In 2010, a Texas appeals court turned down an attempt by Devonte Hart’s biological aunt to adopt him and three of his siblings. The court ruled against her because she had violated an order that prevented the kids from having any contact with their mother.
Court records obtained by The Oregonian show that Priscilla Celestine, the paternal aunt of Devonte, Sierra and Jeremiah Hart, had tried multiple times to win custody of the children, then known as Devonte, Ciara and Jeremiah Davis. A fourth sibling, Dontay, was not adopted by Sarah and Jennifer Hart.
Court records show the four children lived with Celestine in Houston for about five months in 2006 after Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services took them from their mother.
As The Oregonian writes, Devonte’s biological mother, who isn’t named in the court documents, was “addicted to crack cocaine, had interactions with the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services since 1985, and had other children removed from her care before the latest case.”
Shona Jones, a family law attorney who represented Celestine, told The Oregonian/OregonianLive Thursday that she agreed with the court’s decision to take the children away from their biological parents. But, she said she thought the state acted rashly in removing them from their aunt’s care, which hinged on one violation: allowing the kids’ mother to see them.
From The Oregonian:
Jones said the mother’s visit was the only infraction Celestine committed, and it occurred over a 45-minute window when the caseworker arrived at her home unannounced while the aunt made a trip to her workplace. The kids were immediately removed from the home, she said.
Celestine had stable employment in Houston, no previous criminal history, raised an older daughter and had taken steps to accommodate the kids, such as moving to a larger home to care for the children, Jones said.
The caseworker told the court that she had made it clear to Celestine that the mother couldn’t have contact with the kids, according to an opinion that ruled against the kids’ aunt. Celestine testified that she wasn’t home when the caseworker dropped by, and that it was her daughter who had let the children’s mother in.
Still, The Oregonian reports, the appeals court questioned Celestine’s fitness to care for the kids, but didn’t elaborate on any further allegations aside from the visit from the mother.
“We see no reason why Celestine should be allowed to have yet another bite at the proverbial apple,” read the judge’s opinion, framing an aunt’s desire to keep custody of her niece and nephews as though it were original sin.
After the decision, Celestine tried multiple times to regain custody of the kids, filing a petition, a motion for a new trial, and an appeal. They were all denied.
The three Davis children were placed in foster care and adopted by Sarah and Jennifer Hart in 2009. On March 26, the entire Hart family, including six kids, Devonte (age 15), Jeremiah (age 14), Sierra (age 15), Markis (age 19), Abigail (age 14) and Hannah (age 16) died or were presumed killed when the family SUV drove off a cliff in Northern California. Police believe Jennifer intentionally drove the car off the road.
One of the writers who contributed to the Oregonian report, Roxanna Asgarian, spoke to members of Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra’s biological family and said they had just learned of the children’s deaths and were devastated.
Since their deaths, a disturbing timeline of abuse allegations against the Harts stretching back 10 years has emerged, including possible physical abuse and withholding of food as disciplinary measures.