“These public officials illegally tore apart and terrorized [Bianca] Clayborne’s family… Their actions caused severe emotional trauma to Clayborne and each of her five children.”
By Anita Wadhwani, Tennessee Lookout
A Georgia mom whose five small kids were taken into state custody after a misdemeanor traffic stop in Coffee County last year has filed suit alleging her constitutional rights and those of her children were violated by Tennessee law enforcement officers and state social workers.
The lawsuit names four Tennessee Highway Patrol officers involved in the February 17 traffic stop, three Department of Children’s Services caseworkers who obtained a court order to take the kids, 10 Coffee County Sheriff Department officers who detained the family at the county’s jail and Coffee County, responsible for its officers’ supervision and training.
“These public officials illegally tore apart and terrorized [Bianca] Clayborne’s family. They acted outrageously and unlawfully. Their actions caused severe emotional trauma to Clayborne and each of her five children,” the lawsuit said.
“Clayborne and the children bring this lawsuit to vindicate their rights against people that harmed them, though the full extent of the harm to their family may never be undone.”
The suit is seeking unspecified damages and a ruling declaring the actions of officers and caseworkers a violation of the family’s Constitutional rights.
Bianca Clayborne, her partner, Deonte Williams, and their five kids were driving from their Atlanta-area home to a funeral in Chicago last February when highway patrol officers pulled the family over for “dark tint and not actively passing” on Interstate-24. A trooper searched their car, finding fewer than five grams of marijuana—a misdemeanor offense typically issued a citation.
Instead Williams was arrested and—after initially telling Clayborne she, too, would be arrested—troopers allowed Clayborne to leave with the children to head to the Coffee County jail in order to post Williams’ bond.
But once she was there, Clayborne was confronted by three Department of Children’s Services caseworkers in the jail’s parking lot. Officers placed spike strips around the family’s car.
Then, after taking her kids inside to post bond for Williams, Clayborne’s five children—a four-month-old breast-feeding baby, along with a 2-, 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds—were forcibly taken from her side.
At a juvenile court hearing six days after the children were taken, the parents were asked to submit to urine drug tests. While Williams tested positive for THC, Clayborne tested negative. The couple were then asked to submit to hair follicle tests, which yielded positive results for methamphetamines, fentanyl and oxycodone in both parents.
Both parents denied they used the substances. The in-house rapid hair follicle tests are not admissible in court, according to the Coffee County Court’s administrator. One testing expert said they are known for generating “too many false positives.” Positive results on the more rudimentary courthouse follicle test machines typically require confirmation in accredited labs.
When the family’s attorneys sought to challenge the tests, an attorney for the Department of Children’s Services said they had been discarded.
DCS used the test results as the basis for a court petition accusing the couple of severe abuse. The agency kept the children in foster care for 55 days, initially splitting the children between foster homes before they were placed in a home of a family friend weeks later.
The incident, first reported by the Tennessee Lookout, drew widespread interest and raised questions about whether the family was treated differently because they are Black. Before the family was reunited, the Tennessee NAACP and Democratic legislators held press conferences demanding the children’s release.
“What happened to Ms. Clayborne and her family is outrageous,” said Tricia Herzfeld, among the prominent Nashville civil rights attorneys representing the family. Attorneys Abby Rubenfeld and Anthony Orlandi are also representing the family. “This lawsuit seeks to hold the official involved accountable and to get some justice for this family.”
The traffic stop
The lawsuit reveals new details, obtained from law enforcement dash- and body-cam footage, about what transpired in the hours between when THP initiated the traffic stop and the forcible removal of the children from their mother’s side hours later by Coffee County officers
The family pulled off the interstate into a nearby gas station after THP trooper Ruben Basaldua turned on his emergency lights behind them. Basaldua called in two other troopers to assist. For the next two and a half hours, the family was detained at the gas station while the troopers “conducted extensive searches of the car and its belongings, and repeatedly interrogated both Williams and Clayborne,” the suit said. It was a cold and windy day.
Officers found a small amount of marijuana in the car—typically a citation-only offense under Tennessee law. But troopers decided to arrest both Williams and Clayborne. They told Clayborne the kids would be taken into DCS custody. She pleaded with them not to arrest her as the kids cried and screamed.
Troopers told Clayborne it was “already past that” and called child welfare officials.
Clayborne’s children grew increasingly frantic. Her five-year-old son wrapped his arms around her and said “Can mom not be arrest[ed]? Can my dad come? Please! I want my mom! Can I have my dad?” He pleaded with a trooper: “Stop! I don’t want to go! How are we going to eat?”
