Black family’s separation after Tennessee traffic stop reveals a system ‘designed to terrorize and harm’

A roundup of conversations we're having daily on the site. Subscribe to the Reckon Daily for stories centering marginalized communities and speaking to the under-covered issues of the moment.

A little over a month ago, a Black family of seven from Georgia was pulled over in rural Tennessee. They were only passing through en route to Chicago for a family member’s funeral, but the stop derailed the trip and their lives. The Tennessee Lookout published an account of the incident, in which the highway patrol stopped the family for “dark tint and traveling in the left lane while not actively passing,” according to the Feb. 17 citation.

From there, the patriarch of the family, Deonte Williams, was arrested for possessing five grams of marijuana, and police officers told Bianca Claybourne, the mother of the couple’s five children, that she could follow the Tennessee Highway Patrol car to the Coffee County Justice Center to bond Williams out.

There, over the course of six hours, Claybourne’s children—a breastfeeding baby now four months old, along with a 2, 3, 5 and 7 year-old—were taken from her by the Department of Children’s Services. The case has garnered national attention because of the clear mistreatment of the family. The children have yet to be reunited with their parents, and the court processes are ongoing. What this family has gone through, while shocking and horrific, is all too common.

As Dorothy Roberts, an acclaimed scholar of race, gender and the law, notes in her most recent book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families, half of Black children are subjected to a child welfare investigation before they turn 18. (That’s more than twice the rate of white children.)

We called up Professor Roberts to discuss how the terror this family experienced fits into a larger pattern.

Reckon: The latest development in the case seems to be backlash against the parents [Williams and Claybourne] for speaking to the media. What do you make of that?

Dorothy Roberts: That’s very common. The system expects you to be absolutely compliant, or you risk not ever getting your kids back. When family caregivers complain about the treatment that their children are experiencing in foster care, or they request some alternative approach to meeting their family’s needs, or they point out the injustices and the violations of their rights, even to judges or administrators or caseworkers, they often face retaliation, because of the whole ideology that undergirds the system is that the problems that families have are the fault of their parents and other family members.

Instead of addressing the needs of children, what the system does is blame the parents and then the approach is, how do we fix the parents? How do we fix their deficiencies? And so when parents speak out against the injustice is they’re facing under that false ideology, it appears as if they are not doing what they need to do to improve their parenting skill. The response isn’t, “What does this family need to support them, to help them take care of their children?” It’s, “How can we force the family into complying with a list of tasks,” and then the whole case revolves around that compliance, which may have nothing to do with the needs of the children or the accusation against the family. As in this case, sometimes there’s no reason at all for intervention. This case shows how this system is designed to target Black families and police them, and not really designed to improve children’s welfare and keep children safe.

In Torn Apart, you show how common this sort of scenario actually is, but the outrage around this case seems to indicate that there are so many people who don’t know this is happening. Does the retaliation also strike you as a way of keeping this sort of thing quiet?

That’s absolutely true as well. This system continues, despite the harm that it causes, in large part because of the propaganda that the government circulates about it. The media has helped to circulate that as well—this false portrayal of the family policing system as a system that is necessary to keep children safe, that its aim is to protect children, support families, and improve children’s welfare, when, in fact, its aim is to control the most marginalized, disenfranchised families in the nation and to force compliance with a certain standard of parenting. It also serves as a means of quelling rebellion and interfering with social change.

It’s very important to government child welfare systems to maintain that false veneer of benevolence in order to keep public support and avoid public scrutiny. These systems have always been shrouded in secrecy—they use the claim that they’re protecting children as an excuse to keep their operations secret from the public. I encountered that in my research. It’s hard to get information about the child welfare system, because they claim that they can’t divulge certain statistics or records, because they need to be confidential to protect the children. In fact, what they’re doing is covering up the kinds of harms that they inflict on children every day.

There’s a line in court records that I wanted to read to you because it stuck out to me—”the mother became very defiant.” It’s in the context of her trying to protect her children, not wanting to leave them.

This is one of the perverse aspects of the system: it runs on the racist stereotype that Black parents don’t care for their children. These are long-standing racist stereotypes about Black mothers having children recklessly without really having a loving bond with them and being unfit to care for children without white supervision. We can trace these stereotypes all the way back to the slavery era—that of the welfare queen and the pregnant crack addict and even the mammy who only cared for white children and not for her own children. The myth that Black mothers didn’t really care for their children was used to excuse the rampant family separation that went on during the slavery era and was essential to the promotion of slavery. It was just assumed, legally, that Black parents didn’t have authority over their children. That authority was given to white enslavers.

