"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.
Linda said the family was harassed. One social worker "came out and talked to me like I had a tail behind me, she said. "I went off on that woman. I took it offensive. I cursed her out. I called her an old dilapidated bitch."
The Davises were ordered to undergo drug tests and counseling and to take parenting classes, Linda said. About a year later, the children returned home to new beds in their rooms and fresh clothes in the closet, she said: "It was a joyous time."
Over the years, the family moved around, staying with relatives, bouncing from motel to motel. Freddie Sr. said a sister, Dorothy Davis, helped him find an apartment in Long Beach where he could do repairs in lieu of paying rent.
In the early 1990s, when Tylette was about 12, she and a sister moved in with Dorothy, also living in Long Beach.
"I just didn't want to live with my parents," Tylette said recently, declining to elaborate.
"Tylette was very quiet," recalled Dorothy, now 61. "I think all the lights and the gas constantly being cut off in the house, the poverty, life with her momma and daddy -- she went through a lot."
Her niece could be "a very compassionate person, very sweet," Dorothy said, but she was easily manipulated. Soon Tylette began to run off with boys, and Dorothy decided it was too much. She returned Tylette and her sister to their parents.
By age 13, Tylette was pregnant. In April 1995, she gave birth to her first child, Johnetta.
'Out there with boys'
Over the next eight years, Tylette had five more children.
"She was just out there with boys, thinking she was in love," said her mother, Linda, who had her first child at 17.
In the 11th grade, Tylette dropped out of school. Living on welfare payments for her children, she'd sometimes spend weekends partying, family members said.
"We allow that," her mother said. "She needed her leisure time."
In 1998 and 1999, the child welfare agency looked into whether Linda and Freddie were mistreating Tylette, then about 17, according to an internal report prepared in August after Dae'von's death. Someone had alleged that her parents abused crack cocaine and alcohol and provided an "unkempt home."
"They never proved we did drugs," said Freddie Sr., now 59. "They didn't prove nothing."
Soon Tylette's own parenting came under scrutiny, according to the report last August. Year after year, calls to the child welfare agency alleged that their house was infested with drugs and lacked running water; that the children were "filthy and hungry," begged neighbors for food, did not go to school and played outside, unsupervised, into the night.
Seven times, beginning in 1999, social workers investigated whether Johnetta had uncontrolled eczema. "It burns!" one caller said she heard the girl crying at night.
But of 12 complaints in 10 years, just two were substantiated: one in 2001 that Tylette had left her 1-year-old alone on a hospital gurney after he accidentally drank lighter fluid, and another in 2006 that Johnetta had "open sores and blisters" all over -- seven years after the first eczema complaint.
Johnetta told a social worker in 2001 that her grandparents sometimes hit her with a belt. She repeated that complaint after Dae'von's death, when her youngest sister also said her grandfather would "whoop everybody." But the August report suggests that for the most part, everyone in the family denied to social workers that anyone was mistreated.
"My mom would tell us to lie," Johnetta said, because Tylette was afraid the children would be taken away.
With immunization records current and no bruises apparent, the August report suggests, social workers were willing to give Tylette second and third chances. In 1999, one gave the mother "an opportunity" to clean the home so that, upon the worker's return, it "appeared appropriate." In 2005, another gave Tylette another "opportunity" to enroll her children in school and make medical appointments.
In Johnetta's case, one worker wrote, Tylette was "doing what she could" for her.
"However, restraints brought on by simple economics pose substantial limitations on the family's ability to control both the longevity and severity of Johnetta's medical condition."
Quiet but well-spoken at 14, Johnetta describes an itinerant life filled with chores and suffering.
It was often her job to clean the bathroom and help bathe Linda, who has diabetes and later used a wheelchair. She gave Linda daily insulin shots, worrying constantly that she'd hurt the older woman.
She often washed, dressed and fed her youngest siblings, Johnetta said, including Dae'von.
"I thought he was a good boy," she said. "I didn't like that people were always hitting on him. I thought he should feel like he had a home and somebody to love him."
