident and the parents’ anguished fight to get their children back.
The children were returned home to Georgia on Thursday, the family’s attorney, Courtney Teasley, said.
“The family is planning a celebration in their hometown,” Teasley said. “We will follow up with a press conference and celebration in Nashville in about a week or so after the family has gotten to enjoy time together and reclaim so much unnecessary lost time.”
Teasley declined further comment about the events that led to the children’s reunification. The case has been under the jurisdiction of the Coffee County Juvenile Court. The family and their attorneys ceased making public comments once attorneys for DCS filed motions for prosecution and sanctions against them after they revealed details about the juvenile court proceedings.
In response to a request for comment, a DCS spokesperson said: “The gag order is still in effect. We would refer you to the juvenile court.”
The case raised questions about whether DCS took appropriate steps after one parent was charged with a misdemeanor offense—and whether the family, who was driving through Tennessee from their home in an Atlanta suburb to a family funeral, received disparate treatment because they are Black.
The family was driving through Manchester, Tennessee when they were pulled over. THP officers called for a drug-sniffing dog, searched their car and then opted to arrest Williams instead of citing him. They cited Clayborne and told her she was free to go. Clayborne has said the traffic stop was a terrifying experience for her and her young children.
At the Coffee County Justice Center, where Clayborne drove with her children to bond Williams out, she was met with three DCS caseworkers, she previously told the Lookout. The social workers asked her to leave the children in the car, go inside and produce a urine sample. When Clayborne refused—she was afraid to leave her children alone with state caseworkers, she said—officers placed spike strips around the car. Clayborne said she then offered to take a urine test inside the car, but could not produce one.
It was after Clayborne took her five children inside the justice center to post bond for Williams that caseworkers and police officers surrounded her and walked away with each child, she said.
Unbeknownst to Clayborne, DCS officials had received an emergency order to take the children into custody, citing probable cause that the children were neglected and stating there was “no less drastic” option available, according to records reviewed by the Lookout.
When the parents appeared in a Coffee County courtroom days later to try and get their children back, they were asked to submit to urine drug screens. Clayborne tested negative for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Williams tested positive, according to records reviewed by the Lookout.
The couple were then asked to submit to fast-turnaround hair follicle tests, though it is unclear who requested them after their initial negative urine tests, or why.
The instant follicle test used is inadmissible in court, a Coffee County administrator told the Lookout. A drug testing expert said they are known for producing false positives. When the tests for Clayborne and Williams came back positive for methamphetamines, fentanyl and oxycodone for both parents, they denied using the drugs.
DCS used the result of the instant test to file an amended claim against the couple for severe child abuse.
Later, when the couple’s attorneys subpoenaed the test, DCS attorney Sheila Younglove responded by email that the test no longer existed.
DCS also claimed the couple’s children disclosed their father was called the “weed man,” knew how to roll joints and said their parents took them on drug deals. Williams called the accusations “absolute lunacy;” the family’s attorneys questioned how and when the children could have made such disclosures and who elicited those claims. It is unknown if they received answers.
The couple’s attorneys subpoenaed body cam video of the traffic stop, video footage of the justice center parking lot and its interior, where the kids were taken from their mother and personnel files for the DCS officials who had a role in removing the children after the traffic stop.
It is unclear whether the attorneys have obtained any information from those subpoenas.
Teasley referred all questions to her statement that the family would make public comments only after they had a chance to reunite with their children.
This story was first published by Tennessee Lookout.
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