Tennessee Legislators Demand Return of Children to Parents After Cannabis Possession Arrest

Following a misdemeanor arrest for cannabis possession at a traffic stop, five children were taken into custody by the Department of Children’s Services in Tennessee in February, prompting support from the Tennessee Democratic Caucus.
Bianca Clayborne and Deonte Williams / Courtesy Screengrab from Zoom via Tennessee Lookout

On March 16, the Tennessee Democratic Caucus demanded that five children taken during a traffic stop by law enforcement be returned to their parents immediately.

On February 16, a traffic stop conducted by Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) pulled over Deonte Williams, Bianca Clayborne, and their five children (a four-month-old infant, and kids ages two, three, five and seven), who were all traveling to a funeral. While the stop was originally due to the vehicle having a “dark tint and traveling in the left lane while not actively passing,” five grams of cannabis were found in Williams’s possession.

Williams was arrested, and Clayborne was cited but not arrested. She was told by THP that she could follow a patrol car back to the Coffee County Justice Center to bail Williams out. Six hours after the traffic stop occurred, Clayborne waited with her five children on a bench inside the criminal justice center, until her kids “were forcibly removed from her side while an officer restrained her from reaching for her crying baby,” she told Tennessee Lookout. During the time she was waiting, the Department of Children’s Service (DCS) obtained an emergency court order to take custody of the kids while she waited for Williams.

According to the DCS petition obtained by Tennessee Lookout, the DCS believed that the children were neglected, and that there was no “less drastic” alternative than taking the kids away.

“It’s just so shocking to the conscience that in 2023 this is happening,” said one of the couple’s attorneys, Jamaal Boykin. “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.”

It’s been over a month since the incident, and the children still have not been returned to the family. Clayborne is currently breastfeeding her youngest child and has seen a drastic reduction in milk supply in the absence of her baby. She’s also suffered from lack of sleep and a panic attack.

The events of this incident have reached state legislators who are now also speaking up about the injustice.

Sen. London Lamar referred to the events as “ridiculous” and “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,” Lamar 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.”

Sen. Raumesh Akbari also spoke out about keeping families together. “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,” Akbari 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.”

When Tennessee Lookout reached out to DCS for a statement, they did not respond for comment. Reaching out to the THP for a request of the traffic stop officers was denied because of an ongoing investigation.

An instant hair follicle test on both Williams and Clayborne was conducted at their first court appearance, which occurred one week after the children were taken by DCS. Tennessee Lookout spoke with an unnamed Coffee County administrator, who explained that in general, hair follicle tests are “inadmissible” in court because they can potentially result in false positives.

“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,” said the couple’s other attorney, Courtney Teasley.

Teasley shared on Twitter how concerned citizens can help. “We’ve received many requests of ppl wanting to help disrupt with their dollars. If you would like to support #DisruptManchester Here is the link to donate: http://Donorbox.org/disruptmanchestmanchester… Thank you all for helping disrupt a system of oppression!” Teasley wrote on Twitter on March 18.

On March 20, Teasley invited all concerned citizens who want to help bring attention to the issue to court watch the ongoing case, and attend a press conference in front of the courthouse in Manchester, Tennessee.

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