Oregon had Minnesota child abuse report before investigating Hart family
They presented as the ultimate Oregon hippie moms. But peel back the homeschooling, organic food and music festivals, and Jennifer and Sarah Hart appeared to embrace a twisted philosophy on child rearing, according to two tipsters’ accounts to authorities in 2013.
That philosophy was on display a year after the women wed when in 2010 — in what seems straight out of the cult classic, “Mommie Dearest” — the Harts declined to foster a friend’s teenage daughter because she “used wire hangers against the Harts’ wishes,” according to a Minnesota Child Welfare report cited in the Oregon report.
Before a legally intoxicated Jennifer Hart drove her wife and at least four of their six adopted children off a cliff in Mendocino County, California, last month, the family had drawn the attention of child welfare authorities in both states after multiple reports that the kids were neglected and malnourished.
In the Oregon report, which was released this week to Oregon and Washington media outlets that filed records requests with the Oregon Department of Human Services, two women reported the children were denied food and subjected to harsh punishments, such as being forced to lie on the floor for hours, one tipster claimed. Sometimes, punishment was meted out for behavior common to being a child, such as laughing at the dinner table.
One tipster called anonymously, while the other, who claimed to be a former friend of the Harts, asked that her identity not be revealed.
Because the anonymous tipster mentioned that the cars outside the Harts’ West Linn, Oregon, home had Minnesota plates, Oregon officials called Minnesota and received a report stating Jennifer Hart had viciously spanked 9-year-old Abigail and Sarah had taken the rap for it.
Young Abigail’s transgression, according to the Minnesota report? She told her parents that she had found a penny, but her mothers didn’t believe her. Jennifer Hart spanked the girl, leaving bruises all over her lower torso, the girl told authorities, adding that Jennifer Hart had also put her hands on her neck and stuck her head under cold water. Sarah Hart copped to the beating and was convicted on two charges.
Eleven days earlier, Abigail alleged, Jennifer had banged her head against the wall after school officials reported Abigail had been digging through the garbage and taking other children’s food.
Oregon authorities were thus aware of the family’s history in Minnesota when investigating the tipsters’ allegations in 2013. The state Department of Human Services investigators found there were “some indications of child abuse or neglect,” but they were “unable to determine” whether the accusations were legitimate, despite picking up on disturbing, if not prosecutable, signs, the report said.
The department said in a Monday statement it was releasing the records because it was “in the best interest of helping inform measures to be taken to prevent a similar incident from happening again in Oregon or any other state.” It also outlined several changes to its model for investigating cases like this one.
Today, Abigail and three of her siblings are dead, along with their mothers. Two children remain missing, though authorities suspect the pair were in the doomed SUV and were washed away by the surf.
Here is what we know about each child, and the findings of Minnesota and Oregon authorities, as laid out in the Oregon report:
Hannah, the hungry
The 16-year-old is one of two children who remain missing after the crash.
Seemingly the most outspoken of the youngsters when it came to reporting alleged abuse, Hannah had been telling adults about her mothers’ behavior since at least 2010.
In December of that year, a Minnesota social worker noticed a dime-sized bruise on her hand, which Hannah said was the result of Jennifer Hart striking her for lying. She further claimed her “mom, Jen, hits her all the time,” but authorities were unable to validate the claims.
In January 2011, Minnesota Child Welfare reported her classmates had been giving her food, and when she told a school nurse she had not eaten one day, Jennifer Hart grew angry and called her disrespectful.
“Hannah said Jen shoved a banana in her mouth as well as some nuts,” the Minnesota report said. When Sarah Hart was asked about concerns with Hannah’s diet, she replied, “She’s playing the food card; just give her water.”
The Minnesota social worker said that “after a while, the school stopped calling the parents about the child(ren) taking food because they didn’t want the children being disciplined or punished,” the report said.
When she was interviewed in Oregon in 2013, Hannah, then 11, was missing her front teeth, and her mothers said she’d knocked them out running on hardwood floors the previous year. The women said a dentist had told them Hannah would have to wait until she was at least 17 “for a retainer with teeth.”
The anonymous tipster said Hannah and her biological brother, Markis, bore the brunt of Jennifer Hart’s discipline, but the girl made no mention of previous abuse to the Oregon social worker.
Abigail, the tiny
In the 2010 penny incident outlined in the Minnesota report, Jennifer and Sarah Hart had discovered a penny in Abigail’s pocket. When they asked the girl about the penny, she said she’d found it and got a spanking because her mothers thought she’d stolen it.
Despite Abigail blaming Jennifer, Sarah Hart claimed responsibility for the bruising from Abigail’s sternum to her waist, and from her mid-back to upper buttocks, saying “it just got out of control,” according to the report. In 2011, Sarah Hart was convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence assault in the fourth-degree, and she pleaded guilty to attempt to inflict bodily harm.
Three years later, like Hannah, Abigail made no mention of the abuse when the Oregon social worker asked about discipline in the home.
The girl was 6 at the time, but the Minnesota social worker remarked that she looked more like a 2-year-old. When pressed about her size, the Hart women uttered a familiar refrain: Their adopted children were “high risk” and had “food issues.” A doctor told social workers “she is just small,” the report said.
“The Minnesota Child Welfare worker said the problem is, ‘these women (Jen and Sarah Hart) look normal’ and they give professionals the information about all the children being adopted because they are high needs, and have mental health issues related to food, then people tend to assign the problems to the children,” the report said.
After the Oregon interview, during which Abigail was 9, the social worker remarked she was “very reserved, showing little emotion or animation.”
