The End of Forever
What happens when an adoption fails?
The Atavist Magazine, no. 86 /December 31, 2018
Of her five children, Djenane Phadael Estimé was hardest on two-year-old Marie Jacqueline. Djenane said that the little girl was hardheaded, and she wanted her to grow up to be a good person. When Djenane got angry, she beat Jacquie, as her family called the toddler, with belts, plates, and shoes. Jacquie walked with a limp because of a broken femur that her parents had left untreated. In November 1999, she finally died.
One Sunday night, Jacquie complained of pain in her arm and couldn’t fall asleep. Djenane took her to a Haitian healer who treated injuries, no matter how severe, with a mentholated ointment. They returned to their home in Lake Worth, Florida, around midnight, and Djenane put Jacquie to bed. The next morning, the toddler wouldn’t wake up.
In a panic, Djenane called her niece Claire Dameus, who often left her own children at the Estimés’ while she worked as a nursing assistant. Dameus instructed Djenane to call 911, then drove over to the family’s one-bedroom apartment in Lake Worth, a working-class town north of Miami. She found her aunt cradling the stiff child as Djenane’s husband, Pascal, stood nearby. They hadn’t yet called 911, so Dameus did. The emergency operator told her to put Jacquie on the floor and perform CPR.
“Don’t go nowhere,” Dameus said to Djenane. “Everything is not easy no more. When 911 come in, they’re going to ask questions.”
Paramedics found Jacquie dead on the kitchen floor in a tiny red dress. The cause was recorded as multiple blunt-force trauma to the head, but it was impossible to say which of Jacquie’s injuries had killed her. There were nine distinct contusions on her head; at least one of them had caused hemorrhaging in her brain. Twelve of her ribs were broken. She had a black eye and a burn mark on her thigh.
The Estimés’ four other children were in the apartment when Jacquie died. Gladina, who would turn one the next day, was the only sibling who appeared to be unscathed. Pinder, age three, had bruises on his arms and scabies on his hands, chest, and back. Seven-year-old James, the eldest, had impetigo so severe that it had spread to his lymph nodes, and there were welts on his body consistent with a belt or electrical cord, though he insisted he’d gotten them from falling down.
Then there was Deon. The four-year-old had fewer outward signs of abuse or neglect than his brothers did, but he also seemed more afraid. Slight and wide-eyed, he barely spoke to the men and women in navy blue uniforms who whisked him and his siblings away from their home. In the hallway of the police station, waiting to be taken to a doctor, Deon played quietly with green plastic toy soldiers.
That night, Deon and Pinder were sent to a children’s shelter, while James and Gladina went to a foster home. Within 24 hours, Djenane and Pascal were charged and denied bail. The state of Florida pledged to seek the death penalty for Djenane for committing first-degree murder. Pascal faced up to 15 years in prison for his failure to intervene or notify authorities about the abuse.
The case made headlines as as one of the worst documented cases of child abuse in Palm Beach County. “Hey, that’s my mom!” James cried when he saw Djenane’s mugshot flash across a TV screen at the shelter, where he and Gladina eventually joined their brothers while authorities decided what to do with them.
Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) placed the Estimé siblings in kinship care, which meant that they’d be fostered and potentially adopted by members of their extended family. First they lived with Dameus, the cousin who’d called 911, then with one of their mother’s relatives a few miles south, in Lantana, along South Florida’s Atlantic coast. In August 2001, they were sent to the outer limits of the state’s child-welfare system: to their grandfather’s house in Haiti. (International placement in kinship care is uncommon but not unheard of, especially in states with large immigrant populations, such as Florida, California, Arizona, and Texas.) In a picture from the day they arrived in Saint-Marc, a small coastal city in Haiti, the Estimé children pose with their grandfather, Merès, and two DCF staffers—“a white lady and a black lady,” Deon remembered.
It wasn’t easy to get the siblings to Saint-Marc. The DCF spent months making arrangements, which included finding a Haitian organization that could serve as a liaison until Merès formally took custody of his grandchildren. The agency was gambling on oversight, too. The closest U.S. government outpost was the embassy in Port-au-Prince, about 55 miles south of Saint-Marc, and a DCF caseworker would only be able to visit Haiti every few months. The main point of contact for the Estimés would be an uncle who spoke halting English and lived in the capital. Still, family was family, so the DCF left the four children and $500 with Merès.
The Estimés felt at home in Haiti. Deon and his brothers had been born there and spent the first few years of their lives in Saint-Marc, before moving to Florida. Now they played chicken with cars along the main road and hitched rides on motorcycle taxis to get to Liberty Academy, a small private school run by American missionaries across the street from the Caribbean Sea. In a jungle of vines near Merès’s house, they played hide-and-seek and picked Spanish limes with the freewheeling kids who lived in a cluster of thatch-roofed houses nearby. They weren’t supposed to be there, but the risk that they might get caught by the pig farmer who owned the land was part of the fun. “Everybody said that the guy chopped off people’s heads,” Deon recalled.
One day the kids spotted the farmer, and most of them scrambled over a fence to safety. Deon—six years old, scrawny, and seconds too slow—got caught. “Merès! That’s my grandfather!” he blurted out. The man’s face softened, and he let Deon go. The next day, Merès brought his grandson back to the farm with a bucket of slop for the owner’s pigs. “People would be trying to sneak to get Spanish limes,” Deon said. “But all you had to do was feed his pigs and he would give you some.”
Having children in his house proved to be a strain on Merès. He had a business hauling loads of rocks from riverbed quarries to construction sites in a dump truck. With grandchildren at home, “I wasn’t able to work,” he said. “I had to go back and forth to school, to drop them off, to bring them lunch money at noon.” The funds that the DCF had given him didn’t stretch very far. “Five hundred can’t do anything for a year,” Merés said. “To give the kids three meals a day, to buy beds.”
When a DCF caseworker came for a visit, Merès asked for support. Instead, the caseworker decided to take the kids back to Florida. Deon remembered his grandfather sitting him and his siblings down before they left. “He said he couldn’t take care of us anymore, and that the next day, people would be coming to take us back,” Deon said. On August 12, 2002, a year and ten days after arriving in Saint-Marc, the kids boarded a flight back to Florida.
