A Black family fights to get their kids back from Tennessee Department of Children’s Services

One month after the Tennessee Highway Patrol pulled the couple over, their five young children remain in state custody

By: - March 16, 2023 6:00 am
Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams were on the way to Chicago for a family funeral when they were pulled over in Coffee County. Williams was arrested and their young children taken from them. (Screengrab from Zoom)

Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams were on the way to Chicago for a family funeral when they were pulled over in Coffee County. Williams was arrested and their young children taken from them. (Screengrab from Zoom)

A Black family from Georgia is fighting for the return of their five young children from the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services after a traffic stop in Manchester, Tenn. last month. 

Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams were on Interstate 24 heading to a family funeral in Chicago — kids asleep in the back of the car — when a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer pulled them over for “dark tint and traveling in the left lane while not actively passing,” according to Feb. 17 citations issued to the couple.

The trooper searched the family’s Dodge Durango then arrested Williams for possession of five grams of marijuana, a misdemeanor in Tennessee. Clayborne was cited but not arrested. 

Clayborne said she was told she was free to leave with the children, but could follow a THP car to find her way to the Coffee County Justice Center in order to bond Williams out. 

Six hours after the traffic stop, as Clayborne sat on a bench in the criminal justice center waiting for Williams’ release, the five children — a breast-feeding baby now four months old along with 2-, 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds — were forcibly removed from her side while an officer restrained her from reaching for her crying baby, she said.

Unbeknownst to Clayborne, DCS had sought and received an emergency court order placing the kids in state custody while she waited for Williams. The DCS petition said there was probable cause that the children were neglected and there was no “less drastic” alternative to taking the children from their parents. 

Nearly a month later, the children remain in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. Attorneys for the couple are calling DCS’s actions “extreme” “abnormal” and a violation of the parents’ rights. 

They have also suggested that the couple received disparate treatment driving through rural Tennessee because they are Black.

“It’s just so shocking to the conscience that in 2023 this is happening,” said Jamaal Boykin, a Nashville attorney representing the family in their custody case.

“I just have to believe if my clients looked different or had a different background, they would have just been given a citation and told you just keep this stuff away from the kids while you’re in this state and they’d be on their way.” 

 Inadmissible evidence, miscommunication

A Tennessee Lookout review of court records, THP citations and DCS correspondence about the case raises questions about why the state agency aggressively pursued taking the children from their parents.

DCS first got a referral from the Coffee County Jail that both parents had been arrested, court records show. That scenario would require DCS to intervene to make sure the children were cared for.  

But after responding to the call, the DCS caseworker “discovered only the father had been arrested,” court records said.

I just have to believe if my clients looked different or had a different background, they would have just been given a citation and told you just keep this stuff away from the kids while you’re in this state and they’d be on their way.

– Jamaal Boykin, attorney for Deonte Williams and Bianca Clayborne

DCS pursued an emergency custody petition anyway, receiving a court order the same day allowing them to take the children.

Six days later, when the parents appeared before a Coffee County juvenile judge for their first hearing, they were asked to submit to urine drug screens. 

Williams tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Clayborne’s test was negative. 

Williams and Clayborne then submitted to hair follicle tests, though it’s unclear from court records why they were asked to take a second drug test and who asked them to do so. 

Within minutes, a rapid “stat” hair follicle test came back positive for methamphetamines, fentanyl and oxycodone in both parents. Clayborne and Williams both deny using the substances.

The rapid drug test, performed on equipment owned by the Coffee County Treatment Courts, is “not court admissible,” Mike Lewis, the treatment court’s administrator, said Wednesday. Lewis was speaking generally about the testing and not about this case. 

Such rapid hair follicle testing equipment is known for generating “too many false positives,” said Greg Bowen, owner of Nashville laboratory ReliaLab Test, Inc. who is uninvolved in this case. “The state should never be relying on instant results,” he said, noting the machines are typically operated by court staff and not trained laboratory technicians.

Nevertheless, DCS used the results of the rapid hair follicle tests as the basis of an amended petition that claimed that the children were not only neglected; they were abused.

A rapid hair follicle test in Coffee County Juvenile Court, performed by untrained court staff, showed both parents tested positive for drugs. One expert says such tests are known for generating “too many false positives.”

“Both parents submitted to urine and hair follicle tests,” the DCS Feb. 23 petition read. “As a result of the drug screens, the children should be deemed to be severely abused.”

The judge agreed, issuing a temporary order that continues to keep the children in DCS custody. The parents, who have now retained a three-member legal team, return to court next week. 

Courtney Teasley, a family attorney, notified DCS she planned to challenge the results of the hair follicle tests. 

But DCS attorney Sheila Younglove, in an email reviewed by the Lookout, has already told the family’s lawyers that will not be possible. “The drug court does not hold onto them,” she said in a March 9 email. 

The family’s attorneys have called the failure to preserve evidence in the ongoing case “shocking.”  

A spokesperson for DCS noted in a statement sent Wednesday that state law prohibits the agency from releasing specific information about the case, which remains ongoing in Coffee County Juvenile Court. 

The agency does not determine the custody of children, the statement said.

“DCS does not remove children from custody, only the courts have the authority to make that ruling. DCS and law enforcement follow protocol for collecting evidence,” the statement said. “Those findings are then presented to the court. In this instance, the evidence resulted in the court placing children in DCS custody.”

‘Absolute lunacy’

Clayborne said Monday she is traumatized by the events of the past month; her children cry when she speaks to them on the phone, and grab onto her when she ends her visits with them in foster care. 

She has lost weight, has trouble sleeping and she suffered a panic attack last weekend that sent her to the emergency room. 

Most troubling, she said, is that “I don’t think I’m producing enough milk.” 

“The first night my chest was gorged; it was so painful,” she said. “Now it’s to the point where I don’t think I”m producing enough milk. There needs to be a connection.”

Williams, who owns his own trucking company, says he is on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of the legal battle and numerous trips to Tennessee to visit his children. 

He said he was furious the state had “kidnapped” his children — an attitude that DCS has since cited in limiting his access to his children because supervisors of the visits felt threatened, DCS emails reviewed by the Lookout said. 

In addition to claims of severe abuse, DCS’ petition — filed a week after the children were taken — also say “the children made disclosures about the father being the ‘Weed Man.’” 

The Feb. 23 DCS petition says that “they then showed (a caseworker) how to roll a joint and stated that the parents take them with them to ‘sell the weed.’”

“It’s absolute lunacy,” Williams said in an interview this week. “There’s nothing like that. We never put things like that around the kids; we love them.” 

The traffic stop: “I was trying to keep my kids calm’

The couple were driving to Williams’ uncle’s funeral in Chicago after rousing the children out of bed in their home in an Atlanta suburb during the pre-dawn hours of a February Friday morning. 

Williams said he spotted the flashing lights of a trooper behind them just before an exit.  He said he exited the freeway and turned into the closest gas station to stop. 

The BP gas station Williams pulled into is immediately off Exit 114 on I-24 going west through Manchester, Tenn., but DCS’ emergency petition seeking to take the kids said that the family “would not pull over once THP turned on their lights.” The claim is not included in THP citations issued to the couple and not a crime for which the couple has been charged. 

The couple say the THP officer immediately ordered Willilams out of the car, placed him uncuffed in the back of a cruiser and escorted Clayborne and her children inside the gas station on a cold day while they conducted a search. 

“My son was terrified,” she said of her seven-year old. “He said this was just like TV; this was like TV.’ I was just holding him by his face and I’m just like ‘don’t think like that, don’t think like that. It’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok.’”

Deonte Williams, at home in Georgia. (Photo: Zoom screensheet)
Deonte Williams, at home in Georgia. (Photo: Zoom screensheet)

By then there were three law enforcement vehicles — the couple isn’t certain from which jurisdiction — and a dog sniffing the suitcases, diaper bags and other possessions officers had laid on the ground around the car.

