Early one morning in January 2021, Tonya Stafford awoke to the sound of someone banging on her front door. It was the police. “They rolled about 10, 12, maybe 15 deep,” she recalled of the number of officers. “I went to the door and was like, ‘What the hell?’”
She declined to open the door. The Cedar Hill officers asked her through the closed door if she were armed. “Yeah, I’m always armed. I’m licensed,” Stafford remembers telling them. The police told her, “We got a call that you killed your husband and you killed everybody in the house, and you said if the police came to the door you were going to start shooting.’”
She wouldn’t come out of the house. Eventually, with the police still outside her door, she was able to get in touch with someone at the department who explained to the officers that this was just one of many false reports made to Stafford’s address in recent months.
“The police were at my house every fucking night. And, I did say ‘fucking.’ I sure did,” Stafford told the Observer
. “They had got so used to coming to the house, they would just ask, ‘Are you OK?’”
The police visits were the latest in what Stafford describes as a lengthy period of harassment. Her experience is reminiscent of a story the Observer
published in October 2020 headlined “UT-Arlington Student Brianna Baucum Fights a Web of Lies to Bring her Daughter Home.”
Stafford was a source for that story, advocating for a woman named Brianna Baucum, a mother who claimed numerous false child abuse allegations were made against her, resulting in multiple visits to her home by Child Protective Services and police and eventually leading to her losing custody of her adopted daughter Journi. Nearly two years after community members rallied around Baucum, Stafford and another former supporter, Stacey Monroe, no longer want their names affiliated with backing Baucum.
The pair said they now believe that Baucum’s story – that false reports and harassment from law enforcement led her to losing custody of her daughter – is fictitious. They are only two of Baucum’s growing list of detractors. Baucum, on the other hand, is sticking by her story and going even further, claiming that the custody battle for her child, and the likes of Stafford and Monroe having a change of heart, is part of a grander conspiracy to discredit her and cover up abuse she claims she endured while in the Texas foster care system.
A series of outlandish child abuse allegations against Baucum began in 2019. Baucum claims her daughter was having behavioral problems at the time, acting like a baby and having frequent meltdowns. She said she took Journi, then three years old, to a pediatrician to see if they could help. During that appointment, Baucum says, she got a call from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, who said they’d received a report that Journi had a black eye.
Brianna Baucum holds a photo of herself and her daughter Journi.
Over the next few months, more reports would be made against Baucum. Some were unbelievable – like the report that Journi had been cooked in a 400-degree oven or another that Baucum had drowned her. Journi is still alive today.
Between July 13, 2019, and Aug. 28, 2019 (the day CPS ordered Baucum to give up custody), the child abuse claims piled up. It all ended with her losing custody of Journi. Baucum claimed all along that she never abused her daughter and that she was being harassed and targeted by CPS and law enforcement.
False reports continued to flow in, even after Journi was removed from Baucum’s custody. Some would result in police visits to her home. She claimed at the time that many, if not all, of the false reports came from a fellow student at University of Texas at Arlington, where she then attended school.
Throughout the ordeal, her story got around campus. Dozens of students marched for her. Local activist Stacey Monroe created a petition around this time in support of reuniting Baucum and Journi. Thousands of people signed it.
Baucum also started getting help from Tonya Stafford and her organization, It's Going To Be OK Inc. Stafford’s organization focuses on providing support to victims of sex-trafficking and exploitation.
The campus student newspaper wrote about it. The Observer
published a story not long after.
Much has happened since then. For one thing, Baucum’s custody hearing came and went. She lost custodial rights and says she’s appealing the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. She’s also still fighting a criminal case against her regarding the abuse allegations.
In the months leading up to her hearing in July 2021, some of her supporters began receiving threatening phone calls and text messages. Whoever was sending the messages would sometimes go as far as claiming to be specific attorneys involved in the case. Also leading up to the hearing, new claims entered the mix, namely that Brianna Baucum was sex-trafficked as a child in the Texas foster care system and forced to give birth to multiple children.