By then, Djenane had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and been sentenced to 38 years in prison. Pascal had already been released after serving two years for lesser charges. Both had signed away their parental rights. Because Deon and his siblings were minors, they weren’t named in news stories about their sister’s death and the case against their parents. The kids asked about their mom and dad all the time, but they hadn’t seen either one since the day they were taken into custody.
Because the DCF had exhausted the available options to place the siblings with family members, the Estimé children now fell into a different pool of kids overseen by the state of Florida. They were potential adoptees, children in need of new parents altogether. For the state, the goal was permanency, a home where the siblings could live safely until they turned 18. For the kids, it was something more: a forever family. Deon would get neither.
The Estimés’ return to Florida coincided with a sweeping overhaul of the state’s child-welfare system, led by then governor Jeb Bush. Between 2000 and 2002, the DCF handed off responsibility for licensing, case management, and adoption in the foster-care system to a constellation of firms contracted on a county-by-county basis. This model of privatization, called community-based care, was hailed by the governor as a path forward for an underfunded and overcrowded system considered one of the worst in the country. Yet it was unproven and controversial. State officials acknowledged that pilot programs in the late 1990s had failed.
Melissa Neeley was a bubbly 26-year-old when she started working in the community-based-care system. After college she’d worked with the families of developmentally delayed children in Texas. Then she moved across the country and took a job as the manager of a chaotic group home in Lake Worth, where she made $10 an hour and fielded midnight phone calls about psychiatric commitments. “I wouldn’t say I had no idea what I was doing, but I wasn’t in my happy place,” Neeley recalled. One day an adoption caseworker encouraged her to apply for a position at Children’s Home Society, the nonprofit tasked with overseeing foster care and adoption in Palm Beach County. Neeley got a job as a case manager and was promptly handed 40 files, more than double the workload prescribed by the state.
The children whose lives were laid out in that paperwork were scattered in homes as much as an hour’s drive from Neeley’s office in West Palm Beach. Florida law requires caseworkers to visit each of their charges at least once every 30 days, but many of Neeley’s kids hadn’t been seen in months. Recruitment of adoptive parents had stagnated. It was difficult work, but Neeley found that her friendly bearing helped repair relationships with foster parents who had soured on her predecessor.
The Estimé kids were among her first cases. Gladina, too young to remember what her family had been through, was growing into a spunky, confident child. Once, sitting in Neeley’s office, she burst into tears when she learned that one of the interns there was blind. When Neeley asked why she was crying, Gladina whimpered, “Because she can’t see how cute I am.” James and Pinder “had defiance in their blood,” Neeley remembered, and still seemed to be processing the abuse they’d experienced. Staff from the DCF believed that Pinder may have been hiding in the room where his mother beat Jacquie the night she died. Sometimes, Pinder wouldn’t even speak to Neeley—he would just size her up from across the room.
Deon was different. “He was so sweet,” Neeley said. Somehow what had happened to his family “didn’t touch him quite as roughly.” A DCF report written just before his ninth birthday described Deon as “a well mannered, likable” boy who loved “to swim, play football, and ride his bike.” Still, there were hints of lingering trauma from his early life and the bewildering experience of being uprooted. The report described a child coping with unimaginable pain. “It is hypothesized that Deon cries and refuses to talk to a trusting adult when his feelings are hurt in order to avoid further feelings of sadness, grief, or loss,” the report observed. “[Deon] often changes the subject to avoid discussing his past experiences with his biological family.” It suggested three alternate coping mechanisms: “hugging his teddy, watching TV, and playing video games.”
Neeley—or Miss Melissa, as the Estimés called her—conducted home visits and interviewed prospective adoptive parents to see if they’d be a good fit for the siblings. She was determined to find a family that would be willing to adopt the four children together, however unlikely that might be. “I wouldn’t budge on that, because they had already lost too much,” Neeley said.
For a while, the siblings were in three foster homes in three different towns. Only Deon and Gladina were together, in Belle Glade, a town of 17,000 people nestled among sugarcane fields in a swampy stretch of Florida between Lake Okeechobee and the northern Everglades. Their foster mother was a deeply religious woman named Mrs. Clark who sent Deon to a small Christian school called Miracle by Faith. On Sundays, she took him and Gladina to church in a neighbor’s garage, which had been decked out with a stage and plastic chairs for pews. Clark was a strict disciplinarian who cared for four or five kids at once and didn’t hide the fact that she considered foster care a business. Foster parents are often given stipends by the state; in Florida at that time, the amount was roughly $15 per child per day.
“They always let me know, ‘Hey, we’re not your family,’” Gladina recalled of Clark and her Jamaican boyfriend. The kids weren’t allowed to socialize outside the house and spent their afternoons inside, watching Dragonball Z on TV. They were scolded for taking food from the kitchen without asking. “Tell the truth. God’s watching,” Mrs. Clark would say.
During visits, Neeley noticed an unhealthy fear developing in Deon and Gladina. When another driver cut Neeley off on the highway one day and she swore out loud, Gladina, strapped into the back seat, began to sob hysterically. “You’re gonna go to hell now,” she said. “God’s gonna punish you because you said a bad word!” As Christmas approached, Neeley made the rounds to the kids in her organization’s care, giving each one a plush brown teddy bear with a bow tie. When Deon got his, he promptly walked across the room and gave it to Mrs. Clark. “You deserve this teddy bear for putting up with a child like me,” he said. Neeley was shocked. She watched Gladina look around the room as she clutched her own bear. “She looked torn, wondering if she was supposed to follow Deon’s lead and give her the teddy bear, too, or if she was supposed to keep it because Miss Melissa gave it to her,” Neeley said.
