HOUSTON — From the outside, the Hart family embodied the happy-ending adoption story.
Jennifer and Sarah Hart, a small-town couple from Woodland, Wash., took in two sets of siblings from the crowded Texas foster care system and branded themselves a free-spirited tribe that traveled to music festivals and protests, delivering free hugs.
The charming mirage evaporated when Jennifer Hart drove the family SUV off a California cliff in March 2018 with her wife and their six children in the vehicle. The tragedy unraveled a decadelong nightmare of alleged abuse and malnourishment that neighbors and teachers feared was flourishing behind closed doors despite warnings to child welfare agencies.
Untold in news accounts of the Hart family’s foster care tale was the story of a brother left behind, a biological older sibling who, instead of being adopted, spent eight years in the Texas foster-care system enduring a far more common tragedy.
Eight-year-old Dontay Davis acted out violently when the state removed him and his siblings from their home in 2005. In the years that followed, he was set on a path that advocates call the foster care-to-prison pipeline: separated from his brothers and sister, heavily medicated, shuffled between foster homes and shelters, institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital and placed for years in a restrictive treatment center. By age 19, Dontay was in a Texas prison serving three years for robbery.
It’s a path that many foster children take, according to the Juvenile Law Center, particularly those like Dontay — black boys separated from their siblings and diagnosed with mental illnesses.
According to thousands of pages of Dontay’s child welfare records, which he obtained and shared with The Washington Post, the Harts chose not to adopt him because of his behavioral problems. But as he bounced through the child welfare system, Dontay said, he never gave up on reuniting with his siblings — Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera — ages 4, 2 and 1 when he last saw them.
He didn’t learn of their deaths until he was released from prison in October 2018, more than six months after their fate had been widely reported in the news. He didn’t cry when he found out — he just went cold.
“That was the last little hope I had in my life, you know? I had that hope that I was gonna see my little brothers again; one day we gonna kick it,” he said. “I used to cry sometimes thinking what we could be doing, growing up.”
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Dontay’s mother, Sherry Hurd, struggled with long-term drug use and was in and out of the house where her children lived with her partner. Jeremiah was born with cocaine in his system in 2004. Hurd tested positive for cocaine again after Ciera was born in 2005.
In their first foster home, Dontay lashed out and threatened his younger brothers, according to his records. His foster mother reported that his eyes rolled back in his head when he was angry. After seven days, he was separated from his siblings and soon was placed in a psychiatric hospital.
He spent three weeks in the facility, where he says he was “chemically restrained,” or sedated, multiple times with a shot that rendered him unconscious. Dontay then was moved to an emergency shelter before being placed in a therapeutic foster home for children with severe behavioral problems.
He briefly reunited with his siblings in 2006 when they were sent to live with their aunt Priscilla Celestine. Dontay felt happy again — but it didn’t last long.
After six months, a caseworker made a surprise visit to the home and found the children alone with their mother, from whose custody they had been removed. They were taken away on the spot.
Celestine appealed the decision, but Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera were soon adopted by the Harts and were taken to Minnesota, thousands of miles away from home — and from Dontay.
Days after he was separated from his siblings for the last time, 10-year-old Dontay tried to die by suicide by strangling himself with a belt at a therapeutic foster home.
It is common for children experiencing family separation to act out, said Will Francis, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Labeling those children as having “behavior challenges” can set them on a path that is hard to escape, he said.
Dontay received several mental health diagnoses, including bipolar disorder, ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. He was put on a revolving list of heavy psychotropic medications — Depakote, Risperidone, Clonidine, Trazodone, Cogentin, Tenex, Concerta, Adderall — many of them concurrently.
Michael Schneider, a retired Texas child-welfare judge, recalls children describing fleeting meetings with doctors and sometimes not knowing which medications they were taking. He and a fellow researcher at Columbia University have found many Texas foster children who were prescribed two or more medications simultaneously for the same disorder.
“You’re 9 years old and get a bipolar diagnosis by someone who has barely seen you, and then you’re 16 and it’s still on your record,” Schneider said. “Once they get diagnosed with something like this, it’ll stay on their record and show up on their permanency reports, and it’s assumed to be true.”
Media relations manager Patrick Crimmins said the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, or DFPS, has been “extremely aggressive monitoring psychotropics,” with use dropping from 30% of children in the state’s care in 2005 to less than 15% in 2017, the most current data.
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In January 2007, Dontay was placed in a nonprofit residential treatment center for troubled children in Houston called Serenity Place, where he would stay for almost four years.
It was much more restrictive than a home placement, with staff members documenting details such as the number of clean socks in his drawer and whether he brushed his teeth.
Dontay took out his frustration on the other children. He got into fights, wandered the halls during class or left campus entirely. Like many children in foster care, he fell far behind in school, reading at a fourth-grade comprehension level in ninth grade.
“It wasn’t fun; it wasn’t life,” Dontay said.
He recalls seeing other children visiting with relatives and receiving Christmas gifts and wanting the same. He asked his caseworker about his siblings nearly every month. He pleaded for a visit with them. He requested to see photos and asked whether they could talk on the phone. He wanted to hear about what they were up to. He missed them.
