Nearly a month ago, five children of a black couple, who were stopped by Tennessee Highway Patrol on their way to a family funeral, were taken into custody by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and placed in three different foster homes. In a court hearing earlier this week, the department decided that the children will not be returned to their parents at this time. The five children were present during their parents’ court appearances, with the smallest seen in their father’s arms or holding their mother’s hand.
The childrens’ parents, Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams, were pulled over for driving in the left lane without passing and for having tinted windows. Williams was arrested for possessing five grams of marijuana, while Clayborne was cited and later released with the children. DCS then took the children away from Clayborne while she was waiting to bond Williams out.
Clayborne and Williams are now fighting to regain custody of their children, whom they say were “kidnapped” by the state. This incident is part of a larger pattern in which child welfare services in the US disproportionately separate poor, Black, and Indigenous families under the pretext of alleged neglect and abuse, exacerbating existing disparities in family stability.
Both parents deny drug use, but rapid hair follicle tests showed positive results for drugs, which DCS used in a court filing as the basis for accusing Clayborne and Williams of child abuse. A Coffee County court administrator declared them inadmissible in court; and an expert stated that rapid hair follicle tests are notorious for producing false positives. Children’s Services stated that the children, aged 7, 5, 3, 2, and 4 months, had also claimed their father took them on drug deals, which he denied.
The traffic stop and subsequent removal of the five children by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has been the subject of controversy and scrutiny. Advocates have pointed out that the DCS has a history of mistreatment and inadequate care of children in its custody, with many children being kept in inappropriate and unsafe living conditions.
“Certainly, there are more facts and circumstances that exist that the defendants have chosen not to disclose during their efforts to try this matter in the court of public opinion and the realm of politics. My office will only try this matter in the criminal court of law,” said District Attorney Craig Northcott.
But Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee called for the return of the couple’s children. State senator London Lamar said the state’s action were “ridiculous” and an “overuse of power”, describing it “borderline discrimination”.
Courtney Teasley, the attorney representing the family since late February, said that Clayborne and Williams’s case reflected “how government systems that say they are there to protect have the ability to use those same protections to oppress”. Teasley also stated that she has faced retaliation simply for speaking to the media about the case. According to Teasley, the attorney for Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services filed a motion “for sanctions and referral for prosecution” against her, claiming Teasley violated confidentiality clauses, which she denies.
Teasley and the parents declined to provide further information about the hearing, Teasley citing a court order that forbids her from saying anything else. Check back for updates as this story continues to develop.