DESERTED AT EVERY TURN
One day, she thought, the three kids would come back and find her. They would return to Houston and reunite with the woman who fought to keep their family together.
Priscilla Celestine held on to that dream for years, long after the state of Texas took the children — all younger than 6 at the time — and sent them 1,300 miles away to live in a Minnesota town she didn’t know, in a home she didn’t know with a family she didn’t know.
The interstate adoption, finalized in 2009, was in Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera’s best interest, the state determined. They would be safe and cared for.
The state was wrong.
“When they first took them away, it hurt so bad, but I got through that,” Celestine says. She told herself it was God’s plan. She told herself that her niece and nephews — the “jolly little kids,” the “live-as-fire kids,” the “happy babies” — would come back one day.
Celestine no longer dreams. Jeremiah and Ciera are dead. He was 14; she was 12. Devonte, 15, is missing and presumed dead.
All were killed in late March when one of their adoptive mothers, Jennifer Hart, drove an SUV over a cliff near Mendocino, Calif., and plunged into the Pacific Ocean 100 feet below — an act the local sheriff called intentional. Their other adoptive mother, Sarah Hart, and their three adopted siblings — Markis, 19, Hannah, 16, and Abigail, 14 — were also in the vehicle. They died, too.
Adoption records for all six children remain sealed, but publicly available documents show that warning signs were missed or ignored. Child abuse by the Harts was reported to local police in Minnesota months before the adoption of Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera was finalized. The small Minnesota adoption agency that placed the children had a history of violations, including a failure to properly conduct home studies for pending placements. And records show that school officials and neighbors repeatedly contacted authorities with concerns and allegations.
Jennifer and Sarah, both 38 when they died, were a same-sex white couple. The adopted children — two sets of biological siblings — were black. Child-welfare workers visited the family on numerous occasions, but Jennifer and Sarah were able to keep the children and evade suspicion because, as one welfare worker put it in a report, “these women look normal.” Again and again, authorities trusted the parents more than they did the kids.
Much of the country responded the same way. When a viral photo of Devonte crying and hugging a white officer during a protest against police violence thrust the Harts into the national spotlight in 2014, many celebrated the moment as a symbol of hope for racial harmony. Few wondered whether Devonte’s tears were instead a cry for help.In Texas and Minnesota, the states involved in the adoption of the Hart children, there are no public investigations into how the adoptions were handled. Records in both states remain sealed. Six children are dead, and there is no inquiry into how they were placed in jeopardy or why they were left there.
Adoption experts agree that the Hart case is an extreme example of how the system has failed adopted children, but they say it also points to a need for a rigorous monitoring process by social-work agencies.“In our system, once a child is adopted, we equate it with success and there is very little follow-up,” said University of Michigan law professor Vivek Sankaram, who advocates for children’s rights. “We actually know very little about the well-being of how kids from foster care do after they are adopted.”
Celestine, 67, last saw the children in December 2007. She spent two hours holding them and playing with them that day, she said in an interview, and cried when it was time to go.She learned of their fate in a late-night call from her former lawyer in early April. She put the phone down, not wanting to hear the details.
“No, no,” she said. “No, no.”
Shonda Jones, the Houston attorney she had hired to help her keep custody of the children, maintains that they never should have been taken from her in the first place. Celestine “had brought them some normalcy, some stability, and then to just abruptly remove them without some form of warning, I just couldn’t believe it,” Jones said in an interview. “Everything about this case screamed, ‘wrong, wrong, wrong, injustice, injustice, injustice.’”
A single mistake
Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera — along with an older brother, Dontay — became wards of the state in 2006, when a Texas court terminated the parental rights of their biological parents. Almost everyone involved in the case believes that was the right decision, Jones said. The children’s mother, Sherry Davis, was addicted to drugs, and the state documented regular instances of neglect.
Celestine, the sister of Jeremiah and Ciera’s father, petitioned to adopt the children in May 2007. She had a steady job. She moved into a bigger home, and the kids moved in with her in June. She bought them food and clothes and toys. Her schedule never varied: Work, home, church. Work, home, church.
Celestine was 56 at the time and says the young children — then 4, 3 and 2 — gave her energy. “They kept me moving, and that’s what I needed,” she said in an interview. “And I enjoyed it. I loved it because they were little, and you could teach them.”
The children had been with her for about six months when she made the decision that cost her custody. Her employer called her in to work an extra shift, her lawyer said. Celestine temporarily left the children with Davis. Celestine says she didn’t realize that violated the rules. By chance, a social worker visited the house while Davis was there with the children. The siblings were immediately removed from the home and taken into state custody.
“She had to go to work,” Jones said. “Does she lose her job or does she allow the mother to be with the kids? I just believe it could have been handled in a more compassionate, civil manner.” The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services refused to comment on the case, citing confidentiality laws related to adoptions.
Celestine and her lawyer fought to regain custody. But it was a losing battle. Texas officials moved quickly to find the three younger children an adoptive home. Dontay wasn’t adopted because the state determined he required placement in a mental health treatment center, Jones said. The small percentage of adoptions that occur across state lines are governed by the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, a nearly 60-year-old agreement intended to ensure continuity of care. A caseworker in the destination state must complete a home study — including a review of the adoptive parents’ criminal histories, employment status and daily routines. Child-welfare agencies in both states must approve the placement.
Federal funding for state child-welfare systems is based in part on how quickly states move children out of foster care and into adoptive families. There is, however, no federal oversight of adoptions, either in state or between states, and there is minimal transparency on how the process works. There is almost no data to determine success or failure rates.
Holes in the safety net
Texas officials entrusted Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera to Permanent Family Resource Center (PFRC), a small adoption agency in Fergus Falls, Minn. According to its now-defunct website, the agency was founded in 2000 by three families that had adopted multiple children and specialized in adoptions of “sibling groups and children of color.” The adoption moved swiftly. Within six months of being removed from Celestine, court documents show, the siblings were living in Minnesota.
But while the adoption of Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera was pending, in September 2008, Hannah Hart told a teacher that Jennifer had hit her with a belt, leaving a bruise on her arm — the first public record of many allegations of abuse. The mothers told police that the 6-year-old fell down the stairs, and the case was closed. In February 2009, a judge approved the adoption of Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera. Even that decision, and who made it, remains under wraps.
Within months of the approval, Minnesota cited PFRC for dozens of violations. In September 2009, the state put PFRC’s operating license on a two-year conditional status, an action that “indicates repeated and serious violations of licensing standards,” according to a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The agency closed in 2012.
It is unclear if any of the violations were related to the Hart family. PFRC founder Maryjane Westra did not respond to a request for an interview. Bridget Leonard, a former director, declined to comment. Minnesota DHS also would not comment on specifics of the Hart case. A Minnesota social worker who worked with the Harts would later tell investigators at the Oregon Department of Human Resources that Texas frequently funneled children through PFRC, “even when the [Minnesota] Child Welfare office has not supported the placement.”
Please read the article to find what a travesty befell these children and how the govt. agencies deserted them at every turn. The poor children were abused, starved, too small in stature and weight for their ages.
Thank you for reading.