Johnetta said she also loved her mother -- but feared her. Late one night, she said, Tylette lost her temper when she refused to get up from bed to clean up after a little sister who vomited.
"I didn't want to do it, so she hit me up in my head." Johnetta later told a social worker that her mother "would be constantly drunk" and that her boyfriend, Fisher, frequently struck her brothers, according to the August report. "He would hit Dae Dae all over the body."
After her family moved briefly to Las Vegas with Fisher, Johnetta said, he "whooped" one of her brothers because he'd wet his bed.
"When I went in there to wash my hands, he was peeing blood," she said in an interview. "I went upstairs and told my momma and she went in there and seen it, and that was when she told Maniac, 'Don't ever put your hands on my kids.' But he was still doing it."
There were good times too, Johnetta said, beaming as she recalled them. Her Uncle Katari, 30, a security guard and the only one in the family with a regular job, would get the boys haircuts or take the kids to Knott's Berry Farm.
Hill, Linda's first cousin, bought church clothes for the children, lent money to Linda and Freddie and sometimes paid Freddie to work around her Watts home.
Touched particularly by Johnetta and Dae'von, she'd take the boy shoe shopping and buy the girl oatmeal baths for her skin.
In late 2005, Johnetta's family moved to a home on Loness Avenue near Compton. The next February their lives took a dramatic turn: Tylette's younger brothers were shot by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who confronted them as they walked home from a liquor store, after a customer reported seeing them with a gun. Freddie Jr. had been carrying a sawed-off shotgun and Keyonte a handgun -- for protection, family members said.
Freddie Jr. died the next day of gunshot wounds to the back.
The family sued the county and, in August, a jury awarded the Davises $2.6 million -- a judgment they are waiting to collect. Everyone mourned her uncle's death, Johnetta said, but Tylette could not stop crying. Freddie Sr. noticed another change in Tylette.
"Well, I have always been drinking a little bit," he testified at the trial, "but right now I got a daughter, she has turned into an alcoholic."
'I had to call'
Linda had a stroke and a mild heart attack after the shooting.
Dorothy Davis, who visited the home to help care for her, said Tylette seemed to be in bed all the time, and the children often missed school.
"Johnetta looked like an old lady. She cleaned around the house more than all of them. . . . Everyone called her names."
In May 2006, a cousin of Linda's saw Johnetta walk out of a kiddie pool, scratching and bleeding from her eczema. Mary Smith, 74, said her brother yelled for somebody to get some lotion but no one budged.
"I knew I was going to call [the county] when I saw Johnetta," she said. "I had to call."
After finding a pattern of mistreatment in the home -- only the second such conclusion in a dozen investigations -- county authorities checked for the next year to see that the children went to school and that their mother received Family Preservation services, including classes on parenting. If Tylette found a new place to live, the child welfare agency would help cover move-in costs, according to the August report -- but she never did.
In spring 2008, after an argument with Linda and Freddie Davis, Hill decided she'd had enough. "Johnetta was on the couch bleeding, and I just told her, 'Come on, Johnetta, let's go. You're staying with me.' "
Hill said Linda turned to Tylette and said, "You're going to let her take your baby like that?" Tylette said, "Yeah."
Hill had planned to take in Dae'von because she thought he was treated roughly. But then she saw Johnetta, barely over 4 feet tall, the backs of her knees so scabbed she could hardly walk.
"I thought she needed me more," she said.
Hill was already caring for a husband in a wheelchair. She had survived cancer and the murder of a son. She also knew the academic challenges facing Johnetta, who read at about a second-grade level.
But Hill had some advantages, too: a sense of humor and dogged resourcefulness. She found Johnetta a dermatologist and arranged for tutoring. She set boundaries, identifying "gang houses" to avoid. She grounded Johnetta for letting a friend pierce her lip and for not listening to teachers.
"Your problem is you're a follower," Hill said as Johnetta sat nearby. "She loves her momma. She'd go with her momma right now if her momma said, 'Let's go.' "
"I said I love my mother," Johnetta retorted. As for going back, "I never said that."
Home 'not suitable'
Last December, after another visit by social workers, Tylette sent most of her other children to live with others.
