If the anonymous tipster were telling the truth, Brianna Baucum is a monster, possibly one with magical powers. Between July 13 and Aug. 28 last year, Baucum killed her 4-year-old daughter Journi at least five times, the tipster told authorities.
That doesn’t count the claim that Baucum put her daughter in a 400-degree oven, since it’s unclear from a Child Protective Services investigation whether Journi “died” that time. Nor does CPS provide many details about the times Baucum allegedly beat her daughter’s head with a wine bottle, held a knife to her throat, drowned her, sexually abused her, threatened her with a gun, left her in a hot car and abandoned her on a street in the middle of the night. All this purportedly happened as Baucum occasionally broadcasted rants about her violent episodes on Facebook video livestreams, one of which included Baucum onscreen with Journi’s corpse.
Except it didn’t.
Lies, all lies, Baucum said of the bizarre accusations against her, and she has a solid source to back her up on that, beyond the simple fact that Journi is still alive, uncooked and showing no signs of being tortured by a madwoman. Investigators with CPS looked into the claims and found they were either outright falsehoods or unsupported by evidence. One investigator helped her file a harassment complaint against her tormentor, Baucum said.
That being the case, Baucum wants to know: Why can’t Journi come home?
Baucum, a 29-year-old survivor of Texas’ foster care system herself, hasn’t been allowed to live with her daughter since CPS ordered her to give up custody Aug. 28, 2019. Despite the lack of evidence and the craziness of the complaints lodged against her, neither CPS nor the police at the University of Texas-Arlington, where Baucum is a student, have ended the sole case preventing the mother and daughter’s reunion.
Baucum said UTA cops are harassing her after she complained of being targeted by the false accusations and of her treatment by police. She’s afraid for her life on UTA’s campus, afraid of the school police.
To dozens of students who marched on the campus July 25 to protest her treatment by the university, the “why” answer is uglier. Brianna Baucum is being targeted because she and her daughter are Black, they believe.
The campus cops, meanwhile, aren’t saying anything.
A low-point among many in Baucum’s struggle to get her daughter back came Jan. 24, delivered by UTA officers. Baucum was showering at her on-campus home at the University Village Apartments when she heard a loud knock on the door.
Wrapped in a towel, Baucum rushed to answer.
The officers had a warrant for Baucum's arrest for injury to then-3-year-old Journi. Baucum tried telling them that she didn’t have custody of Journi and the charges were baseless, but the police officers wouldn't hear her out. As they moved in to detain her, the towel fell to the ground leaving Baucum exposed. A male officer let her dress in nothing but a T-shirt, and they took her away in the back of a police car.
The warrant was based on the 19 reports CPS received between July 13 and Aug. 28, 2019, regarding Journi's welfare. According to the warrants, "unconfirmed injuries and confirmed injuries [were] observed by CPS personnel, doctors, a school nurse and a daycare worker."
The warrant details several of the allegations, medical examinations of Journi and Baucum’s interactions with CPS. It says that in each case the allegations were ruled out because of lack of evidence at the time. Nevertheless, the third-degree felony charge remains pending, keeping Baucum from regaining custody of Journi.
That’s a cruel irony for Baucum, who has been engaged with Texas’ childcare system her entire life and hoped one day to work in the system she once believed in.
Baucum was abandoned at the hospital after her mother gave birth to her, setting her on course for a troubled childhood. She was in and out of foster homes, alternative schools and psychiatric facilities. Throughout this time, she says, she pushed away everyone who was close to her.
She was adopted by a family in Houston when she was 3. She didn't find out she was adopted until she was 12, around the same time her grandfather and aunt died and she broke her ankle, halting her days of running track. She began acting out and her behavior progressively got worse.
In 2007, just a month before her 17th birthday, her caseworker dropped her off at Avalon Center in Eddy, south of Waco. She was violent then, getting into fights with other girls at the foster home. She likely would have been taken to jail if the home's lead supervisor had not pleaded with officers not to arrest her after another fight. This was a turning point for Baucum.
When she aged out of foster care, Baucum began attending Central Texas College in Killen, majoring in psychology and social work. One day, she hoped to work with foster care children.
From 2014-2016, she had a nonprofit called Divine Regal Swans that focused on helping young people transition out of foster care. One of the women she helped asked Baucum if she would take in her baby when she was born. Baucum took custody of Journi at birth.
