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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 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.”
Back in Houston, Celestine pressed for information about the children’s new home, court records show. She asked about the background check of the adoptive parents, about their gross income, about the number of bedrooms in their home. She asked whether they had criminal records.
To each request, the state of Texas had the same response: “The information requested is confidential.”
'No food for you'
Alexandria, Minn., is a small town about a hundred miles southeast of Fargo, N.D. Most of the people who live here also grew up here. They went to the same schools, boated on the same deep blue lakes, shopped in the same stores. They know a lot of each others’ secrets.
The Hart family was different. Jennifer and Sarah grew up in small towns in neighboring South Dakota and met as college students in 1999. In 2004, they moved to Alexandria, buying a house on a tidy, tree-lined street. Sarah worked as a manager at the Herberger’s department store. Jennifer did occasional odd jobs.
After adopting Markis, Hannah and Abigail in 2006, Jennifer stayed home with the kids. A liberal, white lesbian couple with three adopted children of color stood out in a conservative county that is 97 percent white. But the family also stuck out for other reasons, according to others who knew them.
Barbara Hines, the listing agent for the house Sarah and Jennifer bought, recalled having dinner with the family in 2006.
“The children did not speak,” Hines remembers. “I really felt there was something that wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”
A relative of Jennifer’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private matters, said Jennifer often erupted at the children.
“The kids couldn’t do anything without getting into trouble,” the relative said. “If the kids did anything she thought was wrong, she would snap her fingers and say, ‘Get in the corner. No food for you.’ ”
Family members and others who questioned her child-rearing were “pretty much cut out,” said the relative. “Jen wouldn’t have anything to do with you if you disagreed with her.”
Several people recalled the children walking around town in single file.
“They wouldn’t fight or be silly. They were perfect kids, which didn’t seem normal to me,” said Lorraine Fealy, who lived across the street with her husband. “It was like they were programmed.”
When Fealy commented to Jennifer about the children’s “perfect” behavior, Jennifer snapped back, “They are not perfect.”
“She didn’t speak to me after that,” Fealy said.
In 2010 and 2011, Alexandria schools reported six incidents involving the children to the state Department of Human Services, including reports that the children had been rummaging through trash for food and taking food from other students.
At first, school officials notified the Harts about the incidents. In January 2011, for example, after Hannah told the school nurse that she hadn’t eaten that day, school officials called Sarah.
But Sarah accused Hannah of “playing the food card,” and instructed school officials to “just give her water.”
The school eventually stopped calling the Harts, records show, after realizing the children were being punished.
There were also signs of physical abuse. In November 2010, a teacher found bruises on Abigail, then 6, across her sternum to her belly button and from her mid-back down to the waist of her jeans, according to an Alexandria police report.
Abigail told police that Jennifer hit her after accusing her of lying about where she found a penny. Abigail said Jennifer grabbed her by the neck, hit her with a closed fist and forced her head under cold water. She also told police that whenever Jennifer got upset with her, she had to stay in bed with no lunch.
The Harts told police that Abigail was lying and that it was Sarah who had hit Abigail. Sarah pleaded guilty to domestic assault and received a 90-day suspended jail sentence.
Soon after the conviction, the Harts began home schooling the children, which often consisted of nature trips and music festivals, according to Jennifer Hart’s social media posts.
Within two years, they had packed up and moved to Oregon, where they quickly drew notice.
Alexandra Argyropoulos, a friend who hosted the family in June 2013, told authorities that Jennifer permitted each child to eat just one tiny slice of pizza for dinner one evening. The next morning, when the leftover pizza was gone, Jennifer accused the children of stealing it. She denied them breakfast and made them lie in bed wearing sleeping masks, arms at their sides, for five hours, according to the child-welfare report.
Kindness and respect were “largely absent” in Jennifer’s interactions with the children, Argyropoulos said in a written statement.
“Her reactions were overblown, and the punishments seemed unnecessarily cruel.”
In July 2013, about three months after the family arrived in Oregon, the state Department of Human Services launched an investigation of the Harts that produced a 30-page report filled with allegations of abuse in Minnesota and Oregon.
The report noted that five of the children were extremely small for their ages. At 11, Hannah weighed 50 pounds and stood less than 4 feet tall, a stature typical of a 6-year-old girl. Devonte, also 11, stood about 4-feet-2 and weighed 57 pounds — the size of a typical 8-year-old boy.
Jennifer and Sarah said the children had issues with food that predated their adoption. A doctor who evaluated the children “expressed no concerns,” the report said, in part because Jennifer and Sarah insisted that the children had been small their entire lives.
During the investigation, a Minnesota child-welfare worker warned Oregon officials that Jennifer and Sarah had long deflected suspicions by blaming the children for their problems. Without regular oversight from doctors, teachers or child-welfare workers, the Minnesota worker wrote that the Hart children “risk falling through the cracks.”
Still, officials in Oregon were “unable to determine” whether child abuse or neglect had occurred. The children, interviewed independently, reported no abuse, one child-welfare worker wrote.
The report deemed the Hart children “safe.”
'Me and Mr. Washington'
In 2017, the Harts packed up and moved again, this time to Washington state. Soon after, police received a report that Hannah had jumped out a second-story window at 1:30 a.m. and appeared at the nearby home of Bruce and Dana DeKalb covered in weeds and missing two teeth.
Hannah told the DeKalbs “the moms were racist and were abusing her,” according to a state child-welfare report.
Though she was 16 at the time, Hannah looked barely 7, Bruce DeKalb said in an interview. She was “rattled to the bone” and crouched between the bed and the dresser when Sarah and Jennifer came looking for her.
Months later, Devonte showed up begging for peanut butter, tortillas and other food. The boy pleaded with the DeKalbs not to call police, saying he feared that he and his siblings would be split up.
After about a dozen visits from Devonte, the DeKalbs called children’s services. On March 26, police and a social worker knocked on the door of the Hart home. No one answered.
About five hours later, a passerby on Highway 1 near Mendocino, Calif., called 911 to report an SUV upside down in the surf at the bottom of a cliff.
At first, the crash appeared to be an accident. But police determined that the GMC Yukon had stopped 70 feet from the cliff’s edge before racing over it at high speed. There were no brake marks.
Jennifer was in the driver’s seat. Toxicology reports indicate she had a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent — above the legal limit for driving.
“I’m calling it a crime,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said in April.
After the crash, a number of friends recalled the family as joyful and artistic. They bristled at others who talked about Jennifer and Sarah’s darker sides. Friends of Jennifer also remembered her love for the global fusion band Nahko and Medicine for the People, whose music is bouncy and brimming with horns and percussion.
A video on Jennifer Hart’s YouTube page shows the Hart children singing and dancing to one of the band’s songs, “Mitakuye Oyasin.” But it’s another of the band’s songs that has struck the nerves of some of those who knew the family and their fondness for the group.
“Mr. Washington,” from the group’s 2016 album, “On the Verge,” is upbeat even as it grapples with questions of identity and justice. In the context of the Harts’ last moments, however, the song’s opening lyrics read like despair:
Me and Mr. Washington go forth with no real direction
Dreaming of the day we drive our cars into the ocean
And all the people looking on will wonder what to say
And live confused about us till the day they do the same
And they will see while swimming that they are free.
At her home in Houston, Priscilla Celestine still doesn’t want to know the details of the deaths of Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera. She tells her friends not to talk about what happened. She gets weak inside when she thinks about those last moments. Her breath comes up short.
She knows that Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera are never coming home.
Sheila Regan in Alexandria, Minn., and Maureen O’Hagan in Woodland, Wash., contributed to this report.