Things were worse than Neeley knew. Mrs. Clark had once yanked Deon’s ear so hard that she ripped the skin where it connected to the boy’s head. When teachers sent Gladina home early from preschool after a bookshelf fell on her, Mrs. Clark spanked the little girl for disrupting her daily schedule, then made Gladina sit in a corner until Deon got home. Gladina was four at the time. “I used to pee the bed every day,” Gladina said. “To avoid them beating me from peeing the bed, I would throw the clothes in the washing machine.”
Then one day, Deon tangled with Mrs. Clark’s boyfriend and mustered the courage to pick up the house phone and dial 911. Bit by bit, a damning picture of the home came together on Neeley’s desk. Deon and Gladina were removed. “Mrs. Clark didn’t stay in business too long after that,” Neeley said.
In September 2004, Deon and Gladina were sent to Real Life Children’s Ranch, a sprawling, faith-based group home in Okeechobee where more than a dozen children lived in four bungalows, each overseen by what the ranch called “professional parents”—often a husband and wife who lived on the property with their own children. Deon arrived a few weeks after the start of fourth grade, a gangly four feet seven inches tall and 71 pounds. He was shy but excited to be among a crowd of kids. The ranch felt like it was part family farm, part summer camp, where children fed and watered the ranch’s animals as part of their daily chores. In the afternoons, they could float on inner tubes in a fish pond or spring off a trampoline into the water. Boys and girls lived in separate houses, but Deon and Gladina saw each other every day on the school bus. Gladina took comfort in knowing that her big brother would wake her up and make sure she got off the bus at the right stop if she fell asleep.
Still, the constant upheaval in Deon’s past had consequences. He had always struggled to stay focused in school. Now he bristled at authority and was repeatedly suspended for mouthing off at teachers. Professional parents at the ranch had him fill entire notebooks with the phrase “I will not use curse words” and show the notebooks to Neeley when she visited.
Adoption was the subject of constant speculation at the ranch, but none of the kids really understood how it worked. Would-be parents showed up to spend time with children they’d singled out on an adoption agency’s website, where they could view head shots and brief bios of the children. Other kids would watch and listen, hoping to pick up tidbits about the lives on offer to their friends. They focused their enthusiasm less on an emotional connection with adoptive parents than on the trappings of family life: a big house, a pool, toys, go-karts.
Deon knew that things didn’t always work out like kids hoped. One family who had expressed interest in adopting all four Estimés when Deon and Gladina were still in Belle Glade backed out when they absorbed the details of James’s and Pinder’s case files. At the time, James was 12, an age when he was half as likely as a younger child to be adopted. Nine-year-old Pinder, meanwhile, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking an antipsychotic medication. Neeley started to worry that keeping the siblings together might be impossible. “There comes a point in any adoption case that you start thinking, Which is more important, keeping them together, or getting them out of this system as quickly as I can?” Neeley said. “It doesn’t matter how good a system it is, it’s still a system. It’s not a family. It’s not home.”
Shortly before Christmas in 2005, Deon and Gladina went to a restaurant with other kids from the ranch on the way back from church. Gladina noticed a black couple in their late thirties at the other end of the table. Eventually, they came over to introduce themselves as the Richardses. They didn’t have a family, but they wanted one. (The Richardses declined to be interviewed for this story.) When the kids loaded back into the ranch’s transport van, they peppered Gladina and Deon with questions: Do you know them? Are they going to adopt you?
Gladina had watched the movie Annie more times than she could count, and the way people around her talked about adoption made it seem like something she should hope for. Then again, she was happy at the ranch. “We’d already moved from a trash place to a better place,” she said. “You don’t test your luck.” Deon, meanwhile, couldn’t understand why he and Gladina would have to leave if they didn’t want to. “I wanted to stay at the ranch forever,” he said.
A few weeks later, the Richardses came back bearing McDonald’s—a Big Mac for Deon and a Happy Meal with chicken nuggets and a Little Mermaid necklace for Gladina. The couple took them to see the movie The Pink Panther and to tour their house in Orlando, which had a backyard shaded by a tall sycamore tree. There was a park with a baseball diamond just up the street. It looked like the type of place where a happy family would live, but Deon was hesitant. He thought he deserved the family he wanted. If adoptive parents got to choose kids, why couldn’t kids choose adoptive parents?
Florida’s child-welfare system is supposed to take kids’ opinions into account if they are “of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference,” according to state law. It’s in no one’s interest for a child to go to a family they don’t like. But how does one determine that a child is old enough or understands enough about their situation to raise an objection? When Deon announced on a car ride with ranch staff in early 2006 that he didn’t “want to go with that frickin’ family,” one of his professional parents scolded him for being ungrateful. “After that I stayed quiet,” he remembered.
Neeley had noticed that Deon and Gladina didn’t seem to form as strong a bond with their prospective family as some kids do, but the Richardses were new to parenting. Besides, Neeley thought, these were easy, happy-go-lucky kids. “Deon and Gladina didn’t have any of the behaviors that would make you say, ‘Oh, I really need a family that has raised kids before,’” she explained.
In June 2006, during the adoption ceremony at the Palm Beach County courthouse, a judge looked Deon in the eye and asked if he had any reservations about the Richardses adopting him. He stayed quiet.
Deon and Gladina moved in to the Richardses’ L-shaped ranch house on Cedar Bay Road, at the north end of an Orlando subdivision called Dover Estates. They each had their own room. Fridays were family night, which meant playing games, eating at restaurants, or going to the movies. Deon and his new dad put together model cars and launched a toy rocket in the neighborhood park. Mr. Richards was a commercial pilot at AirTran, and his job afforded the family free plane tickets when they flew standby. They took getaways on a moment’s notice. In Washington, D.C., they visited museums on the National Mall, and Deon posed in front of a green screen for a photo that showed him in a suit, shaking hands with President George W. Bush. In New York City, they went to Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. In Maryland, they visited Mrs. Richards’s extended family; once they went up for a single day, just to attend a cousin’s birthday party.
A few months after Deon and Gladina moved in with the Richardses, Pinder was adopted, too, by a Cuban American family that lived outside Miami. The Perezes had three biological children of their own, two boys and a girl. The setup was “kind of like our original family,” Deon said. After Pinder’s adoption, the Perezes drove up from South Florida to meet Deon and Gladina in Orlando and brought them on family trips to SeaWorld and Disney World.
None of the Estimé kids had seen their parents since the day they first went into state custody, seven years earlier. For James, the only sibling without a permanent solution, the lack of closure was devastating. By middle school, he was stealing cars and running away from his foster home. He lived with the family of a retired sheriff’s deputy in Royal Palm Beach. They wanted to adopt him, but James resisted. “Y’all are not my family,” he said. Neeley, whose involvement with the other Estimé kids ended when they were adopted, was still responsible for James’s case. She thought he might be acting out in frustration at being apart from his siblings. “When James was worried about what was going on with them, his behavior was ten times worse,” Neeley said.
She arranged for him to spend a few days with the Richardses around Christmas 2006. When he got to Orlando, James was relieved to see that Mr. Richards liked planes and action figures. This man’s a nerd, but at least he’s not an alcoholic, James thought.
James returned a second and third time over subsequent holidays, and he started to talk about moving to Orlando. He gushed to Neeley about how Mr. Richards had promised to take him up in a Cessna prop plane. Neeley was apprehensive. She knew James to be angry and mercurial, and he’d been held back twice in school. “James is not Deon and Gladina,” she said. When she got a call from the Richardses in late 2007, she braced herself for the news that James could no longer visit. But that wasn’t what Mr. Richards had to say. “He told me they wanted to adopt James, too,” Neeley said.
Meanwhile, Deon was struggling to adjust to his new parents’ rules. Kids at the ranch were taught to be polite and address adults as sir or ma’am. They were told to say dang instead of damn and heck instead of hell, and to never take God’s name in vain. Though he was used to a relatively strict environment, the Richardses’ idea of manners caught Deon off guard. If he answered “What?” when Mrs. Richards called his name, she’d shoot back, “Don’t what me!” If he or Gladina spoke in a tone of voice she didn’t like, their mother sometimes slapped them across the face.
Once, while the family was in the Orlando airport, returning from one of their trips, Deon and Mrs. Richards got in an argument, and he told her, “I hate you.” When the family got home, Mr. Richards spanked Deon. Corporal punishment became one of the Richardses’ methods of dealing with bad behavior. Gladina said her father regularly gave them “whuppings,” meted out on bare skin with a belt or a wooden paddle. Once, in Deon’s telling, he and Pinder, who was visiting, were riding bikes borrowed from a neighborhood friend when Mr. Richards drove past and ordered them home. He accused Deon of stealing the bikes. Deon shouted back, “I didn’t steal those frickin’ bikes!” His father retorted, “Who do you think you’re talking to like that?” and began hitting him on the back and legs.
James, whose adoption had been finalized, smoked joints on the bus and picked fights at school, but he was careful not to act out at the Richardses’ home—he didn’t even grumble about having to attend early Sunday services at the family’s Baptist church. Together, he and Mr. Richards bonded over a love of cars, working on a blue 1984 Monte Carlo that Mr. Richards was fixing up. It reminded James of working with his grandfather in Haiti, grabbing tools as they tinkered with the dump truck in the driveway.
James shared a room with Deon, where they had a PlayStation and a weight bench, but the brothers barely knew each other by then; they hadn’t lived together since coming back from Haiti five years earlier. Now, at opposite ends of puberty, the three-year age difference between them felt huge. Deon was into basketball and football and decorated the walls of their room with posters from Sports Illustrated. James was more interested in girls and going out with friends. Some days he didn’t come home until it was time for bed. Deon only remembers really bonding with his brother when James agreed to help him prepare to go out for freshman football; they played catch together in the back yard.
The summer before ninth grade, Deon tried out for the team with his friend Shaquille Evans. Shaquille was put on the roster as a running back. Deon made the team, too, but his parents wouldn’t let him play—they said he needed to do better in school first. It was true that he rarely did homework and dodged questions about grades, but Deon felt like he had nothing to work toward without sports.
Gladina tried to tune out the arguments between her brother and their parents. When they fought, she would close the door to her bedroom and turn up the volume on reruns of Saved by the Bell and The Golden Girls. “The TV was my best friend,” she said. When things got particularly heated, Deon would sometimes spend the night at Shaquille’s. His friend’s mother, Nicky, was warm and welcoming. She’d had the family’s driveway widened just so her son and his friends had more room to play pickup basketball. Deon took to referring to Mrs. Evans as Mom.
James had always encouraged Deon to keep the peace with their parents, but by the time things really went south with the Richardses, James was gone: Just before Christmas in 2009, the 17-year-old left the house after an argument about cutting the lawn and never returned. His stuff stayed in the room he’d shared with Deon.
The Richardses took an increasingly hard line with Deon. They changed the locks and told him to stay out of the house until Mrs. Richards returned from work at 8 p.m. Gladina recalled her parents’ rationale as “OK, you want to be grown? You’re grown now.” That only made Deon want to leave more. He slept at friends’ houses, sometimes sneaking back in through his bedroom window to grab a change of clothes. One Friday at 11 p.m., before a weekend when Deon was grounded, he stormed out of the house wearing only a T-shirt and red basketball shorts. After 48 hours passed, the Richardses filed a missing person report. Deon finally came home on Tuesday.
Nicky Evans thought Deon wasn’t treated well at home and should consider reporting the Richardses to the DCF. But she could see that he was worried about getting split up from his sister, so she encouraged him to diffuse the tension, even sending him back home on occasion to make up with his mother. “He was always saying he just wanted to get older so he could get out,” Evans recalled. “I said, ‘Deon, whatever your mom asks you, just do it. You’re almost there.’” But Deon felt himself losing control.
Finally, he snapped. One day, about six months after James left, Deon was suspended from school and tried to hide in the closet until Mrs. Richards left for work. When she found him, she started throwing his sneaker collection into trash bags—ten pairs of shoes he had either traded for or bought with proceeds from a job passing out fliers for a local pizzeria. According to Deon, his mother accused him of stealing them and he lost his temper, threatening to blow up the house and break the windows of her new Chrysler Pacifica. Mr. Richards, who was also home, demanded that Deon, who was 15, go to the garage to be spanked. When Deon refused and left the house, Mr. Richards called the police. They found Deon at a friend’s and arrested him for “threats to do harm” to his mother.