She later told social workers she had decided her parents' home was "not suitable for anyone." Most of the fathers' homes were not an option -- two of the four were in prison for murder -- but her ex-boyfriend Fisher was willing to take the two youngest, Dae'von and his little sister. He was the girl's father, not the boy's.
In March, the siblings entered pre-kindergarten at Lakewood's Riley Elementary School, teacher Majella Maas said. They clung to her like "extra appendages" -- especially Dae'von.
In 28 years of teaching, Maas said, she had never known a boy as hungry for affection.
He'd snuggle up to her in class and sit on her lap, or throw his arms around her. He knew how to tie his shoes but would undo his laces so she'd redo them. During recess, he stayed at her side.
"Being with an adult was more important for him than playing," she said. "He didn't need to talk. He just wanted to be close."
In late April, the boy arrived at school with a bloody, swollen nose. The school called the county, but without the correct address, it took social workers about two weeks to find Fisher. The boy said Fisher hit him; the man said it was an accident. The evidence was deemed inconclusive.
According to the August report, the social worker "ensured the child was seen by a doctor and a safety plan was signed, indicating that no one is to hit the children."
A month later, on June 3, Maas called the county, this time because Dae'von said that Fisher had hit him in the stomach.
After the boy and his sister provided inconsistent accounts, no bruises were found on Dae'von and Fisher denied the allegations, they were declared "unfounded."
On July 23 police found Dae'von's body inside a house on 87th Place in South Los Angeles. His little sister had seen him tied up in the hallway, crying, as Fisher beat him, according to her account in county records.
Later, she said, Fisher put Dae'von in the shower and told him to "wake up," before dragging him to the bedroom. Her father told her to "go take a nap like Dae Dae," the girl said.
Fisher fled and was captured in Las Vegas a month later. With his guilty plea on Nov. 19, he became the third father of Tylette's children to be incarcerated for murder.
"I never thought that he would do something like that to my son," Tylette said a week after the slaying. "I was going through things and I thought that leaving him with Marcas was the best thing to do. But apparently not."
After Dae'von's death, the county expressed a certainty about Tylette's parenting that hadn't been there before.
"Mother has not taken any responsibility for her role nor has she been able to display any insight into the issues that plague this family," the August report said. "It is in the best interest of these children to remain . . . with relatives permanently."
Hill became Johnetta's permanent guardian on Sept. 24. Two of the children, now 12 and 10, are staying with a paternal grandmother. And the youngest girl, now 6, and her 9-year-old brother are with their great aunt Dorothy -- some 15 years after Tylette left her care.
Hers is a spacious home with manicured lawns and flower beds on half an acre in Hesperia. Upon arrival in August, the girl marveled at its pristine furniture and glass cabinets.
One night, Dorothy let her sleep in a room with her brother, each in a twin bed. She peered in and noticed that the girl's bed was empty.
"She was in the bed with her brother, wrapped up in his arms," Dorothy said.
The girl has had flashbacks and once screamed in a department store after seeing a small boy sleeping in a shopping cart. "He's dead!" she cried.
She's doing better now, though Dorothy said she worries about the boy, who is angry and has been fighting with classmates.
"Those children are out of that nasty house," Dorothy said. Now "God be in control. It's time for the curse to be broken."
Last month, Tylette was arrested in a Compton apartment after attacking her current boyfriend with a knife. She later pleaded guilty to injuring the man and was sentenced to five years' probation and 90 days in an alcohol treatment center.
Freddie Sr. wept in court, relieved that the penalty wasn't more severe.
Linda began making plans: Once the $2.6-million judgment comes through, she said, "we'll be able to buy a five-, six-bedroom house so all my grandkids could be under one roof, and Tylette can get custody of her children again."
In her cousin's living room in Watts, Johnetta said she had hope that her mother could fix her life, maybe get her other children back.
But she said she's staying with Hill.
She only wishes Dae'von could be with her.
"I used to say to myself, 'Well, when I get grown up, I'ma take Dae Dae and have him live with me.' Him and my little sister."
Times staff writer Kim Christensen contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times