Meanwhile Williams had been placed, uncuffed, in the back of a patrol care. Williams first asked to speak to his mother and then a supervisor. Instead of responding, Basaldua placed him in cuffs.
As Williams protested, Balsudua responded: “Man, you want to be quiet? Because I can take her and get the kids in DCS, so you need to be quiet.”
Ultimately the troopers told Clayborne she would not be arrested. They directed her to load her children back into the car and follow the officers to the jail, escorted by four THP patrol cars. They told her park and to remain with her car running.
Parking lot confrontation
In the parking lot of the jail, another trooper, Donnie Clark, approached Clayborne and told her she would be given a ticket, but was then free to leave. He then spoke to two DCS caseworkers who had arrived in the jail’s parking lot.
“Trooper Clark told [DCS caseworkers] Pelham and Medina that Clayborne was a good mother, that she should be released so that she would not be separated from her children, that the kids were not being neglected or abused, and that it would be best for everyone for Clayborne to stay with the children,” the lawsuit said. Clark also asked the caseworkers to talk to Clayborne while she was in her car, so the kids wouldn’t experience any more disruption. The troopers then headed to a nearby Zaxby’s for lunch.
By that point it had been four hours since the initial traffic stop and the children were “scared, crying, hungry and increasingly agitated,” the suit said.
DCS caseworkers asked Clayborne to go inside the justice center to give a urine sample, but Clayborne refused, concerned about leaving her children alone. The caseworkers then demanded Clayborne provide a urine sample from inside the car. With other officers surrounding her car, Clayborne removed her pants and underwear and attempt to pee into a cup. She wasn’t able to.
DCS caseworkers told her that had “made matters worse” for her.
Clayborne asked DCS to leave her car and locked her door. The lawsuit alleges it was then that DCS social workers contacted Coffee County Sheriff’s deputies to illegally detain the family. One officer placed spike strips around the car; at least six other Coffee County officers surrounded the vehicle.
But Clayborne still had to bail her partner out of jail. She decided to take her children inside the Coffee County Justice Center, where she was told to sit on a bench with her children. “Clayborne was held against her will and was not free to leave,” the suit said.
While Clayborne was waiting, DCS attorneys held an emergency hearing with Coffee County Judge Greg Perry, obtaining an emergency order to take the children into custody.
DCS did not tell Clayborne about the hearing, held nearby, nor offer her an opportunity to participate. The judge granted the emergency order at about 3 p.m., six hours after the initial traffic stop. There were no witnesses at the hearing, nor is there a transcript of what transpired.
After DCS obtained the order, six uniformed officers approached and physically restrained Clayborne as she sat on a bench, then took her children from her side, loaded them into a white truck and drove away.
The next 55 days
The children were initially placed in separate foster homes and for the next month, Clayborne was prohibited from visiting them. She was allowed only two video calls per week.
The lawsuit details the emotional trauma experienced by Clayborne and her children in the 55 days they were separated. Clayborne’s breast milk dried up, she suffered from anxiety, depression and mental anguish, began having panic attacks and saw a doctor and therapist. She rented a hotel room in Tennessee in order to be close to the kids and fight for their return.
The children were moved to new foster homes, something Clayborne would only learn later. Then, a month after they were taken from their family, DCS agreed to place them together with a friend of the family who agreed to become an emergency foster home. The couple fought for the return of their children in in Coffee County Juvenile Court over the coming weeks.
The children cried, feared they would never see their parents again and suffered from being separated from their siblings. Even after they were returned, the kids have displayed signs of trauma: the couple’s now-six-year-old son begs his mother “please don’t them come back and take us.” He experiences nightmares and wets the bed. Another child “has a visceral reaction to seeing police.”
The children were returned to the couple April 13. The misdemeanor citation against Clayborne was dismissed. Williams pled guilty to a misdemeanor. The DCS case has been closed.
The lawsuit claims that DCS caseworkers, THP troopers and Coffee County law enforcement violated the 4th amendment and Tennessee law by unlawfully detaining Clayborne for hours.
“By law, once the Troopers decided to cite Clayborne for simple possession of marijuana, she and her children were legally free to leave,” the suit said.
It alleges DCS caseworkers had no legal basis to demand Clayborne remove her pants and underwear in order to provide a urine sample. And it accuses each named officer and caseworker of taking actions “directed at breaking up and/or unreasonably interfering with the family relationship between Clayborne and her children.”
“Due to pending litigation, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security declines comment at this time,” a spokesperson for the state agency that oversees the Tennessee Highway Patrol said Thursday. The Department of Children’s Services and Coffee County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to requests for comment.
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