When she got accepted to UTA in 2018, her goal was to graduate from the social work program with a focus on child welfare and have her master's degree by the time Journi turned 5.
She is a member of UTA's chapter of the National Association of Colored Women and a recipient of a scholarship from the Mary I. Gourley Foundation. She has maintained a 3.6 GPA and was setting herself up for an internship with CPS, but then the allegations against her started rolling in.
The allegations started in April 2019 when Baucum was living at Buckner Family Services. Journi was attending a private school in Dallas called St. Philip's at the time and was having some behavioral issues, Baucum said. "She was experiencing regression. She wanted to act like a baby, having meltdowns," she said.
Baucum took Journi to a doctor to seek advice on curbing the behavioral problems. The pediatrician told Baucum that Journi's behavior was normal.
During the appointment, Baucum said she received a phone call from Yolanda Miles, a caseworker with Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Miles told Baucum that she received a report that Journi had a black eye.
The pediatrician examined Journi further, determined there was no concern about abuse and relayed this information to Miles. From there, Miles had 30 days before she could officially close Baucum and Journi's case. In that time, she received another allegation.
It goes on to say the neglectful supervision and physical abuse alleged in these reports were ruled unfounded.
The allegations didn’t let up. In June and July last year, CPS received claims of more scrapes, marks and bruises on Journi from her being slammed around, held at knifepoint and hit with a wine bottle.
“The determination of the case was that the allegations were falsely reported,” the affidavit said.
Baucum said Miles came to understand the allegations were false, so they filed a harassment report with the Dallas Police Department against the neighbor whom Baucum said was making the false allegations. Miles did not respond for comment.
Baucum contacted the school about the harassment from her neighbor, and it allowed her to move into an on-campus apartment, but the allegations persisted.
Toward the end of July last year, Baucum's case was transferred to Tarrant County and into the hands of investigator Liliana Castillo. According to the affidavit for removal, Castillo said she visited with an employee at Quest for Success Children's Center in Dallas, where Journi was attending daycare, to ask about her behavior.
The employee "advised Journi has behavior issues, she frequently cries, screams, runs into things and flings herself to the floor when throwing a temper tantrum which causes her bruising all over her body," according to the affidavit.
Castillo tried to set up a meeting with Baucum. She initially agreed, but the next day, Baucum told Castillo she did not want to meet or be contacted by CPS again.
On Aug. 7, 2019, another report was made alleging Journi had a black eye and that her daycare would cover for Baucum. Castillo also received a text message from the same tipster the same day saying, "She killed her, she's dead now."
Castillo visited with the director of the Center for Transforming Lives at UTA where Journi would stay when Baucum was in class. The director told Castillo that Journi did not have a black eye, but that she often came in with bruises that didn’t occur at the daycare.
The next day, Baucum and Journi had just awakened and were preparing for the day. They were painting, watching Minnie Mouse and eating pretzels and strawberries. Baucum said this was a typical day for her and Journi — until four UTA campus police officers climbed through her window.
The officers had received a report that Baucum had put her daughter into a 400-degree oven. They got their information from Dean of Student Affairs Heather Snow, who got her information from Baucum’s former neighbor and tormentor.
Baucum said the police could see Journi was fine, but they insisted on ransacking her apartment.
Baucum met with CPS in Tarrant County on Aug. 8, pleading with them to resolve their case against her. They said they would continue to investigate the incoming reports about her. So, she hired family attorney Anthony Pax on Aug. 13 last year. On Aug. 21, 2019, an Arlington Child Development Center employee reported that Journi had bruising on her face and a large scratch on her back. Baucum said she doesn't know where the scratch came from but attributes the bruises to Journi's clumsiness.
The daycare employee took pictures of the injuries and forwarded them to CPS, which then filed an affidavit to interview Journi and have her physically examined on Aug. 23, 2019. Journi sustained a minor injury when doctors had to restrain her to get her into the MRI machine, adding another bruise to her face.
They were at the doctor's office from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. that day. Baucum said that after this examination, it was determined there was no concern of abuse. The arrest warrant says, "At the conclusion of the examination [redacted] was released back to Brianna due to CPS not having sufficient justification to remove her from Brianna's care at the time."
But farther into the document, UTA Detective Michelle Stellato claimed she received a notarized affidavit from the doctor who conducted the Aug. 23 examination. Stellato said she received the affidavit on Dec. 5, months after Journi was removed from Baucum's custody.