The officers found a blunt in the passenger door and a small bag in the car — in total fewer than five grams of marijuana.  The THP citations say both Williams and Clayborne admitted to smoking the marijuana — a claim that Clayborne denies.

“I wasn’t trying to hide it. I didn’t know it was a big deal,” Williams said. Williams was handcuffed a short while later and driven to the Coffee County jail. 

Law enforcement also found a gun — a weapon Clayborne legally owns, their attorneys said. Neither parent has been charged with weapons violations.

Williams, now 41, previously was sentenced at age 18 to a 12-year sentence for aggravated burglary. He has not been convicted of any crimes since, his attorney said. Williams’ felony background was also cited by DCS in their petition to take the children. 

After Williams was driven away in a patrol car, Clayborne loaded the children and the families’ possessions on the ground back into their Dodge.

“When I got in the car, I was shaking,” she said. “The kids were crying.”

She said she hoped that they would soon be able to get Williams out, then get back on the road to Chicago. 

 A parking lot confrontation

But once Clayborne drove into the parking lot of the Coffee County Criminal Justice Center in Manchester, three women approached the car and identified themselves as two DCS caseworkers and one DCS “shadower,” a newly hired caseworker learning the job, Clayborne said.

One worker got in the passenger side of the car next to Clayborne, while the others stood outside. The worker asked her if she had family in Tennessee.

“I asked why and she said it was because I’m taking your kids,” Clayborne said. “I was like, what for? Because I’m not understanding this. I said I haven’t been smoking. I said I breastfeed my kid.”

As Bianca tried to provide a urine sample in her car, her five children with her, Tennessee Highway Patrol officers surrounded her car and placed spike strips around the vehicle to keep her from leaving.

The woman asked Clayborne to leave her children in the car with a caseworker and walk inside to take a urine drug test in the ladies room, Clayborne said.

“I said I don’t feel comfortable leaving my children in the car with you. Because I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

At the worker’s request, Clayborne said she tried unsuccessfully to provide a urine sample while in her car. And when she couldn’t, Clayborne said she was told that it would make matters worse for her. 

“So I asked the lady if she could get out of my car. I locked the doors with me and my kids in the car,” she said. She cracked the window to talk instead, she said. Soon, at least a half dozen men surrounded her car, she said.

Court records describe the confrontation in the parking lot.

“The mother became very defiant and locked herself and the children in the vehicle,” court records said. “Officer Crabtree then placed spike strips around the vehicle so the mother would not leave the premises.”

Clayborne said she did not plan to flee.

Teasley, the couple’s attorney, said she believes Clayborne was being unlawfully detained in the parking lot while a court order was being sought to remove her children. Clayborne was otherwise not under arrest and free to leave, she said.

But Clayborne still had to go inside the justice center in order to post bond for Williams. She said she decided to get out of the car and take her children into the justice center. 

The justice center

Inside, “the process seemed slow,” Clayborne said. She waited on benches with her children until about 3 p.m. — nearly six hours after the 9:40 a.m. stop. It was then, according to court records, the children were taken from her. 

Uniformed police officers approached Clayborne and her children and “circled me,” she said.  

“Then my baby started crying so I reached for my son, and as I’m reaching, a man held me and told me, ‘don’t touch him. He’s getting taken away from you,’” Clayborne said. 

One woman was walking her five year old son out the door; another picked her daughter and walked away. Someone else took the stroller with her baby inside. 

“I just sat there crying, crying, crying,” she said, her voice shaking as she recounted the events via a Zoom meeting from Georgia.

Clayborne said no one asked her for any information – her phone number, the children’s health or nutritional needs and no one immediately provided her contact information so she could learn where they were or a court order showing why they were taken.

“My kids – they have asthma and you’re not asking about nothing,” she said. “I breastfeed.They didn’t give me anything. They just ran off with my kids.”

The couple are due back in Coffee County Juvenile Court on Monday. 

 

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.

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