Two Black parents from Georgia are reportedly fighting to get their five children back from the state of Tennessee, a saga that began when they were pulled over more than a month ago for tinted windows and arrested for possession of a small amount of cannabis.
Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams were driving to a funeral in Chicago on Feb. 17 when Tennessee Highway Patrol officers in rural Coffee County, Tennessee, pulled them over for “dark tint[ed windows] and traveling in the left lane while not actively passing,” according to the Lookout, a nonprofit news organization that broke the story and spoke with the family.
After the car was pulled over, police found a blunt and a small amount of cannabis in a bag, totaling less than five grams of weed, according to the Tennessee Lookout. Police charged Williams with a misdemeanor and arrested him, and gave Clayborne a citation.
But just six hours later, Clayborne—who was not arrested—reportedly had her five children taken from her and placed into state custody, after the state Department of Children’s Services sought and obtained an emergency order from a judge. Their youngest child is a four-month-old boy who is still breastfeeding, Clayborne told the Tennessee Lookout. The other children range in age from 2 to 7 years old.
The state, in court documents obtained by the Lookout, has reportedly accused the family of putting their kids in danger.
Williams told the Tennessee Lookout that’s a lie, and that he believes the state “kidnapped” his children. Clayborne told the Lookout that her health has been impacted, including a trip to the emergency room for a panic attack last weekend that she attributes to the anguish of being separated from her children.
A lawyer representing the family said their ordeal is “shocking to the conscience.”
“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,” Nashville lawyer Jamaal Boykin told the Tennessee Lookout.
The Department of Children’s Services told VICE News in a statement that state anonymity laws prohibits them from commenting on active cases, and suggested that “anyone releasing the contents of a juvenile petition is in violation of the law.” DCS nevertheless went on to say that the Coffee County judge was responsible for the decision to put Williams’ and Clayborne’s kids in state custody.
“DCS and law enforcement follow protocol for collecting evidence,” a spokesperson told VICE News in an email. “Those findings are then presented to the court. In this instance, the evidence resulted in the court placing children in DCS custody.”
A Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesperson told VICE News in a statement that “there is an ongoing criminal investigation and prosecution, and the District Attorney’s office serving Coffee County has asserted its privilege to not release documents at this time,” citing rules of criminal procedure in Tennessee courts.
The Tennessee foster care system has long been recognized as one of the most troubled in the country. In July 2021, seven kids in state custody spent the night in a DCS office space in Nashville, including multiple kids who slept directly on the floor, according to video obtained by the Tennessee Lookout at the time.
And last year, the Tennessee Commission on Children & Youth said in a report that from 2016 to 2020, the state has had the highest level of foster care instability in the country, defined as three or more placements in the first year of custody. In that time, more than 33 percent of Tennessee cases met that definition, compared with the national average of 14 percent. (A top Tennessee Republican state senator has filed a bill to dismantle the Commission on Children & Youth.)
Democratic state Sen. London Lamar said in a press conference Thursday that the justice system was “absolutely out of line for taking [the] children over a misdemeanor charge.”
“It is absolutely ridiculous when marijuana is legal in about half the states in the country, and a Black family got five of their children taken away, put into DCS that is not doing a good job taking care of the children they already have,” Lamar said Thursday. “And they won’t give them their children back for a misdemeanor charge.”
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.