Deonte Williams and Bianca Clayborne were making the trek from Georgia to Chicago with their five children to attend a family funeral, but their road trip was abruptly cut short in Coffee County, Tennessee after a traffic stop left them separated from their children.
Officially, Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) reportedly stopped the Dodge Durango for driving in the left lane without actively passing and having tinted vehicle windows in the rural Tennessee county.
But the stop quickly escalated into charges of drug possession, after a search of the vehicle yielded five grams of marijuana, which in Tennessee is classified as a Class A misdemeanor.
For legal background, a 1996 Supreme Court decision “ruled that police could use any traffic offense as an excuse to pull a car over,” and per the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), this “allow[ed] the police to use traffic stops as a pretext in order to ‘fish’ for evidence. Both anecdotal and quantitative data show that nationwide, the police exercise this discretionary power primarily against African Americans and Latinos.”
In this particular instance, Clayborne initially only received a citation; but less than six hours later, Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) forcefully removed “the couple’s children – aged 7, 5, 3, 2, and a nursing 4-month old,” from the couple’s care. According to Clayborne, she was restrained by an officer while she reached “for her crying baby.”
A week after DCS took their five children, both Clayborne and Williams did undergo urine drug tests, wherein Clayborne tested negative while “Williams tested positive for THC, the active component of marijuana.”
Afterward, they both also underwent rapid hair follicle tests, and both tested “positive for methamphetamines, oxycodone, and fentanyl,” despite adamantly disputing that they did not use these substances. Those results were deemed inadmissible by a court administrator of Coffee County, “and a specialist noted that rapid hair follicle tests are notorious for returning false positives.”
It has now been thirty days since the children were taken from their parents, who at first were separated and put into three different foster homes, but are now staying with Nashville area relatives who have agreed to foster them.
Theeda Murphy is No Exceptions Prison Collective’s executive director, and has called out DCS for its treatment of children in their custody, saying that some are even forced to sleep on the floor in offices because they lack enough suitable placements. Murphy stated that they have “‘the nerve’ to say the children are in danger and try to silence anyone who attempts to call them out…[and] contended that the state ‘has no respect for Black families’ or 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.’”
Courtney Teasley, the family’s attorney, held a press conference and reiterated Murphy’s arguments that their children would be safer with their parents, “Five children taken away while one of them was still breastfeeding…The father locked in a cage, having to make bond for a citable offense. Five children forced to then even be separated from one another and subject to the treatment of this abysmal system. This is torture.”