Part of the stereotype about Black women is that we’re angry, we’re defiant, we’re rebellious, we’re reckless. Also, there’s a stereotype of intellectual incapacity: a lack of rational skills, including parenting skills. The stereotype of the angry, resistant, reckless Black mother is very prevalent in child welfare decision making. It’s a racialized word.

I think, too, part of what was powerful about this report is that it shows, blow-by-blow, the way this family was dehumanized in every interaction they had with law enforcement.

Child welfare investigations, whether they occur in your home or they occur on the side of the road, are terrifying experiences. You have strangers demanding to view the most private aspects of your life, including strip searching children to look for evidence of child maltreatment and interrogating members of the family about deeply personal aspects of their lives, searching the home, interrogating others in the family’s social network, teachers and doctors and social service providers. It’s very intrusive and invasive.

That incident also shows the deep entanglement of Child Protective Services and criminal law enforcement, and the way in which case workers who are supposed to be supporting families often work hand-in-hand with police officers who are armed and are a terrifying presence. They sometimes accompany caseworkers when they search homes. Police officers themselves are key reporters of child maltreatment. They also often come with case workers to remove children from their homes, which is a violent, forcible act by government agents. It also shows way in which police violence targeted at Black people is entangled with the violence of child removal by Child Protective Services. I think that’s another reason why this case is so important, and why it has drawn so much attention. Not because it’s an extreme case, to the contrary, because it reflects common aspects that are usually hidden, and not understood about the family policing system.

I also want to discuss the way that drugs almost always come up in these cases as a reason to remove children from their homes. Can you talk a little here about the way you explain this in Torn Apart and your other works?

First of all, parental use of substances, whether illegal alcohol or illegal drugs, is not a test for parenting. It is often used as the entree for child welfare agents to investigate a family and part of the basis for removing children. But a drug test cannot tell you whether someone is a fit parent or not, or anything about their relationship with their children. This is used as a weapon to target Black families. Parental drug use is not universally seen as evidence of unfitness. We can look, for example, at the disparities in drug testing among pregnant patients. There is lots of evidence that drug testing mostly goes on in public hospitals that serve Black and brown patients, and Black mothers are far more likely to be tested and reported for being pregnant and using drugs than white patients.

Meanwhile, wealthy white parents can even boast about using drugs to relax their nerves and make them better parents. In Torn Apart, I quote an article that was in the New York Times about how apparently well-to-do white parents were drinking more during COVID In order to cope with the stress of having children at home. It was almost a joke. I hear all the time on TV or podcasts, wealthy white celebrities talk about smoking marijuana at home even though they’re parents. The interpretation of whether drug use during parenting is child maltreatment is rife with racial bias. Black parents are far more likely to be perceived as unfit because they use drugs than white parents, especially wealthy white parents.

In Torn Apart, you make a compelling case for abolishing the child welfare system. How does this case highlight the need for abolition?

This case shows the central features of what I call a family policing system. It is a system that targets Black families, indigenous families, and other disenfranchised families in America. It is not aimed at protecting children or improving their welfare, it’s aimed at policing, regulating, investigating. It’s about tearing apart families and controlling entire communities, because it’s concentrated in the most disenfranchised communities in the nation. It cannot be reformed, because it is designed to terrorize and harm families. That’s its function.

And so any efforts to reform it only help to legitimize it even more, to paint this false veneer of benevolence, to help it to operate unjustly in a more efficient manner, and, often to expand the net of families trapped within the system. The only way to stop the harms of the system, is to dismantle it and replace it with an approach to meeting children’s needs, that truly keep keeps children safe and supports families. We should be concerned about the needs of children. And this system doesn’t do meet those needs. It’s targeting families that for four all while it often targets families for reasons that are completely unrelated to the welfare of children.

Becca Andrews

Becca Andrews | bandrews@reckonmedia.com

Becca Andrews is a reporter at Reckon News and the author of "No Choice: The Destruction of Roe v. Wade and the Fight to Protect a Fundamental American Right."

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.