The Hart Children: Curse of the Adoptee

Markis. Jeremiah. Abigail. Devonte. Hannah. Sierra. Photo by Jen Hart. Facebook.

Although the inquests are not complete, it seems clear at this point that Jennifer Hart, under the influence of alcohol, drove their GMC Yukon off a cliff in Northern California, killing herself, her wife, and probably all six children they’d adopted. Markis, 19, and Jeremiah and Abigail, both 14, were found nearby. Devonte, 15, Hannah, 16, and Sierra, 12 are missing and presumed dead as of this writing. In the aftermath of the tragedy, child welfare files detailing complaints against the Harts for child abuse and neglect have been released.

But in spite of complaints in three different states over nearly ten years, the Harts maintained uninterrupted custody of the children. Why were these complaints not taken seriously?

Dr. Stacey Patton has written an excellent article for Dame magazine that details how institutional racism protected the Harts, who were White, and put their six adopted children, who were Black, at terrible risk. And these six children are not the only Black adoptees murdered by their White adoptive parents. Say their names: Cassandra Killpack,Michael Tinning, Hannah Grace-Rose Williams, Lydia Schatz, Timothy Boss, Hana Williams, Ahmad King.

Racism in the adoption industry is real. And another bias in the Hart case was also at work.

Adoptees all over the world live under a curse: their bad qualities and behaviors get attributed to their birth-family genetics, and their good qualities and behaviors get attributed to the environment created by their adoptive parents. This assumption allows adoptive parents and adoption organizations to avoid accountability when things go wrong. It is so deeply embedded in Western thinking about adoption, it often goes unquestioned.

This article by Molly Young in The Oregonian was published on April 21, when media outlets were still trying to paint the Hart adults as generous, altruistic, “white savior” adopters. The focus of this article, which now seems incredibly misguided, is on how the couple instilled Midwestern family values into their own family’s life. At the time the article was published, numerous complaints to child welfare authorities in three states were emerging that alleged the Harts physically abused the children and withheld food from them. Recently released records show that in 2013, all six children were of a height and weight consistent with children years younger than their respective ages.

Molly Young interviewed Jennifer Hart’s friend, Nusheen Bakhtiar, for her April 21st article. Bakhtiar’s statements, although intended as supportive of Hart, contradict any idea of wholesomeness. Instead, they reveal that the Harts were more than ready to blame the children’s “nature” for their small stature and irregular behaviors rather than any deficiency in the “nurture” they received from their adopters.

Over time, Bakhtiar said Hart confided in her about the struggles of raising six kids. How they had to leave school because teachers punished them more severely than classmates. How each child was born addicted to drugs or alcohol and faced their own set of problems. How the children gorged themselves on food because they did not know better.
Hart said the children’s genetics and rough starts in life explained their size and behaviors. She said she did not want to go into details out of respect for the children’s birth parents, Bakhtiar said.
Hart told Bakhtiar the children could never be left alone.
She told her Markis, the oldest, could never work.
Neither would any of the other children. Or have wives. Or kids.
She remembers Hart specifically said: “They would never grow up to have normal lives.”

Although the article doesn’t specify when Jennifer Hart disclosed this information to Bakhtiar, by the time the Harts moved to Washington, three of the adoptions had been final for 10 years and three had been final for 7 years. All six children had been in their care for most of their lives. And yet, Jennifer Hart, her friend Nusheen Bakhtiar, Molly Young, and, presumably The Oregonian’s editorial board were ready to absolve the Hart couple from responsibility for the children’s health and behavior based on an assumption that the children came to them as damaged goods.

Racism was certainly a factor. The Harts “seemed normal” to the other white adults interviewed for Young’s article.

But the damaged goods assumption is deeply embedded in both casual and professional discourse about nature versus nurture when it comes to adoption.

