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, 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.