NASHVILLE, Thursday, March 16, 2023 — The Tennessee Democratic Caucus on Thursday demanded that the Department of Children’s Service release five young children taken from their parents, who are Black, after a traffic stop in Manchester last month.
By Anita Wadhani / Tenneessee Lookout
The children — ages 7, 5, 3, 2 and a 4-month-old infant who was still nursing — were removed from their parents Feb. 17 after a traffic stop initiated by the Tennessee Highway Patrol because of “dark tint and traveling in the left lane while not actively passing.” The children have been in DCS custody since.
Deonte Williams, the children’s father, was arrested for possessing five grams of marijuana, a misdemeanor in Tennessee. Bianca Clayborne was cited and released. Court records, DCS emails and THP citations cited in a story about the family by the Tennessee Lookout Wednesday raised a series of questions about why the child welfare agency pursued removal of the children after a misdemeanor arrest of one parent and another parent who was free to leave.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol denies a request by the Lookout for body- and dash-cam video of the THP’s traffic stop and interactions with the family, saying in the denial there is still an “ongoing criminal investigation and prosecution.”
Sen. London Lamar, a Memphis Democrat, called the actions “ridiculous” and an “overuse of power.”
“DCS, Coffee County, y’all need to do the right thing before the situation gets worse, and we have a nation of people coming to the rescue of this Black family,” she said.
“Give them their children back. It’s borderline discrimination, because if this was any other family, as their attorney said, we don’t even think this would be the outcome,” she said.
Sen. Raumesh Akbari, also a Memphis Democrat, said the “goal should be to keep families together because babies and young children belong with their parents.”
“It is outrageous that the state forcefully separated Bianca Clayborne, a breastfeeding mother, and Deonte Williams from their kids and have allowed this to continue for nearly a month,” she said. “The state exercised extreme and flawed judgment in taking their children and it seems they’ve doubled down on this poor decision.”
“No family is perfect, but an imperfection, like a simple marijuana charge, is no excuse for tearing a family apart. The state is supposed to support reunification. If they don’t have a better reason, they must immediately return these five children to their parents.”
A spokesperson for DCS could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Lookout’s open records request, submitted earlier this week, was denied because they are “part of an ongoing criminal investigation and prosecution, and the District Attorney’s office serving Coffee County has asserted its privilege to not release the documents at this time pursuant to Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure,” a letter from an agency attorney said.
The THP also said state law prevents the agency from releasing “documents or information that directly or indirectly identifies a child or a family member receiving services from DCS.”
Courtney Teasley, the family’s attorney, on Thursday said “we echo the response of the Democratic Caucus.”
An instant hair follicle test performed on the parents at their first court appearance, about a week after the children were taken into custody, was a key element in DCS’ arguments for why the children should remain in DCS custody. However, a Coffee County court administrator, speaking to the Lookout broadly about the county’s instant hair follicle testing, said the tests are “inadmissible” in court. An expert told the Lookout rapid follicle tests are unreliable because they often yield false positives.
Lawyers for the family have challenged the test; an attorney for DCS has told them the test no longer exists, thought the custody case is still ongoing.
“This is even more reprehensible when the drug test used to justify keeping these children in foster care is known to be “inadmissible” by the county’s own court administrator,” she said.