Gladina worried that Deon’s relationship with the Richardses had reached a breaking point. She was terrified that he’d leave, like James had. You couldn’t stay just for me? she thought.
The next day, an investigator from the DCF came to the Richardses’ home and heard competing stories of what had happened. Both parents said Deon had threatened them, while the teenager claimed that the Richardses had abused him. As the investigator tried to make sense of things, she was working with limited information: It was 2010, and Florida’s child-welfare groups were in the process of integrating three separate data systems that tracked case histories. Deon’s pre- and post-adoption information should have been linked, giving the investigator access to records dating back to 1999, when Deon was taken from the house in Lake Worth where Jacquie died. In practice, though, access to information in cases like Deon’s was scattershot. The investigator noted that Deon’s tendency to run away “may be indicative of abuse in his past” and that he’d been adopted because his birth mother “beat his sister.” It isn’t clear if she knew anything more specific about Deon’s early life.
The facts on the ground that night suggested to the investigator that the family was at least stable. The Richardses had no criminal history and said they wanted a better future for their son. According to the investigator’s report, Mrs. Richards said that Deon was going through a rebellious stage and that he needed mental-health treatment, though there’s no evidence that she attempted to connect Deon with a therapist. (In fact, Deon had not received counseling since being in foster care in Belle Glade.) Mrs. Richards acknowledged using corporal punishment, though Mr. Richards denied it. Gladina corroborated Mrs. Richards’s assertion that Deon was often the aggressor in conflicts with their parents.
The Richardses seemed eager to follow up on the investigator’s suggestion that they seek family counseling, and Mrs. Richards signed a “safety plan” promising that she and her husband would not use corporal punishment. Deon entered a diversion program that would keep the misdemeanor charge off his record once he’d completed probation. The DCF investigation was closed within a few weeks.
Over the next several months, the situation didn’t improve. Deon worked out with a basketball team but quit when he realized he’d need his parents’ help to pay for travel and get a doctor’s permission to play in games. Arguments over washing dishes and picking up dirty clothes quickly escalated. In September 2011, four weeks into Deon’s junior year of high school, he got out a loaf of bread in the kitchen to make a sandwich. Mrs. Richards thought he was taking it to his room and blocked his path—one of the house rules was that the kids couldn’t eat in their bedrooms. She grabbed at the loaf, and a scuffle ensued.
What happened next is disputed. Deon said he suddenly let go of the bread, causing Mrs. Richards to lose her balance and fall backward. Mrs. Richards said Deon shoved her and that she had to hit him to defend herself. She dialed 911 and told the dispatcher that her son had pushed her. When the police arrived, they arrested Deon for battery. The only injury noted in the incident report was Mrs. Richards’s broken pinkie nail.
When a DCF investigator visited the house, Mr. Richards said that he’d bought a gun for the first time in his life. “I am not going to confront Deon empty-handed,” he said, according to the investigator’s report. “I will use a firearm to protect my family.” The shape of Deon’s life seemed to shift with those words: He was an outsider, not a son.
Deon was sentenced to a year of probation. The court stipulated that he complete 15 hours of community service, submit to random drug tests, write an apology letter to Mrs. Richards, and “obey parents.” The DCF again concluded that what was happening in the family didn’t require intervention. “No indicators of inadequate supervision,” the investigator’s notes stated.
The family was scheduled to begin counseling, but Deon showed up high to one of the sessions and refused to participate. The next month, he landed in the hospital after he used K2, a legal but potent concoction of synthetic cannabinoids that left him passed out on a friend’s lawn. When a DCF staffer suggested sending Deon to a youth shelter to give the family time to cool down, Mr. Richards said that he and his wife had already tried “everything.” The DCF staffer noted in a report, “Parents stated they were done with child and that the department could do what they needed to do to take the child in custody. The father said he … will do anything to keep [Deon] out the home.” For reasons that aren’t clear, the agency’s conclusions about the family’s dynamic were dramatically different than they had been just weeks earlier: “Parent talks about child in predominantly negative terms, hasn’t met child’s basic needs, risk of violence, escalating incidents.”
Still, Deon stayed with his parents until one night in mid-December, when he came home late and Mr. Richards, suspecting that Deon was high, refused to let him into the house. Deon kept ringing the doorbell until his father shut off the fuse. “Call the police!” Deon taunted from the yard. “I know the routine.” When he did make it inside, Deon went to the kitchen where, Mr. Richards told police, he started “verbally attacking” his mother and “pushing her into the cabinets.” Mr. Richards got his wooden paddle and hit Deon until the teenager went to his room.
The police returned and arrested Deon. He would never set foot in the Richardses’ house again. His adoption had failed.
The perils of foster care are well documented. The number of placements and the length of time children spend as wards of the state are linked to higher rates of juvenile delinquency and teen pregnancy, and to lower earnings as adults. After an adoption, the risk and uncertainty of foster care is supposed to resolve into a bond with a family that the child will keep for the rest of his or her life.
The reality, though, is that adoptions sometimes fall apart, leaving children in a precarious position. The phenomenon isn’t well studied or understood. Once an adoption is finalized, welfare agencies typically end contact with children and their new families. Adopted children also tend to move and change their names, making it difficult for researchers to gather enough data for rigorous analysis. “You have to have access to a sizable group of people,” said Trudy Festinger, a professor emeritus of social work at New York University who performed one of the few studies on the phenomenon of failed adoptions. “Where do you go to get that?”
What data there are suggest that the vast majority of adoptions are successful. But small studies have found that somewhere between 0.5 and 8 percent of children adopted out of foster care no longer live with their parents after four years. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a number of factors can play a role in failed adoptions, including a child’s history of sexual abuse, emotional or behavioral problems, the number of siblings the child has, whether the adoptive parents have raised children before, and, most importantly, the child’s age. Adoptions of teenagers fail far more often than those of younger children.
If an adoption is going to fizzle, it usually happens during the trial period, before the arrangement is finalized in court. This is called a disruption, and the kids return to foster care as the search for an adoptive family resumes. Adoptions that break up after becoming legally binding are called dissolutions, a process that requires a court to terminate parental rights. From 2012 to 2017, the DCF counted 348 dissolutions out of nearly 17,000 adoptions statewide, or roughly 2 percent of the total.
Other adoptions fall apart but are never legally dissolved. When Deon’s parents kicked him out for good, the 16-year-old found himself in limbo: He was a juvenile lockout, which meant that he couldn’t go home although the Richardses were still his legal parents. He spent the night of his arrest in juvenile detention and then went to a weeklong, court-ordered rehab program for marijuana and K2. When he got out, Deon said, “instead of the Richardses coming to pick me up, it was somebody from DCF.”
He reentered foster care. The state’s position was that family reunification was still in Deon’s best interest, but in court the Richardses requested a no-contact clause, which prohibited Deon from reaching out to them and suspended any family counseling. Still, because the Richardses had parental rights, caseworkers had to ask their permission for everything—from sending Deon to get a haircut to obtaining his state-issued ID. The family also remained entitled to a $300 monthly adoption subsidy until Deon turned 18. The court ordered the Richardses to pay $150 a month in child support after Deon moved out, but according to a judicial review, they only sent him the money once.
Gladina was caught in the middle, left at home with the basketball she’d bought Deon for Christmas; he’d been removed from the home before she could give it to him. When she asked the Richardses how Deon was doing, they told her not to worry—he was being taken care of. She only saw her brother twice in the spring of 2012. On one of the visits, she told him that the Richardses were planning to move to Atlanta. Deon told a caseworker, who reached out to remind the family that they were required to inform the DCF if they relocated. Mr. Richards responded that there was no firm timetable for the move.
In June, as soon as Gladina finished the school year, the Richardses relocated to Georgia and ceased all contact with the DCF. They didn’t leave a forwarding address.
After leaving the Richardses’, Deon had moved into Great Oaks Village, a county-run group home of stucco cottages situated on a leafy campus outside downtown Orlando. It was January when he arrived, and he walked around in shorts and a T-shirt even though it was 50 degrees outside because his other clothes were too small. His toes broke through the basketball shoes that the staff had given him; afraid of seeming ungrateful, he didn’t want to admit that they were too small. The kids at Great Oaks fought and stole from one another, but they also shared stories of trauma and loss without judgment. Seven- and eight-year-olds spoke with authority about drug use; teenage girls talked matter-of-factly about sexual abuse and rape.
To employees, Deon seemed like a kid who was adrift and angry at the world. During the six months he was under their care, he was the subject of five missing person reports, filed each time he left the facility for more than four hours without permission. He had never been diagnosed with any clinical disorders, but a social worker’s assessment from Deon’s time at Great Oaks contains a stark list of the experiences he carried with him:
Failed adoption placement
Lack of primary support
Separation of siblings
Biological parents are incarcerated
Death of a sibling
History of multiple foster home and school placements
Juvenile justice involvement
With the Richardses out of his life, Deon reached for the closest thing he still had to family: the Perezes. His brother Pinder had a cell phone, a pool in his backyard, a gaggle of relatives who showed up for Thanksgiving, and—most enviable to Deon—a father who coached his kids’ sports teams. In June 2012, Deon moved to Ft. Lauderdale to be closer to the family, but he hesitated to push for the close connection he craved, fearing it could strain his relationship with his brother.
He spent three months at a for-profit boys’ shelter called Crescent House, where neighbors complained of drugs, fights, break-ins, and vandalism, and police averaged two visits a week. Deon avoided most of the trouble thanks to his friendship with his roommate, the biggest kid there. “If he didn’t like you, you had a bad time there,” Deon said. (The city received so many complaints that it shut Crescent House down in 2016.) Deon wasn’t able to enroll in a GED program because he didn’t have an ID and couldn’t get one without help from the Richardses. With no identification, he was also unable to get a job, sign a lease, or open a bank account.
After he turned 18, in January 2013, Deon was finally free to make some of his own choices. He moved back to Orlando, landing at a group home for young adults who had aged out of foster care. He enrolled in a state program that would provide him with up to $1,200 a month until he was 23 years old, as long as he could show proof of employment or full-time enrollment in school. But Deon teetered on the edge of being able to do either. He was hired at a business called Extreme Laser Tag, then fired for coming in late. He lost a job working the turnstile at SeaWorld after four months when he went to the cafeteria and tried to redeem a stolen meal ticket that a colleague had given him. He enrolled in community college, intending to work toward an associate’s degree in physical therapy, but he gave that up, too. “I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t committed,” Deon said.
In the fall of 2015, he returned to Miami and moved into the home of Pinder’s adoptive grandmother, where he didn’t have to pay rent and there was plenty of good Cuban food on the table each night. He tried school again, and between his state stipend and a Pell grant, he had more money than he’d ever seen in one place. Pinder’s dad, Mario, urged him to go out for the college basketball team. But then Pinder’s grandmother found pot paraphernalia in Deon’s clothes while doing the laundry. In the spring of 2016, she told him he had to move out.
Deon, then 21, decided to try living on his own for the first time—no adoptive parents, no group-home supervisors, no sympathetic quasi-grandmothers. He had $3,000 saved up, and he gave a friend a few hundred bucks to sleep on his couch. The next six weeks ran together in a blur of blunts, fast food, and nights out at clubs. Deon was still taking college courses—earning B’s and C’s, doing about as well as he ever had. But everything else in his life remained precarious. “I had a lot of flashy things,” Deon recalled, “but I didn’t have anything.”
When a friend was robbed in a weed deal, Deon lent him $1,500, more than half the money in his bank account. Then Deon rear-ended a car while driving that friend’s BMW, and he knew he’d never get the loan back. When he got kicked out of his apartment, he started sleeping in another friend’s car, but a week later he lost all his clothes when the vehicle was repossessed. Deon and that friend resorted to sleeping on the poolside reclining chairs at a condo complex in the Miami suburbs for a few days. When it got cold, they retreated to the entryway to the pool’s bathrooms and woke up shivering as the sun rose.
Deon had finally reached his lowest point. As he saw his old friends from high school saving money and passing milestones, he realized that he’d been living passively, day to day. “I was just letting stuff happen to me,” he said. “A lot of people my age, they’d been working, they had cars, and I was just stagnant.”
I first met Deon in 2017, while reporting on what happens when kids in Florida age out of foster care. I learned the outlines of his story then and got back in touch a few months later, to see if he’d be interested in plumbing his case files to learn more about why his adoption had failed. In the spring of 2018, we started to meet regularly for breakfast at a restaurant near where he was living. His order: a Cuban sandwich and a mamey shake.
Earnest and soft-spoken, Deon has a quiet charisma and the stooped, self-effacing walk of someone trying to seem smaller than he is. He still says dang, heck, and frickin’, a hangover from his days at the ranch. Lithe and muscular, he stands six-foot-three, and his hands are just big enough to palm a basketball. Deon still plays obsessively, practicing crossovers as he walks down the street, dribbling in his bedroom until the downstairs neighbors yell at him to stop. When he plays basketball, Deon says, he feels at peace.
We talked for hours as I jotted down the shards of memory he’d retained from childhood: the sounds of Haitian Creole, the taste of warm lettuce served over a plate of rice and beans, banging his shin on the edge of the bed while roughhousing. “I remember I got this scar, or do I still have it?” he said, reaching for his right leg. “Yeah, this scar right here.”
His case file offers a different kind of life history. In theory, every piece of paper from the time Deon entered foster care at age four, through his adoption at age 11, and into extended state care after he turned 18 should have been readily available to him once he requested a copy of his case file. Organizations that are part of Florida’s community-based-care system are required to keep records on kids in state custody until they turn 30. Deon and I made dozens of calls to the long list of agencies that came in contact with his case over the years, including the DCF, Children’s Home Society, Community Based Care of Central Florida, and many others. Hundreds or even thousands of pages had gone missing, particularly those from Deon’s early years in the system. In some instances, we had to prod the agencies repeatedly to get what documents still existed.
All told, we obtained more than 2,000 pages from Deon’s file, along with more than 1,000 from the investigation of his birth parents’ criminal case. They reveal a bevy of people who tried to help Deon: case managers, state-appointed guardians ad litem (who advocate for a child’s best interest in court), and independent-living coordinators. One person’s email signature read, “Choices… not circumstances determine what people make out of their life!!!!!!”
Yet for all their good intentions, the sheer number of people involved contributed to the problems Deon faced. In the bureaucracy of child welfare, the only constant for him was change: a new face when an old caseworker got promoted, someone who had to get up to speed on his life when the person who knew all about it suddenly quit or was transferred. Much of Deon’s case file is written as though no one will ever read it. One report from when he was 19 traces the path he could take to working as a physical therapist. “There are no identified barriers to reaching goals,” the text reads. “Deon is motivated and has many supports in place.” In staid language, Deon’s lack of support is framed almost as an asset: In lieu of a nuclear family, he had an endless roster of paid employees who divvied up parenthood’s material tasks.
I never had parents. When he finally said it out loud, Deon seemed surprised somehow, like he’d tried so hard not to wallow in the past that the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. “I never had parents—I never had parents at all,” he told me again. “Never, man.”
One day in 2014, Deon got a call from a man with a Haitian accent: it was his birth father, Pascal. He had become a Jehovah’s Witness and was renting a room from a fellow worshipper just a few miles away. Fifteen minutes later, Pascal pulled up in an old truck. “I thought it was going to be super special,” Deon said. Instead, the meeting was short and awkward. “We talked for a little bit, but there wasn’t really a connection,” Deon said. After a few minutes, Pascal said he had to go. The two spoke briefly on the phone a few weeks later, but they haven’t been in contact since.
In the fall of 2018, Deon also reconnected with his mom, Djenane, in prison. He didn’t write to her—he was too impatient for snail mail—but instead used a messaging service that allowed him to buy a set of 30 virtual “stamps” for $12. One stamp allowed him to send or receive a note. Djenane sent him a recorded video, which cost four stamps. In it, Deon saw his mom’s face for the first time since he was four. Djenane was almost 50. She wore a baby blue V-necked uniform, with her gray hair plaited in two thick braids that hugged the sides of her head.“I love you, I love you, I love you, my son,” she said to the camera.
Deon went quiet as we watched it together. He had yet to respond to the video—he’d run out of stamps, and before he could buy them he needed to get a job. “I appreciated the opportunity to speak with her,” he said. “It really kind of filled a void.”
Deon’s case is a revealing study of one of the starkest policy choices a society faces: Who should care for children whose parents, including adoptive ones, can’t shoulder the responsibility? In Florida, authorities have made modest efforts to improve post-adoption services. Since 2015, case managers have been required to pick up the phone and conduct a welfare check at the one-year mark. In annual reports to the state legislature, the DCF now flags what it calls preventable disruptions, cases in which services like family counseling might have helped an adoption go through if only they’d been made available.
It’s hard not to see moments in Deon’s life where different decisions might have led to different outcomes. Deon’s cousin who first called 911 when Jacquie died and his grandfather both say they would have adopted the four siblings if only they’d had more financial support; unlike foster parents who receive payments automatically, extended family must apply to receive a recurring stipend for kinship care, and Deon’s family members say they weren’t aware this was an option. For all the Richardses’ eagerness to adopt, if they had known more about raising older kids with a history of trauma, perhaps their relationship with Deon wouldn’t have frayed so quickly. A counselor who worked with the family noted that the couple didn’t seem to grasp the difference between parenting a five-year-old and a 15-year-old.
Then there were Deon’s own misgivings. When the judge asked during his adoption ceremony if he had reservations, the 11-year-old felt pressure to stay silent. “That’s like the biggest regret I ever had in my life, not speaking up,” he told me.
I sent the DCF more than 50 questions while reporting this story; as of press time, it hadn’t answered any of them. I reached out to the Richardses several times, too, and spoke briefly to each of them—just long enough to explain that I wanted to write about how and why Deon’s adoption had fallen apart and the complicated emotions that must linger on both sides. Somehow they’d gone from claiming Deon as their son and wanting to love him forever to cutting off all contact, even as Gladina remained their child. Both Mr. and Mrs. Richards initially expressed openness to speaking with me but then declined to answer questions.
Deon still feels a measure of good will toward his adoptive family. He credits Mr. Richards with teaching him how to address strangers and potential employers. He acknowledges that the Richardses have been good for his sister. In high school, Gladina became a standout student and ran track. She graduated with honors, enlisted in the Army Reserve, and spent a semester at the University of Florida before deciding to become a firefighter.
Deon is the first to admit that he was a rebellious kid who sometimes acted out of spite. Looking back, he knows it must have been hard for the Richardses to adopt three children hardened by a life of abuse and contingency. James recently reconnected with the Richardses via Facebook, and Gladina says that her parents still ask about Deon sometimes. For Deon, though, losing his forever family has made it hard to hold on to anything else. Seven years later, Deon said, “I feel like I’m still getting my life fixed from the way things were at the Richardses’.”
When he was sleeping by the pool in 2016, Deon admitted that going it alone wasn’t working. He called a youth-services coordinator at his old foster-care agency in Orlando. Within a few days, Deon had a spot at a nonprofit supportive-housing program in Miami called Casa Valentina. Deon moved into Casa Valentina’s young-men’s house, a two-story stucco building not far from Miami-Dade College, where he was taking classes. Rent was $300 a month for an airy, one-bedroom apartment where he could stay for two years as long as he attended group meetings on Tuesdays and met weekly with an educational adviser and case manager.
He was still a long way from where he wanted to be, but Casa Valentina at least brought Deon some stability. The year after he left the Richardses’, he’d moved nine times in ten months; five years later, he still hadn’t spent more than six months in the same place. He started to make friends playing basketball at a court at the end of his block. He left the program for a few months in January 2018, only to go broke and wind up selling food stamps at a corner store. Luckily, Casa Valentina let him come back, giving Deon a second chance to overcome what one staff member described as his penchant for self-sabotage.
Deon got a job working at a stand that rents chairs and beach umbrellas on Miami Beach. As the sun set one summer evening, he scooped up armfuls of towels and dragged stacks of chaise longues across the sand like a linesman doing football drills—leaning forward, calves flexed as his toes pointed into the sand. He chatted with people on the beach, including a man in his sixties who did daily calisthenics with his dog by his side. “He’s not barking today!” Deon remarked. A moment later, the yapping began. “I spoke too soon,” Deon quipped. He told me that the dog’s owner had grown up on the streets of Colombia, apprenticed as an acrobat in Spain, and spent decades as a traveling circus performer. “When you don’t have a family, you make a lot of friends,” Deon explained.
One Friday in 2018, Deon and I drove to meet Melissa Neeley at a restaurant in Lake Placid, Florida, near her new home and career as a social worker for hospice patients. She’d become a county director for the Children’s Home Society before deciding she needed a change of pace. She first heard about the trouble at the Richardses’ at a conference in Orlando a few years after Deon’s adoption was finalized. Neeley told me that she tried calling the family but never heard back. “I was heartbroken,” she said, “and then really, really angry. I wanted to say, ‘You made that commitment. Who the heck are you to back out of that without notifying me, without calling me and saying you need help? This is not the puppy you take back to the pound. This is a child, and you committed to being their parents in front of judges and witnesses and God.’”
At the restaurant, a pan-Asian spot called Cang’s, Neeley stood up from her booth when she saw Deon for the first time in a dozen years, her arms outspread. They hugged, then their menus lay closed on the table for 30 minutes while they caught up. Neeley, arms crossed, looked up at Deon through oval glasses. Deon, grinning and fidgety as he basked in her affection, pulled up pictures from his siblings’ Instagram accounts. Together they scrolled through photos of Pinder’s trips to California and Paris, past James in a haze of smoke, to snapshots of all four Estimé kids in their rare moments growing up together. “That’s the little girl I know!” Neeley said when she saw an old photo of Gladina.
Neeley tried to help Deon look back on his missteps in the same way she saw them, as part of a lifelong negotiation to make the best of bad circumstances. “All you kids, you had so little control over your lives,” she said.
“After I left the Richardses’ house,” Deon said, “I just wanted to rebel, because I didn’t…”
“You didn’t belong anywhere.” Neeley said knowingly. “All I can think of is maybe they had expectations of who you were supposed to be. And you weren’t who they wanted you to be. That comes out a little bit wrong but…“
“Because we had expectations of what we wanted to be,” Deon said.
Deon declined Neeley’s invitation to order something he’d never eaten before—though he agreed to taste her seaweed salad—and opted for General Tso’s chicken. When the food came, Neeley instructed Deon on how to use chopsticks, laying one stick across the crook of her thumb and pinching the second like a pencil. The meal stretched over three hours, alternating between fits of giddy nostalgia and heartfelt reassurance.
“Now that we’re meeting again and talking and stuff like that, now I can put that chapter of my life to a close,” Deon said.
Neeley didn’t miss a beat. “What are you going to do with the next chapter?”
“I don’t know,” Deon sighed. “Just try to expand as much as I can, travel a little bit. Start my own family, do my own thing.”
First, though, he had to figure out his next move. In January, 2019 Deon will no longer be able to stay at Casa Valentina, and he’ll have to face adulthood on his own. He’s still taking classes towards a physical therapy degree and working as a pool attendant at a hotel downtown. He’s planning to move into an efficiency apartment in a friend’s building. He hopes that the next move will finally bring some stability. Whenever he and Gladina talk on the phone, she asks him questions about the future. What about paying for school? How is he going to make rent?
“You don’t gotta worry about me,” he tells her. “I’m an adult. I can figure this out.”