When she was adopted at age 2, Abigail had been “labeled borderline mentally retarded,” but her mothers said they felt the diagnosis was inaccurate and she’d improved academically. The mothers often disagreed with their children’s previous diagnoses, according to the Oregon report.
Abigail also suffered from asthma, allergies and visions problems, the Oregon report said.
The 14-year-old was one of the three children found dead at the accident scene last month.
Devonte, the extrovert
Devonte, 15, remains missing after the crash. Both tipsters said he was “the favored child.”
He was the most outgoing of the kids and gained brief fame after giving a Portland, Oregon, police officer a hug during a demonstration decrying the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
His hugs were a hit at music festivals, Jennifer told the social worker. While Sarah Hart worked, Jennifer Hart was often on the road taking the children to festivals.
According to the unidentified former friend, “Jen does this thing for her Facebook page, where the kids pose and are made to look like one big happy family, but after the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.”
Devonte, who was 10 at the time of his Oregon interview, was social, clean and well-dressed. He wore a fedora, the report said.
When he was adopted at age 6, the Hart mothers said, the only words he knew were curse words. He suffered abuse by his biological parents and was exposed to violence and drugs, and once had a gun put to his head, according to the report.
“At that time, the couple report he did not even know where his fingers and toes were. Additionally, he was reported to be very violent and would kick and bite,” the report said.
He was diagnosed with mood disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed psychotropic medications, assessments with which his mothers did not agree. They had taken him off the meds, they said.
“He is reported by his parents to be thriving in home school and very interested in social justice/issues and love. He is reported and observed to be very affectionate,” the report stated.
Markis, the targeted
The biological brother to Abigail and Hannah, Markis, 19, was found dead at the crash scene.
The oldest of the six children, the “somewhat soft-spoken and reserved” Markis was 15 and in ninth grade when the Oregon social worker dropped by. He seemed thin, though a doctor said there was nothing abnormal in his physical exam.
Markis said that he’d been abused in foster care and “reported being grateful to Ms. J. Hart and Ms. S. Hart for changing his life,” according to the report. He said the family attended music festivals for fun and indicated he was happy to be in Oregon where there was more opportunity and the family was “contributing to the world.”
The former friend, who alleged that Jennifer Hart coached her kid on how to act and what to say, said Markis received more discipline than the other children. Jennifer Hart had told the woman that Markis once tried to kill her, but Devonte had saved her.
“She indicated that on another occasion, while the family was visiting in her home, Ms. J. Hart alleged Markis tried to punch her and drug him in the home. Despite Ms. J. Hart’s report, Ms. (name redacted) does not believe this and reported she also did not hear Markis yelling as reported by Ms. J. Hart.”
On another occasion, the ex-friend said that Markis had gotten into trouble on his birthday, and as punishment, the mothers forbade anyone from wishing him, “Happy birthday.”
Markis had been on psychotropic medication when he was adopted, but he had since been taken off the regimen and his mothers reported no behavioral or mental issues, according to the report.
Jeremiah, the fittest
He had turned 14 about a month before he died. He was 9 when interviewed, and the Oregon report says he is the only one of the children who was the correct size and height for his age.
He was “very reserved” during his interview and, according to his mothers, needed eyeglasses.
Before adoption, Jeremiah had been diagnosed as autistic and the Hart women claimed he was “globally delayed” — like their other children — when they gained custody of him.
“The couple said Jeremiah could not even use a fork when he came to them, but was functioning normally now,” the report said.
He was also taking prescribed medications “for a variety of issues” when they adopted him, but no longer needed those, his adopted parents said.
Ciera, the youngest
She would’ve celebrated her 13th birthday last week. The biological sister of Jeremiah and Devonte, Ciera was found almost two weeks after the accident, and police later identified her as one of the six Hart children.
Ciera was 8 when the Oregon social worker interviewed her.
“Like her siblings, she appeared small for her age and was noted to be very reserved when interviewed,” the report said, adding that a doctor had detected nothing abnormal despite her weight and stature.
She told the social worker she was in second grade and enjoyed being home-schooled. No behavioral or mental issues were reported.
‘These children risk falling through the cracks’
In another incident, the former friend said she had invited Jennifer Hart and the children over to her home and they ordered pizza. Jennifer Hart would allow the kids only one small piece, and when everyone woke up in the morning, the remaining pizza was gone.
“Ms. J. Hart became angry and said she knew who ate it. Ms. J. Hart then took her children to the bathroom and after coming out, told she and her husband none of her children would be eating breakfast as no one fessed up to eating the pizza,” the tipster said.
Jennifer Hart then forced all six kids to lie on an air mattress “with sleeping masks on their face and their arms by their side for five hours,” she said.
The Oregon social worker worried that because the children were home schooled, they did not have “regular contact with any mandatory reporters.” Perhaps that was by design, as Minnesota Child Welfare said the family pulled their kids out of school and later vanished following that department’s investigation.
“When the assessment was completed, the services were concluded, the Harts pulled the children out of school, and home schooled their children, and eventually sold their home, and moved,” according to the report.
The Harts called Woodland, Washington, home at the time of their deaths. Days before they died, a neighbor contacted authorities to say the women had been mistreating their children and withholding meals. Devonte had been coming by as often as three times a day, asking for food, neighbor Bruce Dekalb said.
He called Child Protective Services on March 23, and officials arrived just after Jennifer Hart came home from work, but she didn’t answer the door. The next morning, the family was gone. Child Protective Services tried to visit again March 26 and 27, but didn’t make contact, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services said.
One line in the Oregon report warns that something bad might befall the children, given their lack of contact with the outside world.
“Without any regular or consistent academic or medical oversight, and unknown child welfare reviews through State of Texas for either foster/adopt subsidies, these children risk falling through the cracks,” it said.