Nearly a month ago, Bianca Clayborne, Deonte Williams, and their five children were on their way from Georgia to Chicago for Clayborne's uncle's funeral when a highway patrol officer stopped them in Manchester, Tennessee.
That moment - about 60 miles outside Nashville - has since upended their lives as Clayborne and Williams try to regain custody of their children after they say state authorities "kidnapped" them on account of a minuscule amount of marijuana in the car, the Tennessee Lookout first reported.
The separation described by Clayborne and Williams fits into a historical pattern of US child welfare services dividing poor, Black and Indigenous families in particular on the grounds of alleged neglect and abuse, fueling disparities in who gets to remain a family and who doesn't.
"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," said Jamaal Boykin, one of the family's attorneys, according to the Tennessee Lookout.
In her damning book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families - and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy E Roberts described how the US child welfare system historically punished families - especially Black ones - for living through poverty as they face accusations of neglect or being unable to meet children's housing, healthcare and other basic needs.
Roberts argues that racist stereotyping influences the way child welfare workers and policymakers approach the investigations of families of color, finding that one in 10 Black children are forcibly removed from their families and put into foster care by the time they are adults. She wrote in an excerpt that more than half of US Black children would face some form of a child welfare investigation by the time they are 18 while fewer than a third of white children would.
In Clayborne and Williams's case, the trooper stopped their car on 17 February for having dark tinted windows and driving in the left lane without actively passing, according to citations reviewed by the Lookout. The officer searched their car and found five grams of marijuana, a misdemeanor offense. He arrested Williams and took him to a local jail. Clayborne followed, as her kids cried.
While Clayborne waited for Williams's release on bond, an officer restrained her while state officials took custody of her five children, including her four-month-old baby. Courtney Teasley, an attorney representing the family since late February, said that Clayborne and Williams's case reflected "how government systems that say they are there to protect have the ability to use those same protections to oppress".
Saying Tennessee's children's services department was "abysmal," Teasley said her clients' children now face being removed from Georgia "to some school that they know nothing about".
"We already know that … [most] children being hurt are the Black children," Teasley added. "Shining a light on this [shows] what's being done to Black people in real time. That leads to mass incarceration and everything that comes with it: generational trauma, the school-to-prison pipeline."
The state's children's services department ultimately alleged that Clayborne and Williams's children were being abused to obtain an emergency order to take them away. The removal went through though court records showed a state case worker brought in after the stop "discovered only the father had been arrested", the Lookout reported. Still, that same day, the agency received a court order to take the children away from Clayborne and Williams.
Nearly a week later, during their first juvenile court hearing, the couple was asked to take drug tests, which showed mixed results.
Urine drug tests came back positive for Williams but negative for Clayborne. Follow-up, rapid hair follicle tests were then ordered, coming back positive for fentanyl and oxycodone for both. Both deny taking those substances, and a local treatment court administrator told the Lookout that such tests are generally inadmissible as evidence.
Teasley said it is "egregious" for someone's children to be taken on the basis of an inadmissible test. "How many people have had this happen to them?" she said.
In an interview with the Lookout, Clayborne said she couldn't believe when officers surrounded her for six hours and stopped her from reaching for her nursing baby. She recalled one of them said: "Don't touch him. He's getting taken away from you.'"
"I breastfeed - they didn't give me anything," Clayborne told the investigative outlet. "They just ran off with my kids."
Teasley says that the couple has driven back and forth from their home in Georgia to see their children in Nashville, where they are with a foster family. Clayborne has struggled with the aftereffects of being unable to nurse her baby and wound up in the hospital as she suffered from panic attacks.
"They are on the road all the time now [to] see the kids and stay with them as long as they can," Teasley said, adding that the children sob whenever their parents leave. "It's escalated, because it's seeming like they're never going to get their kids back."
Meanwhile, "the kids … know nothing except 'I want to go home'," Teasley said.
A hearing on the case is scheduled for Monday.
Teasley added that she has risked facing reprisals just for speaking to the media about the case. On Friday, she said that the attorney for Tennessee's children's services department had filed a motion "for sanctions and referral for prosecution" against her. The motion argues that Teasley violated confidentiality provisions, which she denies.