New Reporting on the Devonte Hart Case Suggests His Biological Family Was Treated Unfairly by the Adoption System Due to Race

Devonte Hart at then Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visit of Hudson's Bay High School in Vancouver, Washington on March 20, 2016.
Devonte Hart at then Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visit of Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver, Washington on March 20, 2016. Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian via AP

In the months that have passed since Devonte Hart’s adoptive parents and four of his siblings were found dead, details have continued to emerge of the abuse the children suffered and the ways in which it was systematically overlooked by authorities.* A 42-page report released in April described in aching detail the multiple run-ins Sarah and Jennifer Hart had with child welfare officials, as well as the lack of action taken after each one. In fact, the Harts were allowed to adopt three of their children, including Devonte, after an allegation of abuse had already been made against them. By the time Jennifer drunkenly drove her gold Yukon SUV off the edge of a 100-foot cliff in northern California, three different state authorities had been made aware of suspected abuse and neglect.

According to a recent report from criminal justice news outlet The Appeal, “Each time a concerned person reached out or investigated, Jennifer and her wife had an explanation: It was the kids’ traumatic childhoods before they were adopted that led to their strange behavior and eating habits, the Harts insisted.” Investigative reporter Roxanna Asgarian not only casts doubts on the Harts’ explanations but reveals that the court involved in the cases of Devonte and his biological siblings “favored nonrelative adoptions over placements with family members.” Jennifer and Sarah consistently described Devonte and his siblings, Jeremiah and Ciara, as having suffered horrific abuse before being placed with them:

In a 2014 article on a New Zealand-based website called Paper Trail, Jennifer Hart said her son Devonte was born with “drugs pumping through his tiny body.” At 4 years old, Hart told the website, “he had smoked, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at, and suffered severe abuse and neglect.” He had known few words besides curse words, was violent, and had disabilities, she said.

In one of the first attempts to actually figure out whether the circumstances that led the Hart children into Jennifer and Sarah’s care were as gruesome as assumed, Asgarian finds that while Devonte’s biological parents, Sherry Davis and Clarence Celestine, had terminated their parental rights in 2006, it wasn’t for the lurid reasons that the Hart’s described. According to court records, Davis lost custody of Devonte and his siblings because of her cocaine addiction, but had hoped that her sister, Priscilla, “who had a stable job and no criminal record,” would be allowed to adopt them. Davis and Celestine terminated their rights because a lawyer had told them that it would give Priscilla a better chance at adopting the kids. “But that meant they weren’t allowed to contact the children,” Asgarian writes. “Priscilla’s plans to adopt were dashed after a caseworker discovered Davis babysitting the children while Priscilla was at work.”

Despite the fact that Davis maintains that she had gone through the required drug program upon losing custody of her kids and had remained sober up until they were adopted by the Harts, the court still decided to move forward with a non-relative adoption by a couple who not only lived thousands of miles away but had already adopted three children and were facing allegations of abuse. Asgarian paints a photo of a pay-for-play court system, obsessed with “efficiency” rather than empathy. “If you didn’t work your cases out fast enough or get the solution the court wanted—if the court wanted to adopt a kid out but you objected to it, you’re slowing it down, you’re the obstructionist,” said JoAnne Musick, an attorney assigned to the court that handled Devonte’s case. Priscilla’s lawyer told Asgarian, “They think they are doing a service … you get this feeling that they think, ‘You shouldn’t have had any of these kids.’”

While Priscilla moved to a bigger apartment to make room for her sister’s children and continued to fight to regain custody, Devonte and his siblings were adopted out in a decision that ultimately lead to their deaths. Again and again, the Hart saga showcases the ways in the which the child welfare system penalizes families of color while allowing white families to fly under the radar. There’s no doubt that Devonte and his siblings should have been removed from Davis’ care—and she fully admits that. What makes no sense is placing them with a family that not only already had three other children but were also facing allegations of abuse, something that, despite Jennifer and Sarah’s sensationalist stories, it seems there was no evidence of in Davis’ home. The move to allow Devonte and his siblings to be adopted into a family several states away reads as nothing more than extraordinarily punitive. It makes clear that the goal was not figuring out what was best for Devonte and his siblings—it was to discipline a black family that had the audacity to make a series of mistakes, even as the abuse in a white family was ignored.

Correction, July 23, 2018: Due to an editing error, this post misstated that Devonte Hart, his adoptive parents, and three of his siblings were found dead. Hart is still missing but presumed dead.