As Stafford worked alongside Baucum and Monroe followed developments in the case, their belief in the elaborate story started to fade. “I basically sat in trial and listened. I did not want to,” Stafford said. “My support was already gone for her.”
The custody hearings covered a lot of ground, including the 2019 claims. But the hearings detailed how other, more grounded reports of abuse were also made by a babysitter, the director of Buckner Children and Family Services, doctors, one of Brianna’s neighbors and others. One of the earliest was in 2017. It also explains that Baucum has been tied to threatening, anonymous text messages as early as 2011.
This was all summed up in a 67-page ruling from the Second Appellate Court that affirmed a lower court's decision terminating Baucum’s parental rights to her daughter.
Baucum would often attribute bruising to her daughter’s allergies, clumsiness or other people’s actions, according to the appellate court's ruling. For example, when a babysitter told Baucum about bruises she found on Journi in 2017, the mother suggested whatever caused them happened at another babysitter's house.
In 2018, a resident at Buckner Family Services, where Baucum and Journi were staying, reported Baucum was “potty shaming” her daughter. The following year, another resident told CPS they saw bruises on Journi. When Baucum found out who made the report, she confronted the resident at their apartment and wouldn’t leave, according to the ruling. The resident ended up leaving Buckner’s campus because they felt unsafe.
"Everything was just fake." – Tonya Stafford
On June 7, 2019, Cynthia Rentie, the director of Buckner Children and Family Services, showed up at Baucum’s place, where police had arrived not long before. According to the ruling, Baucum said she called the police “due to being tired of people saying that she was going to hurt the moms or the kids.” The ruling added, “Mother was hysterical and was highly upset.”
Five days later, Rentie received a call around 2:24 a.m. saying CPS came to the campus because they’d received a report that Journi “had to be airlifted and that her blood was on the porch,” the documents say. CPS told Rentie that Journi was fine and they believed Baucum was being harassed.
From there, Rentie said in court, “all the different spoof calls [started] happening.” Rentie, residents at the campus, the CPS caseworker and the supervisor all started getting anonymous threatening texts. “They could never figure out who was behind them, but the CPS worker thought that it might be Mother,” court documents state.
The ruling also details an incident in 2011, when Baucum claimed to police that she was receiving threatening text messages. A friend of hers had Baucum’s phone when the threatening text messages started coming in. “Mother explained that in the summer of 2011, while her friend had Mother’s phone, she received harassing text messages,” the ruling said. “The police concluded that Mother was sending the texts.”
Baucum even signed a police report at the time saying she was responsible for the 2011 threatening text messages. When asked, “Who made the threatening texts to your cell phone when Merriam [the friend] on July 9th had it in her possession?” in the 2011 police report, Baucum answered, “Everything I did.” Baucum claimed in court that this question wasn’t on the report when she signed it. She also claims she never read the report before signing it and just took the blame to end the ordeal.
During the case involving Journi’s custody, a psychologist examined Baucum but was unable to determine whether she was telling the truth.
In August 2019, Baucum would lose custody after her daughter made an outcry of abuse during a CPS interview. Baucum wasn’t present for the interview.
Journi told CPS her mother "whopped" her because she "peed on the couch." When asked how she got her injuries, she said, “I don't want to talk about it.”
The idea that Baucum was being wrongly accused of abusing her child and was being harassed by law enforcement and CPS had all seemed believable to Monroe and Stafford. After all, there are plenty of credible stories and statistics on people’s experience of abuse in various foster care systems.
But then came the claims about being sex-trafficked and giving birth to multiple children. Eventually, a supposed CPS whistleblower would enter the mix along with alleged FBI documents purporting that Baucum was sex trafficked while she was coming up in the foster care system.
Stafford believed these claims at first. “That’s why I took her on, because we believed she was a sex-trafficking victim,” she said.
After a while, though, it just didn’t add up. “Everything was just fake,” Stafford said.
