Parents plead for their kids’ return after children taken into custody during traffic stop
A Georgia couple say they are grappling with “indescribable pain” of losing custody of their five children — ages 7, 6, 3, 2 and 4 months — after a traffic stop by the Tennessee Highway Patrol that civil rights organizations have called “targeted.”
“I’m used to waking up every two to three hours to breastfeed or when it’s time to go to school, waking the kids up, going to school, going to the bus stop. We alternate,” Bianca Clayborne, the mother of the children, told Yahoo News. “When it’s time to come from school, we see the bus. It’s painful because our kids are not coming off the bus.”
More than a month ago, on Feb. 17, a Tennessee state trooper pulled over Deonte Williams, the children’s father, for an alleged traffic violation. The family had been traveling from their home near Atlanta to Chicago for a relative’s funeral. Police say that he was stopped because he had dark-tinted windows and was driving in a left lane without actively passing. The state trooper searched the car after saying they smelled marijuana and claimed to have found five grams of it. The trooper arrested Williams, while Clayborne was cited and released.
According to court records, Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services approached Clayborne’s car in the parking lot of the Coffee County Justice Center where she followed Williams after he was arrested. They tried, unsuccessfully, to get the mother to submit a urine test while she waited with her children in the parking lot.
“The mother became very defiant and locked herself and the children in the vehicle,” court records stated. “Officer Crabtree then placed spike strips around the vehicle so the mother would not leave the premises.”
Hours later, as Clayborne was sitting down at the justice center waiting for Williams’s release, DCS personnel approached her and removed her children. The agency says that the children were “dependent and neglected” and there was “no less drastic alternative to removal available.”
Court records from Coffee County show that the couple was charged with simple possession of a controlled substance, a misdemeanor in Tennessee, on Feb. 21.
According to the Tennessee Lookout, the parents were asked to submit urine drug tests when they appeared before a Coffee County juvenile judge. Williams tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, on a urine drug screen administered Feb. 23. Clayborne tested negative for THC.
The agency then amended their claim on Feb. 24, claiming the children should be deemed “severely abused” after results of a rapid hair follicle test came back positive from both parents for methamphetamines, oxycodone and fentanyl. Clayborne and Williams have denied the use of those drugs. A Coffee County court administrator told the Lookout that rapid hair follicle tests are inadmissible in court. One expert said that the tests can be unreliable, and the fact that court staff are not trained laboratory technicians can lead to “too many false positives.”
“The state should never be relying on instant results,” Greg Bowen, owner of the Nashville-based ReliaLab Test, told the Lookout. (Bowen is not involved in this specific case.)
The couple called the National Action Network (NAN), a civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton that promotes the right to equal justice under the law, after asking multiple lawyers for assistance after not understanding why their kids were taken away.
“I met with Mr. Williams after a crisis meeting, and with my understanding of policy and legislation, immediately I knew there was a problem,” Christina Laster, an education adviser with NAN, told Yahoo News.
Laster asserted the state trooper, who claimed they stopped the family for tinted windows, “became judge, jury and potentially the destroyer of the family at that moment. And that’s too much power for one entity to have. So we began to actively pursue legal help.”
Laster said NAN started looking into the Tennessee code and ran into “vague and ambiguous language” in their compiled laws about child welfare. That’s when she noted a subsection of the law that said parents could have their children removed for immoral reasons.
“There is a nexus, a well-oiled machine, over here that hands one thing off to the other, and they know how to target certain people,” Laster said.
“So then I asked where their ticket was. If you committed a crime, I need to understand, were you ‘Mirandized’?” Laster said, referring to the act of reading someone who is under arrest their rights. “[Williams] said ‘they told Bianca to follow him to the station. It was just a ticket.’ But when she got there, DCS was waiting. So they had a big lack of understanding of their rights. That’s the whole purpose of the Fifth and Sixth Amendment.”
The parents are limited to texting, calling or using iPads for communication with their children, which they do in between traveling back and forth from Georgia to Tennessee for visitations and following court orders, such as submitting drug tests.