The account in the December affidavit contradicts what was previously stated about the Aug. 23 examination. In the affidavit, the doctor is asked, "Based on your findings, do you feel that this child will be in immediate danger of additional injury or at a substantial risk of harm if released to parents or caretakers?"
The doctor responds, "Yes, I believe this is the case because if the child is being harmed at this household, she needs to be in a different environment or supervised so as to avoid further injury."
Baucum said she doesn't understand why Journi was allowed to go home with her if the forensic examiner determined she was in "immediate danger."
After the Aug. 23, 2019 examination, Miles set up a family meeting with everyone in Journi's support group. Baucum said 27-30 people were present, and the conversations that day were not about Journi being abused. Instead, they were about what to do in the event that they receive another false report.
During this time, Baucum would have Journi at the Center for Transforming Lives from 8 a.m. to noon.
But, Journi wasn't there to be picked up when Baucum arrived at the daycare on Aug. 27, 2019. CPS had taken her in to be interviewed about the child abuse allegations without her mother present. During the interview with Journi, she told CPS "[Redacted] whopped me because I peed on the couch" and said, "I don't want to talk about it" when asked about how her injuries occurred.
The next day, CPS removed Journi from Baucum's custody. Eventually, CPS told her she could reach out to someone in her support group to look after her daughter. She called on Ladonna Dunham, Journi's godmother, to take her in. Baucum was to take parenting classes and wasn't to be left alone with her daughter.
"I was floored," Baucum said.
She refused to take the parenting class, saying she had already had a lot of formal training in childcare and didn't agree with their ruling.
On Sept. 16, 2019, Baucum and her friend Candace Robinson were driving to the university's Maverick Activities Center for dinner when UTA police pulled them over. The officers alleged Baucum ran a stop sign. Then, they told Baucum they had a warrant for her arrest for not putting Journi in a car seat. They put her in handcuffs and took her to the police station, but when they got there no warrant could be found, so they let Baucum go.
The next day, campus police came knocking on Baucum's door, responding to another allegation of child abuse. Journi wasn't even in her custody.
Baucum and Robinson filed a complaint with the UTA police later that day but to no effect. So, she went to Dayna Ford, UTA's student conduct director. After the meeting, instead of getting help, Baucum was placed on academic and disciplinary probation pending an investigation. Baucum said the school took Journi’s removal, which UTA’s own police helped instigate, as evidence of her guilt. This also prevented Baucum from pursuing an internship with CPS.
Ford did not respond for comment.
Journi was in Dunham's custody from November 2019 until May 2020. Throughout most of this ordeal, Baucum said she had Dunham's support. Dunham testified at court hearings and was with them at the Aug. 23, 2019, examination. But, for reasons Baucum doesn't understand, Dunham is the person who handed Journi over to CPS.
"I don't know at what point Ladonna started singing a different tune," Baucum said. "She would tell me and others one thing, but tell CPS and police another."
Four days after UTA police served Baucum the injury-to-a-child warrants, detective Stellato sat down with Dunham to conduct an interview for her investigation. In a recording of the interview, Dunham can be heard expressing doubt about the abuse allegations against Baucum.
"Journi is the type of child that, if you just sit back and listen to her, she'll tell you whatever you want to know. You just have to sit back and listen," Dunham tells Stellato. "But, with that being said, Journi said things that, sometimes, it's stuff that she's heard. I think that's what she's doing. She's repeating what she's heard."
Stellato said she couldn't comment to the Observer, citing an ongoing investigation. Dunham said she doesn't talk to reporters. Video of Baucum being arrested in January made its rounds online and eventually caught the attention of Tonya Stafford, the CEO of It's Going To Be Ok Inc., an organization focused on providing help for victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. Stafford jumped on board as an advocate for Baucum and hired attorney Rhonda Hunter to assist her pro bono legal representative Joy Obiselu.
Baucum says that in one of her many interactions with CPS, a caseworker divulged to her the name of the person making the false reports. She was told the reports were coming from her neighbor, a fellow student in the social work program. She believes the investigation that arose from these outlandish claims prompted daycare workers to report any mark they saw on Journi despite her documented history of self-harm.
Stafford says through their own investigation they found out this student has a history of making false allegations about other people’s kids. The student could not be reached for comment.
Getting Journi back has been an uphill battle for Baucum, but it might be starting to level out.