More and more often, seemingly fabricated documents would crop up appearing to corroborate Baucum’s story. Then, people would come out of the woodwork, claiming to be whistleblowers who could prove Baucum’s claims.
One of those alleged whistleblowers contacted the Observer
claiming to be a staffer with CPS. They had what appeared to be an employee email set up by the agency. They also sent along a supposed staff ID. The email and phone number this supposed whistleblower provided have since been disconnected. Stafford believed the whistleblower at first, but she now says she thinks it was likely Baucum or someone helping her posing as a CPS employee.
“It’s really hurtful because we really were believing her and she took away from a lot of victims, real victims,” Stafford said. “She used a lot of our resources that could have went to victims themselves.”
But believing it at the time, Stafford was determined to track down proof for Baucum and help provide for the children she claimed she had when she was just a child herself. According to Stafford, Baucum claimed the whole time that she knew where the children were and that they needed to be protected from her foster parents.
Stafford said: “We never could confirm any kids because everytime I would ask I would say, ‘Well, Brianna, let’s put them in respite care. We’ve got somebody that will take the kids in respite care,’ she would say, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it.’”
Now, Stafford thinks she was played.
“She got us for about $50,000,” Stafford said. “That was in legal fees and hotel [stays].” They were helping pay for a place for Baucum to stay because they thought she was in danger.
As for Monroe, she began questioning Baucum’s narrative when she started getting messages herself. “It wasn’t until I started getting threatening text messages saying ‘Don’t help Brianna.’”
She said it just seemed off. “First, how would someone get my number? I limit the people I share my number with, so either someone I know gave it out or someone I know is using it and pretending to be someone else,” Monroe said. “My gut was just telling me ‘This is Brianna texting you these threatening text messages. This is her. This is her.’”
She said she started getting the text messages when she began distancing herself from Baucum’s case. The messages got more aggressive, violent and urgent “to the point where I was concerned. Should I call the police? Should I file a police report?” Monroe said.
Stacey Monroe once supported Brianna Baucum in her fight for justice, but now believes she was misled.
Eventually, she felt if she ignored the messages they would stop.
As Monroe continued distancing herself from the case, she heard others were doing the same. Then, Stafford reached out to Monroe, saying she had doubts about Baucum’s story and asked that she take down some of the social media content they had made for her case.
“I wanted to, in a way, remain neutral in the thing because I wasn’t really sure of the validity of her claims. So, I left a video up and stuff of when we were advocating for her,” Monroe said.
Others interested in the case would also get phone calls from what appeared to be the Arlington Police Department and CPS.
Eventually, people began receiving messages and calls from someone claiming to be Stafford, who now says she believed Baucum “spoofed” her numbers and was threatening people.
Stafford also got a message from someone claiming that this reporter was investigating her family, which was untrue. “I was getting these messages about ‘Jacob is talking to your family.’ … I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Stafford said.
Before she broke ties with Baucum, Stafford would drive her around. There were times Baucum would be on the phone in the back seat while Stafford was getting threatening texts regarding her case. Stafford began to believe Baucum was sending her threatening text messages while in the back seat of her car.
Baucum denies it all and maintains her innocence. In a recent phone call, she told the Observer
she felt she was being treated unfairly by the court during her hearing and by her detractors now.
“Instead of the case being about allegations of abuse or anything, it went directly on my past,” Baucum said. “That I’m a former foster youth, that I’m delusional, a liar, made things up, that I was not a victim of any type of abuse.”
Baucum added, “They made up their narrative and that’s what they ran with in the 67-page memorandum.”
In response to the claim that she made up details about her time in foster care, Baucum said: “You would need to ask yourself why all of a sudden these people are saying these things, especially when I’m not the one that came forward with this information. I never talked about my past when it came to my daughter. I never discussed my trauma because my trauma had nothing to do with my parenting to my daughter.”
She says Stafford introduced her past and allegations of being sex-trafficked and forced to give multiple births as a child into her custody hearing.
