Programs designed to protect children ushered six siblings to their deaths — and no one has been held accountable since their adoptive mother drove them off a cliff
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.
It was a story that shook the country for a news cycle and then was mostly forgotten. But troubling questions reverberate about the system that put their adoptions in motion and then failed the children repeatedly for years.
The children were ushered into a family where they would spend more than a decade reaching out to teachers, law enforcement and neighbors about physical harm, mental anguish and food deprivation.
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 of 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 if there were other reasons for Devonte’s tears.
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 Sankaran, 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.”
Click here for more.