The children are now in the foster care system, having been placed in multiple homes since February before being placed in the care of family friend Sheryl Huff, of Nashville, on March 1. Huff is also the interim president and director of the local NAN chapter. Huff had talked to Clayborne as a representative for NAN, who unbeknownst to Clayborne, happened to be a family friend of Williams, after reaching out to the organization for help. After the kids’ former foster home reported they were overwhelmed by the volume of kids and that the kids were in danger of being split up, Huff volunteered to go through the process with the DCS to take temporary custody of the children.
Huff registered the two oldest kids to attend school in Tennessee, and will care for the younger ones at her home. She lamented that the transition has been extremely difficult as she adjusts to the new lifestyle of having younger children in the home she shares with her husband and a 16-year-old foster child. She also said the DCS brought the kids to her with no knowledge of the specifics of the case, bare necessities and formula for the infant that resulted in stomach problems. One child has asthma and has to use a breathing machine. But the former daycare provider says she is making the best of a traumatizing experience to protect their mental health.
“The kids will wake up and they’ll cry and say they want their mom or, is their mom and dad coming to get them today,” Huff explained to Yahoo News. “The two big boys are my really big concern.”
“These children are very smart and so because of that, you have to be careful what you say to them. DCS has been sitting around talking in front of the children,” Huff continued, adding that she adores the children. “The kids ask me if I’m their new foster mom. I say, ‘No, I’m your cousin.’ They also ask me if they have to go back to DCS. I say, ‘No, you all are going to stay right here until mommy and daddy come and get you.’”
DCS told Yahoo News that the judge in the case issued the involved parties a gag order on March 20 “prohibiting the parties, and their attorneys, from discussing the case or releasing records to any persons not directly involved.”
“We intend to abide by the court’s orders,” the DCS said in an email response.
Laster claims the gag order was issued because of an outpouring of public support. Civil rights organizations, including NAN and the NAACP, are calling for the public to file formal complaints against the state of Tennessee and a federal investigation into the Tennessee state legal system that they have deemed nefarious and target “certain people.”
“One of the things that the public can do is to formally file an Office for Civil Rights complaint if they believe the family was discriminated against,” Laster explained. “They can do that at the United States Health and Human Services virtual website. They have an Office for Civil Rights complaint form.”
“Organizations, community leaders in churches, and local businesses can also request that the Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education can investigate and enforce legal compliance and also raise this issue to the judge’s Ethics Review Commission, because if judges are acting unethically and outside of the law, then they need to be reviewed. Any citizen that is concerned about the abuse of power from DCS should call their legislator and demand that the legislator have some authoritative abilities, investigate and make some demands,” Laster continued.
Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee called for the return of the couple’s children. State Sen. London Lamar told reporters on March 17 the state’s action was “ridiculous” and an “overuse of power,” describing it as “borderline discrimination.” But the state’s prosecution has pushed back, saying the officers fulfilled their legal obligation that “require law enforcement to ensure that minors are properly protected at any time that a parent or child is taken into custody by contacting the Department of Children Services to alert them of the situation.”
Since the testing, attorneys for DCS have filed a flurry of motions in Coffee County Juvenile Court, including seeking prosecution and sanctions against the parents and their lawyers, claiming the couple broke court confidentiality rules. The couple’s lawyer, Courtney Teasley, has called the motions of March 17 as “retaliatory” on Twitter — an effort to stop her from sharing how the state of Tennessee is “oppressing black people under the guise of confidentiality.”
“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,” District Attorney Craig Northcott said.
“I’m a fantastic mom,” said Clayborne, a stay-at-home mom enrolled in college to study child development. “I’m painted out there for something that I’m not and that’s defamation of my character. I know how much I love my kids and how much my kids love me.”
“I want the world to know that these types of situations still occur,” Williams told Yahoo News. “As a family all we can do is be an example or at the forefront of change.”
The effort of the parents to get custody back remains in limbo, pending results of the latest rapid follicle drug test that has been ordered. But if the test comes back negative, the DCS and the judge both agree that the kids could be released into the custody of their mother and father as early as this week.