This June, as many across the country mourned and protested the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Baucum wrote an email outlining her experience to several UTA staff members. She titled it "A Black Life on UTA campus that has not mattered."
"The death of George Floyd has shaken and shattered many homes and I can say that I have felt the same fear, the same racism, the same discrimination, the same complacent steps of inaction right here at the University of Texas-Arlington," Baucum wrote.
Her story spread around campus, sparking protests at the college and a petition that has amassed over 10,000 signatures in support of reuniting Baucum and Journi. The college's student-run newspaper, The Shorthorn, covered Baucum's story a little less than a year after Journi was taken. Additionally, Channel 27 News and Entertainment, an independent news outlet based in Indiana, released a documentary about the case on Sept. 21.
Nicholas Hawkins, UTA NAACP vice president, said that after hearing Baucum's story he reached out to several student leaders on campus to coordinate a demonstration in support of reuniting Journi and Baucum.
"This family has literally been through a nightmare. People have started to realize what is going on, and they're not going to stand for it." – activist Stacey Monroe
Hawkins and the other UTA students marched across campus on July 25. They carried signs reading "Justice4Journi" and "Black Students Matter" all the way to the college's sub-police station.
Stacey Monroe, a DFW community activist, started the petition around this time. "This family has literally been through a nightmare," Monroe said. The number of signatures on the petition grows by the day, but she never expected it to reach so many people. "People have started to realize what is going on, and they're not going to stand for it."
On Sept. 28, Catherine A. LaBrenz and Maxine Davis, two assistant professors at UTA's School of Social Work, wrote an open letter in support of reuniting Baucum with Journi. They said that Black children are overrepresented across the child welfare system, from initial referrals to removals.
"Unfortunately, Brianna’s case is reflective of the systemic anti-Black racism and bias present in systems that should support and preserve families," the professors wrote. "As scholars and social work professionals, we believe Brianna Baucum and support her."
Four days later, Baucum had a hearing with CPS in Tarrant County. Instead of focusing on the allegations against her, Baucum said the judge asked CPS about her bond with Journi. “The judge said ‘I really want to know what the bond is. I’m not here to go back and forth with what you guys’ perspective of her is. I want to know about the bond between Brianna and Journi,’” Baucum recalled. The Baucum team left the hearing feeling confident about the road ahead, as CPS told the judge the bond between Journi and her mom was great and indicated that they were interested in dropping their case to terminate her parental rights once UTA police dropped their criminal charges. Despite what was said during the hearing, Baucum says neither she nor her legal team have received anything from CPS in writing stating they’re dropping the termination case. Until they do, Baucum says they’re preparing for trial.
Attorneys Andrew Wilkerson and Michael Campbell are taking on her criminal case pro bono.
Because the charges are still pending, UTA police Capt. Michael McCord said in an email to the Observer that he is limited in what he can discuss about Baucum's case. He said the campus police department is an accredited law enforcement organization that takes pride in the professionalism of its officers and staff.
He said the college takes domestic violence very seriously and assists the Texas Department of Family Services welfare checks upon request. "Any decision to remove a child from the custody of its parent is made solely by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services," McCord said.
During this whole debacle, Baucum has only been allowed supervised visits with Journi. "When I go to these visits, it's my goal to show Journi that Mommy still loves her," Baucum said.?? The rules during these visits have become more stringent since the case has gained more attention, Baucum says. She’s not allowed to bring her phone, so they can’t listen to music, and the social worker doing the supervising doesn’t allow them to pray because they say it gives Journi false hope that she may return home some day.
Baucum thinks this is retaliation for being so outspoken about her case. She thinks CPS is trying to break the bond between them.
“It’s been intense these last couple of months,” Baucum said. “They’re taking small things away from us that we enjoy during the visit.”
Baucum would often show up 30 minutes early to see Journi. As she waited, Baucum set up a pink table – pink used to be Journi's favorite color, but now it's blue – and pulled out pictures of the two of them, toys and snacks. From the moment the two are together, they have only an hour to hang out, listen to music, play and talk.
During these visits, Baucum said she wasn’t allowed to tell Journi that she's fighting to bring her home. So instead, they would listen to one of their favorite songs, "You Will Win" by Jekalyn Carr.
"The song speaks for itself," Baucum said. "And we will win. I want her to always feel that between me, her and God, we're gonna win."