“The state of Tennessee has no respect for Black families. The state of Tennessee has no love for Black children. I’m here to tell you that, baby, it is 2023 not 1823. We are going to fight for our children and we’re going to win.”
By Anita Wadhwani, Tennessee Lookout
Five children taken from a Black family after a traffic stop in Coffee County will remain in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services following a hearing in juvenile court on Monday.
Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams were pulled over by the Tennessee Highway Patrol for tinted car windows and driving in the left lane on I-24 without passing as they tried to make their way from their home in Georgia to a family funeral in Chicago last month.
After a search of the family’s car turned up five grams of marijuana—a misdemeanor in Tennessee—Williams was arrested. Clayborne was cited and released with the couple’s five children. “The mother had custody of the children when we were done,” a THP colonel told Channel 2 News.
Less than six hours later, DCS forcibly took the children from Clayborne as she waited to bond Williams out.
“This family has been without their babies for 30 days,” Courtney Teasley, the family’s attorney said in a news conference outside the Coffee County Justice Center following the juvenile court hearing, which was closed to the public. The youngest child, Teasley noted, is a breast-feeding infant.
Clayborne will also be required to submit to a hair follicle test, Teasley said. Such tests can trace drug usage several months back.
Both Clayborne and Williams submitted to urine drug screens a week after their children were taken.
Williams tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Clayborne tested negative. The couple were then asked to submit to a rapid hair follicle test; both tested positive for methamphetamines, oxycodone and fentanyl.
Both parents deny using these drugs; a Coffee County court administrator said they were inadmissible in court; and an expert said rapid hair follicle tests are known for producing false positives. DCS nevertheless used the results of the rapid test in a court filing as the basis for accusing Clayborne and Williams of severe child abuse. DCS also claimed the kids—7, 5, 3, 2 and four months old—had said their father took them on drug deals.
Williams has called those claims “absolute lunacy.”
The DCS claims were made in court filings a week after the kids were taken away.
Teasley declined to provide any additional details about the hearing, including the reason for the mother’s hair follicle test, citing a court order that prevents her from saying more.
The parents also declined to comment, asking for privacy as they placed their children into a waiting car after the hearing.
The five children were present during the parents’ appearances at the courthouse, with the smallest children variously seen held in their father’s arms or holding their mother’s hand. The children were initially split up and placed into three different foster homes, but are now being cared for by Nashville-area relatives who agreed to serve as a foster family.
More than a half dozen DCS officials—including its chief legal counsel, a deputy commissioner and communications director—were also present inside the small county courthouse, an unusual high-level turnout for a county juvenile court case.
Advocates for the family turning out to show support included Theeda Murphy, executive director of the No Exceptions Prison Collective, who noted that DCS has itself been the subject of intense public scrutiny for the treatment of children in its care, including a lack of appropriate placements that have kept children sleeping on office floors for months.
“I am here today because DCS has been keeping children in offices and in hallways, but has the nerve to come in and say these children are in danger,” she said. “They silence anyone who has the nerve to call out what they are doing.
“The state of Tennessee has no respect for Black families,” she said. “The state of Tennessee has no love for Black children. I’m here to tell you that, baby, it is 2023 not 1823. We are going to fight for our children and we’re going to win.”
Alex Denis, a DCS spokesperson, responding to widespread criticisms the family was subject to disparate treatment because they are Black, stressed the diversity of the agency, including the front line workers involved in removing the five children from their family.
“The case managers that are working this case, they do come from diverse backgrounds,” she said, noting that nearly 35 percent of agency caseworkers and half of the department’s deputy commissioners are African-American.
The case gained widespread attention after a Tennessee Lookout report last week. The Tennessee Democratic Caucus immediately demanded the agency release the children back to their parents. Hours later, DCS filed motions to refer the couple and their attorneys for criminal prosecution for revealing details of juvenile court proceedings. No details were released Monday about the outcome of those motions.