An October 9, 2016 article in The Atlantic, “The Adoption Paradox” is a good example: both Olga Khazan, the author of the article, and psychologist Nicholas Zill, the author of the study Khazan cites, seem unaware of how this assumption has influenced both their questions and their conclusions. In the study, kindergarten and first grade teachers were asked to rate their students on “problem behavior,” “positive learning behaviors,” and “early reading skills.” Zill later collated these results with information about whether the kids were adopted. The adopted kids scored “significantly worse” in all categories than kids who came from homes where they were raised by both birthparents. They also scored significantly worse in the first two categories than kids in single-parent, step-parent or foster homes.

Like many adult adoptees who responded in the comments, I was not favorably impressed by the article, or by Zill’s report on his research. I was angered that neither Khazan nor Zill questioned their equation of wealth and education with good parenting, and that they both ignored the possibility that the “significantly worse” scores resulted from problem behavior on the part of the adoptive parents or from the trauma of separation from original families and cultures.

Angered, but not surprised. The idea that adoptive parents are better than birth-parents is old, cooked up from the misogyny and class prejudice that fed the secretive American adoption industry of the mid-twentieth century, when single pregnant women were often forced to give up their babies. Slut-shaming was an important tool of that industry, and it is still a tool of both the domestic and international adoption industries. But as international and transracial adoptions by mostly white U.S. citizens have increased, racism has become a main ingredient in the recipe for demonizing birthparents and denying adoptees agency.

The Atlantic’s header reads “Kids who are adopted have richer, more involved parents. They also have more behavior and attention problems. Why?” What’s implied is that the birth families are poorer, less well-educated, and too just-scraping-by to put much effort into raising children. Coincidentally, or not, almost all the children in the photo appearing below the header — the problem children — are clearly children of color.

What if the question were framed differently: Why are outcomes for children adopted into stranger families worse than for children who grow up with their own people? In that case, we might be inspired to answer the question “Because they are being raised by strangers!” But this possibility does not occur to Khazan or Zill.

Psychologist Zill posits that “Possible reasons why [adoptive] family resources do not always produce great outcomes may be found in attachment theory, traumatic stress theory, and behavior genetics,” yet he glosses over the disruption of a child’s attachment to his or her first mother, and the trauma of separation from culture. Instead, he speculates that maternal bonds may have been neglected in the children’s original homes, and that “[s]ome adopted children experienced neglect, abuse, or other stressful events prior to their adoption.” And then he turns to genetics:

Because the educational attainments of adoptive parents are exceptionally high, the genetic endowment of most children available for adoption is likely to be less favorable to intellectual accomplishment than the endowments of their adoptive parents. No matter how much intellectual stimulation and encouragement the parents provide the child, they may not be able to overcome the limitations of the child’s genetic heritage.”

So, in Zill’s world, privilege = intelligence. Just as in the Hart’s world, their white privilege equaled trustworthiness.

The Harts adopted all six children from the Texas foster care system. Three of the children were siblings, removed from their home because of their parents’ drug abuse. An aunt of the children became involved in the case, and was awarded custody. But when social workers learned she had allowed the children’s mother to visit them, the children were taken away. Her fight to regain custody was unsuccessful. The Harts adopted all three children: Devonte, Sierra, and Jeremiah.

Numerous studies have documented the inherent racism of the American child protection network, just as numerous studies have documented the persistence of trauma when young children are separated from their families. And yet, removal instead of support was the Texas system’s solution for a family suffering from drug abuse. And their other solution, instead of relying on the children’s aunt, was the adoption of three Black children by a White couple, a couple who turned out to be monstrous abusers.

Anti-racism training and supervision should be an integral part of any child welfare organization, and family preservation, not family separation, should be the true goal of those organizations. Adoption is perilous for children; the least that our government can and must do is to insure children aren’t the victims of assumptions based on race, class, and gender prejudices.

Markis. Jeremiah. Abigail. Devonte. Hannah. Sierra. Say their names. May they, and their true families, find peace.