The separation was hard in part because Dontay blamed himself for it. He recalls that when the children were put into state custody, his mother told him, “You’re the big brother; you have to watch out for your brothers.”
But when his caseworkers finally asked Jennifer and Sarah Hart whether Dontay could have contact with his siblings, they said no.
“They kept saying the foster parents didn’t want me to have no contact,” Dontay said. “I thought, ‘Is it because I’m bad?’ “
More than half of U.S. foster children with siblings were separated from at least one of them, according to estimates.
There have been efforts to stem the separations. In Texas, 54% of sibling groups were placed together in 2008; a decade later, that rose to 65%, according to state data. Siblings who are placed together have better mental-health outcomes and school performance. A 2018 Penn State study found that Texas siblings placed together had fewer “non-progress” placement disruptions for reasons such as incompatibility with the caregiver.
In fall 2010, 14-year-old Dontay was sent to live with Debra Roberts, who has fostered dozens of high-risk children. He still acted out, but he gradually bonded with “Miss Debra” as she talked to him and helped him with his reading. Sometimes he cried about how much he missed his family, especially his siblings, Roberts said.
“I wouldn’t say his behavior was extreme,” she said. “You have to get behind it to see why he behaves that way every day. And for him, it was the hurt and the pain of not being with his siblings.”
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When Dontay was 16, Nathaniel Davis, his mother’s partner, obtained custody of him. Being reunited was a big relief for Dontay, but by then, he was already associating with people in gangs and getting into serious trouble. He was arrested in connection with robbery three years later. His son, Donyae, was born while he was incarcerated.
Dontay’s story is a common one for foster children in the United States, said Sandy Santana, the executive director of Children’s Rights, a nonprofit organization that has sued more than a dozen states for failures of their child welfare systems.
Research has linked changes in caregivers to child delinquency, even for children not in foster care, said Dustin Pardini, director of the Pittsburgh Youth Study. The longitudinal study of more than 1,000 boys from Pittsburgh found that those who experienced two or more changes in their primary caregiver before age 10 were significantly more likely to engage in serious violence during adolescence — including homicide, robbery and aggravated assault — than those who did not experience multiple caregiver changes.
Dontay changed placements seven times before he was 10 — 11 times total.
“Hundreds and hundreds of kids I’ve met in my work fit these types of experiences,” Santana said. “All of that compounds their trauma, and when that trauma goes untreated, the very behavior that’s symptomatic of the trauma they’ve experienced gets criminalized.”
Children’s Rights filed a class-action lawsuit against Texas in 2011 for its treatment of children who were in the state’s care long-term, asserting that children were routinely moved around, overmedicated, and physically and sexually abused by caregivers and other foster children.
In 2015, a federal judge ruled that Texas had violated those children’s rights. The judge said children were “more damaged than when they entered” state care. She ordered sweeping reforms, including a reduction of caseworkers’ caseloads.
“In Texas, the judge called these kids ‘the forgotten children, the kids that even God has forgotten,’ ” Santana said. “There’s no real sustained public awareness about these systems — how broken they are, and what they do to kids.”
Last year, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act to limit the use of group care settings, set new standards for residential treatment centers to receive federal funding, and make more money available for prevention services to keep children with their biological families. None of Texas’s residential treatment centers meet the new standards yet. The state has applied for an extension until 2021.
Crimmins of the DFPS said the agency has long been targeting sibling separations and the use of psychotropic drugs for improvement and that, in addition to Child Protective Services, many private providers — including placement agencies, emergency shelters and residential treatment centers — share the burden of ensuring that children are safe.
“The plight of the children and young people in the Texas foster care system is scrutinized constantly, and rigorously, not only by the thousands of child welfare professionals who have dedicated their lives to this work but also by the Texas Legislature and Governor [Greg] Abbott,” Crimmins said.
But Francis, who was a CPS caseworker before his role at the National Association of Social Workers, said the system is designed to focus primarily on situational permanency — the child’s immediate needs, such as food and shelter — and less on relational permanency, which provides a child with lasting bonds to others the child can trust, a focus that fails those like Dontay, who are in care for extended periods.
“This system did not prepare him for life after care. They thought, ‘How do we house him while we have him, meet his most basic needs for food and shelter?’ And no one thought about how he would be as a 19-year-old,” Francis said.
On a hot day in July 2018, Nathaniel, with Dontay’s girlfriend and son in tow, visited the East Texas prison where Dontay had been for more than two years. The family had been grieving for his siblings since they found out about their deaths but decided not to tell Dontay until he was out of prison. They were worried about how he would react, and they didn’t want to jeopardize his chances of coming home in a few months.
The sun-parched prison grounds were surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. The mostly black and brown prisoners, clad in white, shuffled in a line to the visitor area.
Dontay got to spend about two hours with his family, whom he hadn’t seen for months. Between catching up with family news and playing with his toddler son, Dontay told them something he had repeated a lot over the years — a mantra of sorts to get him through some of the hardest moments: When he got out of prison, he told them, he was going to find Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera.