Johnetta Harrison

Johnetta Harrison, the sister of Dae'von Bailey, holds a portrait of Tylette Davis and her children. Johnetta is at the back on the left. Dae'von, who was beaten to death last July, leans on his mother's shoulder at right. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times / November 16, 2009)

"Sit down, Johnetta," Frances Hill told her 14-year-old cousin.

Hours earlier, police and a social worker had come knocking in the darkness, with news that stunned the South Los Angeles woman.

Now Hill had to tell the girl: Her little brother, the 6-year-old she had fed, bathed and babied as if he were her child, was dead. The killer was her mother's ex-boyfriend, a convicted rapist with a long rap sheet.

Johnetta Harrison burst into tears.

"What's wrong with my momma?" Hill, 65, remembers the child asking that morning in July. "She knew how he was and she sent my sister and my brother with him. What's wrong with my momma?"

It was a question with no simple answer.

Tylette Davis had given birth to six children by age 23 and parceled them out to friends and relatives, including the ex-boyfriend. His name is Marcas Fisher, but Davis' children said he went by a nickname: the Maniac.

Over the span of a decade, social workers repeatedly looked into allegations that Tylette's children were mistreated or neglected, including that Johnetta suffered for years with open sores from an untreated skin disorder, internal records show. Most of the complaints were not substantiated.

Twice, 6-year-old Dae'von Bailey told school officials that Fisher had struck him. Both times, social workers investigated but left the boy with Fisher. When he beat Dae'von to death, Johnetta's youngest sister, then 5, watched from a corner, unable to move or muster a scream. Fisher pleaded guilty to the boy's murder.

For all of the flaws and missed opportunities that Dae'von's case exposes on the government's part, it also highlights the formidable problems of families steeped in generations of dysfunctional parenting. For them, abuse and neglect are a brutal legacy, not easily broken by the occasional intervention of social workers or well-meaning relatives.

"Abuse can certainly happen in any family, but it can become ingrained as a dynamic when each generation 'teaches' it to the next," said Trish Ploehn, director of Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services, who declined to comment specifically on Dae'von's case.

"Unless there's a willingness to examine these dysfunctional behaviors, they are likely to repeat themselves and cause further harm."

In Tylette Davis' case, her own mistreatment as a girl seemed to have foretold her children's.

A harsh world

Twenty-four years ago, when Tylette was about 5, her family lived in a rough Long Beach neighborhood. Her mother, Linda Dotson-Davis, had just given birth to her seventh child, her fifth with husband Freddie Davis.

As Linda recalls it, the baby had been rejecting milk and was malnourished. "I heard a faint cry in the night and I touched my baby and he felt like rubber," Linda, 55, said. "I knew something was seriously wrong."

The infant, Keyonte, was hospitalized, and before long, social workers, and then police, were knocking at the family's door. Another son, Freddie Jr., was so tiny at about age 2 that he appeared to be 10 months old, the authorities found. They also reported a foul odor, a lack of electricity and refrigerators and cabinets infested with roaches and spiders, said a person familiar with the case file who requested anonymity because its contents are confidential.

Linda and Freddie Davis Sr. were charged with "willful cruelty to children," a misdemeanor that was later dismissed.

Child welfare authorities placed all seven children in protective custody for about a month before releasing them to other relatives, the couple said.