"It wasn’t anyone’s business what I went through as a child in foster care." – Brianna Baucum
“Whatever I went through as a child should have never been brought into this case and it was brought into this case by Tonya Stafford who investigated, who worked with Homeland Security, who also provided information to Rhonda Hunter who did her own investigation with Derek Washington,” Baucum said. Hunter is one of Baucum’s former attorneys. Washington is an investigator who was working for Baucum’s defense. “So, this is not information that I divulged to anyone. It wasn’t anyone’s business what I went through as a child in foster care.”
Stafford claims she was led to the information about Baucum’s alleged abuse while in foster care and the children she birthed by the supposed CPS whistleblower and someone purporting to be an advocate. Stafford now believes both of those people were Baucum or someone helping her.
Still, Baucum said she had no idea anyone was looking into her past at the time or that it would be brought up during her custody hearing.
“I was pretty much ambushed with it in court,” Baucum said. “Once Rhonda Hunter showed all her evidence, talked about what I went through in trial, that was trauma for me all over again because I chose to block that out. I chose not to focus on what I went through as a child.”
Birth certificates for the children Baucum supposedly delivered when she was a child were submitted to the court as part of her custody hearing. The court determined these documents were fake.
Baucum says it’s all true. This is her telling of her time in the foster care system: “I was sexually abused as a child. CPS is well aware of that. They put me in a number of group homes and foster homes, or group homes in Houston, and tried to overmedicate me on medication to keep me just quiet. I ended up going into another group home called Avalon, which everyone is well aware of, and I was able to pretty much be safe.”
She left Houston for a group home called Avalon Center in Eddy, south of Waco. “I was safe, I was protected, I was able to do hypnotherapy, trauma informed care, and they took me off all of the medication that Houston CPS had me on,” Baucum said.
But she claims her CPS past somehow managed to follow her to DFW, which ultimately sparked her custody battle. She claimed Stafford, Hunter and Washington were able to locate the children she birthed while in foster care. But she said she wasn’t kept in the loop throughout their investigation.
“While Tonya Stafford was on Facebook exploiting my case, telling my story about what she found, I was in her protective custody shut off from social media,” Baucum said. “I didn’t know what she found, who she found. I wasn’t able to meet my children, none of that. I wasn’t given an opportunity, nor was I talked to. I found out once we went to court that they were able to uncover all of this information.”
In her telling, that’s why the psychologist who examined her may not have been able to determine whether she was telling the truth.
“From there, that’s where you get the psychiatrist who’s saying ‘Well, one day she says one thing and the next day she says another.’ No,” Baucum explained. “The one day I came into your office, we were talking about abuse to Journi and how I didn’t make the calls against myself to get Journi removed, and that I’m not a psychopath, and all these extra things. Then, I’m ambushed in court about having children and being raped as a child.”
Asked about the claim that she was behind the threatening text messages and phone calls, as well as law enforcement visits to the homes of people related to the case, she said: “My issue with that is this entire case began from threatening calls, threatening reports, alleged texts, harassment from [a UTA student] to the police department, CPS and all these different things. Journi got removed because of these very same issues.”
Considering this, she said, it’s ironic that her newfound detractors believe she’s threatening and harassing people and that multiple social media pages have been created to discredit her. “Like, no. I haven’t threatened … I didn’t even know there were people that doubted me until all these different [social media] pages … and all these different people have gone out of their way to harass and harass every person that stands up to support me,” Baucum said. “Anyone that stands up to speak for me, they’re getting harassed and threatened. So, how is that the narrative now, they’re trying to tie it back and say, ‘Oh, well Brianna’s threatening us and sending police and things to our home.’ How am I going to get your home address? How would I have the energy to call and harass anyone, threaten, text and harass when I’m fighting for my freedom. Not only am I fighting for my freedom, I’m fighting for my daughter, getting my daughter out of this toxic situation.”
She said her detractors now believe she’s a child abuser and are going after her because of it. She said they feel their donations didn’t go toward a good cause. Baucum says her story hasn’t changed and that her detractors are all bullies.
