Hart Family Hid Dark Home Life of Child Abuse and Neglect Before Driving SUV Off California Cliff

Jennifer and Sarah Hart with four of their children in 2014.
Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian, via Associated Press

After Jennifer Hart drunkenly drove a sport utility vehicle straight off a 100-foot cliff on the Northern California coast late last month, taking her life and those of her wife and their adopted children, at least two searches began.

One was for the missing bodies; another was for answers. How, those who knew the Harts wondered, could a family that looked so happy and normal in photos have hidden such a dark life from public view?

Dozens of pages of reports released this week by child-welfare officials offer some clues. Taken together they paint a portrait of a pair of mothers — one dictatorial and eccentric, the other constantly working and seldom home — who doled out cruel punishments and perennially withheld food from their six children.

In the Hart household, any act of insubordination could be severely punished. The children knew this all too well.

“They are like trained robots,” one worried caller told the authorities, according to the newly released documents, which describe the family’s dynamics.

“We called them like little soldiers,” one former neighbor said of the children.

In the weeks since the crash, searchers have fanned out along the Pacific coastline looking for the bodies. They have found those of the parents — Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both 38 — and four of their six children: Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 14; and Ciera, 12. As of last week, Devonte Hart, 15, and Hannah Hart, 16, were still missing, but feared dead.

Captain Greg Van Patten, a spokesman for the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, said Friday that the office had no additional updates and was operating “under the theory and the belief that the whole family was together” at the time of the crash.

The documents released this week show that child-welfare officials in Minnesota, Oregon and Washington State — three states where the Harts lived during the past seven years — knew of reported abuse, but, in one case, apparently stepped aside after completing their assessment; could not gather enough evidence to corroborate the claims of neglect in another; and, in a third case, learned of the allegations too late.

“We believe the release of these records may help avoid future tragedies,” Caroline Burnell of the Oregon Department of Human Services said in a letter accompanying the documents.

The department, she wrote, “continues to strive to improve.”

Minnesota: A spanking, and a confrontation over food
Officials with the Oregon Department of Human Services became aware of the Hart family’s history in 2013. An anonymous person had reported that the children appeared malnourished, and so officials contacted child-welfare officials in Minnesota, where the family had lived for years, to get more information on their background.

Minnesota Child Welfare said it had received six troubling reports of abuse or neglect — two of which it deemed to be founded.

In a 2010 case, one of the parents was found to have physically harmed Abigail, causing bruising all over her body. The dispute had been over a penny: The parents discovered one in Abigail’s pocket and accused her of lying about how she got it. A spanking ensued, which Sarah Hart said “got out of control,” according to the documents. The couple agreed to in-home therapy, counseling and other “skill building activities” as a remedy, the documents said.

The New York Times previously reported that Sarah Hart was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault in Minnesota around the same time. A criminal complaint says that Ms. Hart admitted to spanking one of her children, identified as A.H.

In a 2011 episode, Hannah told a school nurse that she had not eaten. Jennifer Hart then became angry and shoved a banana and nuts into the child’s mouth. When confronted about this, Sarah Hart argued that Hannah was “playing the food card” and should just be given water.

Eventually, a child-welfare worker reported that the children’s school stopped calling the Harts because officials feared that the children would be punished. The Harts eventually pulled the children out of school, began to home-school them and later moved.

The problem, one Minnesota welfare worker noted, according to documents, was that Jennifer and Sarah Hart “look normal.”

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, a woman who lived across the street from the Harts in Alexandria, Minn., described the parents as “real friendly girls.”

Still, the neighbor, Lorraine Fealy, 71, said she did not know their children well because the parents “didn’t let them out of the house very often.” When they did, the children were “very highly disciplined,” Ms. Fealy said.

“They’d all come down the steps single file and walk out in the yard single file,” she said.

The children’s behavior bothered her, she added, because “it wasn’t like normal kids.”

Oregon: Children forced to lie in bed for hours over a pizza dispute
Having been made aware of allegations against the Harts, child-welfare officials and the police in Oregon began their own investigation in 2013. After interviewing each family member, they found that Jennifer — the more domineering of the couple — would travel with the children to music festivals several weeks a year, that Sarah was a retail manager at a Kohl’s and that the family received about $2,000 a month in adoption assistance.

Investigators also interviewed at least two women who knew the family, and they painted a disturbing portrait of the Harts’ home life. They told investigators that the children had to raise their hands before speaking, got in trouble for laughing at the dinner table and in one instance were prohibited from telling one of the children, Markis, “Happy Birthday” on his birthday.

In another episode, one of the women told investigators, Jennifer stayed with the children at her home. They ordered pizza, but Jennifer would allow her children to have only a small piece. The next morning, though, the pizza was gone — and Jennifer was irate, according to the documents. She told the woman that none of the children would be eating breakfast because none of them had admitted to having eaten the pizza. The woman said Jennifer then forced all the children to lie on their bed for about five hours as punishment.

Still, officials with child protective services ultimately said that they were “unable to determine” if the women were guilty of neglect, according to the documents. They also said they could not identify a “safety threat.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, Matt Stevens