Family’s separation part of a long history of child-theft in America
Tennessee Department of Children’s Services fails to grapple with the trauma it inflicts
Deonte Williams sits in a courtroom at the Coffee County Justice Center next to one of his five children, all of whom were taken by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services after a traffic stop. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Journalists write and read many stories of government abuse, but few stick more than stories of how agencies tasked with protecting children habitually fail to do so. Stories of traumatized children being further traumatized by a cold state are the ones that keep me awake at night.
So after years of following the chronic dysfunction at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services — and frank neglect there of the health and wellbeing of children — I’m doubtful of claims by DCS in the recent case of five children the agency took from their parents following a traffic stop in Coffee County.
Senior Reporter Anita Wadhwani broke the story of the Georgia couple who, while driving to a family funeral in Chicago, were pulled over because, police said, they had tinted windows and were driving too slowly in the left lane. The stop ended with the father being arrested and charged with possessing a misdemeanor amount of marijuana — 5 grams — and three DCS employees taking the children from their mother. Her eldest is 7-years-old. Her youngest was only 4 months and still breastfeeding.
The family is Black. And more than a month later, the state retains custody of the children. The apparent grounds are that an unreliable instant hair follicle tests completed by a court officer showed the parents tested positive for drugs, but the tests were administered a week after the kids were seized.
“Severe abuse,” the agency reported, but based on our coverage over the last two years, I’m not sure anyone at the agency — or in higher levels of state government — would recognize true abuse.
For instance, Wadhwani broke the news in Aug. 2021 that children in the agency’s custody were forced to sleep on the floors of state office buildings, for lack of appropriate temporary housing or foster care.
At the time, one DCS caseworker said that taking kids to sleep with strangers in an office without providing essential comforts represents a failure by the state agency to live up to its most basic duties.
By Nov. 2022, DCS Commissioner Margie Quin, who assumed her role just a couple of months earlier, reported to a legislative commission that not only were children sleeping on office floors, but those who became “disruptive” — some disabled — were being sent to hospitals for up to 100 days.
And in January, a report from the independent Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth reported that Tennessee lags the nation in providing stable foster care, with twice the national average in shuffling kids from one temporary home to another during their first year in state foster care and high turnover among caseworkers.
Tennessee lawmakers addressed this report by cracking down on the Commission on Children and Youth for reporting the truth. The Lookout’s Sam Stockard reported that Gov. Bill Lee, angered that the findings made Tennessee look bad, pushed a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin to dissolve the commission.
After we published the story, child welfare advocates pushed back, packing committee hearing rooms and calling lawmakers, who dropped the plan to dismantle the commission.
Stories by other news outlets have also highlighted the chaos at Tennessee’s highest levels of government and in DCS. The Tennessean reported Thursday on the case of one guardian ad litem — a lawyer working on behalf of a child in state custody — assigned to the case of a child whose doctor had ordered an ultrasound to determine if a mass on the child’s neck was cancerous.
One year after the physician ordered the test, and after the lawyer sued in juvenile court, the child got the test. The mass was cancerous.
Let it sink in that the caseworkers at DCS, responsible for protecting a child, chose not to follow doctor’s orders and instead let a child live with a cancerous mass for a year.
In fact, it makes sense on one level that Tennessee’s DCS chose to seize and keep the Georgia children. In Oct. 2022, the American Bar Association, the nation’s largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world, published an article titled, “Racial Discrimination in Child Welfare Is a Human Rights Violation—Let’s Talk About It That Way.”
According to the writers, more than half of all Black children will be the subject of a child welfare investigation before they are 18, and almost 10% of them will be taken from their families and placed into foster care. Both are twice the rates for white children.
“That the state can intrude into the private lives of families and separate children from their mothers and fathers hits at some of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity,” writes Shereen A. White and Stephanie Peterson in the ABA piece.
Separating children of color from their families is the American way. In the antebellum South, children of enslaved people were routinely separated as their parents were sold or the children were “gifted” from one white family to another.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Indigenous children were taken from their families, sent to government schools to be “Americanized” and treated brutally, as documented in a comprehensive report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs last year.
Or how about the hundreds of migrant children in the custody of the U.S. government, which still has not reunited them with their families after separating them at the border years ago?
Tennessee is carrying on the tradition. DCS officials say they can’t talk about any part of the confiscation of the Georgia kids, but a Tennessee Highway Patrol colonel said after his officers completed the traffic stop, they intended the children to be released to the mother of the kids.
And after Monday’s hearing in Coffee County Juvenile Court, attorneys for the parents are barred from speaking publicly about the situation. We may have no definitive answers about DCS actions until the eventual lawsuit that will surely be filed on behalf of the parents.
The truth, as the saying goes, will out. But by that time, there will be five more traumatized children of color in America.
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