Leaders of the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP on Friday issued a public demand for the release of five Black children taken from their parents after a misdemeanor traffic stop in rural Tennessee last month, saying they were “deeply concerned and disturbed” by the events.
By Anita Wadhwani / Tennessee Lookout
The civil rights organization, joined by its local, youth and college chapters, is also calling for a full investigation into all departments involved in the removal of the children, ages 7, 5, 3, 2 along with a four-month-old nursing baby.
For more than a month, the children have been without their parents in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services.
“The couple’s children were unjustly, maliciously and aggressively taken,” said Thomas Savage, vice president of the Tennessee NAACP, speaking with nearly two dozen other members outside the Coffee County Justice Center, where the kids’ fate remains in the hands of a juvenile judge.
“Considering the dire situation in DCS and its inability to provide a safe environment for all children, as widely reported in the news, we urge all people of good will to contact your legislators with the hope of cleaning up this constant mess with DCS,” he said.
The children and their parents, Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams, were driving from their home in Georgia to a family funeral in Chicago on Feb. 17 when they were pulled over in Coffee County by the Tennessee Highway Patrol for tinted windows and driving in the left-hand lane on I-24 without passing.
Troopers who searched their car found five grams of marijuana, a misdemeanor in Tennessee. They arrested Williams, gave Clayborne a citation and told her she was free to go.
Hours later, as Clayborne waited with her children to post bond for Williams, DCS and law enforcement officers physically took the children from her side.
Jimmie Garland, the organization’s Middle Tennessee president, called the situation reminiscent of driving trips through Southern states that he took as a child in the 1960’s when Black families feared being unjustly detained by police, accosted by residents and could not enter restaurants or motels.
“I’m 73 now. Back then we wouldn’t travel if we couldn’t do it in eight hours. When I think what happened back then and what’s happening in 2023, it’s the same scenario. The bottom line is this is because they were driving while black. Instead of Tennessee going forward, it’s going backward,” he said.
Garland called the actions taken against the Georgia family a “travesty.”
A spokesperson for DCS did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
The case gained widespread public attention after a report by the Tennessee Lookout last week. The Tennessee Democratic Caucus has also demanded the children be reunited with their parents.
An emergency court order obtained by DCS on the day the children were taken said they were dependent and neglected and there was “no less drastic alternative to removal available.”
Nearly a week later, on Feb. 24, DCS amended their petition to say the children should be deemed “severely abused.”
Williams had tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, on a urine drug screen administered Feb. 23. Clayborne tested negative.
The couple were then asked to submit to a rapid hair follicle test, although it is unclear from court records who ordered the second drug test or why; both tested positive for methamphetamines, oxycodone and fentanyl. Clayborne and Williams have denied using those drugs.
A Coffee County court administrator told the Lookout the rapid hair follicle tests are inadmissible in court; an expert said rapid hair follicle tests are known for producing false positives.
DCS nevertheless used the results of the rapid test as the basis for accusing Clayborne and Williams of severe child abuse. DCS also noted that there was a gun in the car and that Williams had not pulled over once THP had turned on their lights to initiate the stop. And they claimed the children had disclosed that their father took them on drug deals.
Williams has called those claims “absolute lunacy.”
The gun was legally in Clayborne’s possession, she said. Neither she nor Williams were cited for refusing to pull over for the THP nor for any gun crimes.
Hours after the Lookout story about the family was published, attorneys for DCS filed motions in juvenile court seeking prosecution and sanctions against the parents and their attorneys for breaking juvenile court confidentiality rules.
On Monday, the family again appeared in Coffee County Juvenile Court to get their children back.
Courtney Teasley, a family attorney, said after the closed hearing she could only reveal that the children will remain in state custody and Clayborne was ordered to submit to another hair follicle test.
There has been no change in that status, Teasley said Friday declining further comment.
The children were initially split between three foster homes, according to their parents. They have since been taken in by a family friend in the Nashville area who agreed to serve as a temporary foster parent. The state retains full custody and decision-making over the children.
In calling for a full investigation of all authorities and jurisdictions involved in the children’s removal, NAACP officials stressed the need for accountability.
“The nightmare is not over until we can guarantee this will never happen to another family ever again,” said Lisa Rung, president of the Franklin County NAACP, located just south of Coffee County.
Coffee County, which is 4% Black, does not have its own local NAACP branch.