“It’s not fair that they’re basically coming together as bullies, trying to change the narrative of the story to coincide with what CPS is saying – that I’m a threat to society, that I’m harassing people when that’s not the case – and it shouldn’t be painted that way. Just because these individuals don’t like me and joined together to say X,Y,Z, that is not the truth.”
Dr. Maxine Davis, an assistant professor at UTA’s school of social work, and Tonya Stafford, a legal advocate for Baucum, raise their signs in 2020 protest on behalf of Brianna Baucum. Stafford is no longer supporting Baucum's claim of innocence.
She added, “You’re all jumping on the bandwagon to bully, and it’s not OK because my truth still stands. I didn’t hurt my daughter. I’m not out here running around like a maniac or psychopath threatening and harassing people.”
Before the end of Baucum’s custody hearing, she’d get a new attorney named Clifford Bronson. He has about 27 years of experience, most of it in child welfare cases. In emails Baucum sent the Observer
, she indicated she wasn’t happy with some of Bronson’s decisions in her case, asking why he didn’t call certain witnesses or submit certain pieces of evidence.
Bronson said Baucum was nice throughout the trial.
“I know she absolutely loves her daughter,” he said.
He didn’t want to get too specific but said, “There were some unique aspects of this case that made it a little more difficult.” He said some clients may have a prior history with CPS, grew up in the system, have a criminal history or mental health issues. Sometimes, these things can make a case harder to navigate.
“Generally speaking, I’m the attorney and I take the ultimate lead when strategic decisions have to be made. I’m the one to make them and certainly I try to make them in conjunction with my client.” But, it’s ultimately his call, he said. “I don’t want to call multiple witnesses that are just going to repeat the same thing,” he said. “That does not do my client any good. It doesn’t do me any good.”
This also applies to records his clients may want submitted into the case. “That’s my responsibility as the attorney, and it’s not always a popular decision, but that’s what I have to do as her attorney.”
While they may have had disagreements in the case, Bronson said he’d still call himself a supporter of Baucum’s. “I am a supporter of any client I represent. As their attorney, I have to support them,” he said.
Still, he said he thinks Baucum got a fair shake in her custody hearing. “I thought the judge was very fair to us and I expressed that to her,” he said. But, he said if he had been on the case from the beginning, things may have been different. “I wish they were different,” he said.
Baucum gave the Observer
a list of people to contact who she said could attest to her good parenting of Journi and some of her other claims. One was Rene Coleman, who works at a child care facility in Dallas called Quest for Success. Coleman told the Observer
she only saw Baucum as a thorough parent to Journi, someone other parents could learn from. Coleman said Baucum went above and beyond vetting Coleman as well as Quest for Success, asking for proof of her education, proof that she had a valid driver’s license. Baucum even asked what kind of cleaning supplies were often used in the facility to make sure it wouldn’t be a problem for Journi’s allergies, Coleman said.
"I thought the judge was very fair to us and I expressed that to her." – Clifford Bronson, attorney
She also had us reach out to someone named Rachel Richardson, who Baucum said went to middle school with her and could attest to the claim that she was pregnant at the time. Reached for comment, she said she didn’t know much about Baucum and her case. “But I do remember Brianna being pregnant in middle school,” Richardson said. “I didn’t know, like, right when it first happened. Just she used to always wear these big jackets to school even when it was hot outside. I don’t even remember how the classmates and I found out that she was pregnant. I think maybe one day she may have had it open in the classroom or something like that. But I remember her being pregnant.”
No legitimate proof of this claim was ever offered up in court, but Baucum says it’s true and that details from her past like this are what CPS is trying to cover up with her custody case.
Through a whirlwind of competing and often contradictory claims, some still don’t know what to believe.
As for Stafford and Monroe, they think everyone involved owes Journi an apology.
Monroe said, “Not only do I want to retract my support for Brianna, but I think that we – I speak for myself and I hope I speak for everyone else as well – we owe an apology to Journi because she’s the victim here in this case.”