What was originally reported as a fatal accident involving an SUV that plummeted into the ocean from a narrow and winding California cliff-side highway, has developed into a tragic and heartbreaking murder-suicide. The bodies of Jennifer and Sarah Hart were found in the SUV, while the bodies of three of their six adopted children were found near the wreckage. The toxicology report has indicated that Jennifer Hart, who was found in the driver’s seat, was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash. Sarah and two of the three children were reportedly intoxicated with an ingredient often found in Benadryl and OTC sleep medication. This mysterious murder-suicide is preceded in death by 10 years of child abuse claims that span across three states.
On March 26, the two women were found dead in their SUV at the base of the cliff-side with three of their adopted children, Markis, age 19, Abigail, age 14, and Jeremiah, age 14. Originally, California Highway patrol believed all the children were in the vehicle at the time of the wreck. A fourth body was recovered weeks after the crash and the DNA report has confirmed the body to be of Sierra Hart.The other two children who are missing are Devonte, age 15, and Hannah, age 16. After several weeks, the FBI has officially released missing person alerts for Devonte and Hannah.
Capt. Greg Baarts of the California Highway Patrol has said that authorities believe that “the crash was intentional” and have further stated they believe that a “felony was committed.” Meanwhile, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office has admitted that this is an ongoing investigation that spans across several counties and involves several agencies. There were no skid marks or any indication of a struggle at the scene of the wreck. There has been conflicting reports regarding the data obtained from the vehicles black box. The black box may have been damaged in the accident but was recovered from the wreckage. The preliminary data showed that the SUV was “pinned” at 90 MPH prior to driving off the 75 ft. cliff side, but California Highway Patrol stated that this was not conclusive data. More recent news articles suggest that the vehicle was driving between 20 and 30 MPH after it came to a brief stop and then proceeded to drive off the cliff.
In the weeks leading up to the fatal crash, the Hart family home was unsuccessfully visited by CPS. On the final visit, the CPS worker called 911 to report her concerns about being unable to get the family to open the door. The 911 call can be heard on this KPTV news clip.
The CPS visits stemmed from reports filed by concerned neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Dekalb, who were worried after Devonte Hart had repeatedly come to their house. Devonte asked for food, and stated that his adopted parents were punishing him and his siblings by withholding food. The Dekalbs have stated that Devonte came over to their house as many as three times a day. Devonte had asked for nonperishable foods like peanut butter and tortillas; he even requested that the Dekalbs hide a box of food for him near a shared fence line. Devonte eventually asked specifically that the Dekalbs contact the authorities to help him and his siblings. The Dekalbs claim that the Hart family fled soon after a CPS worker came to the property and was unable to get anyone to answer the door.
An interview with Mr. and Mrs. DeKalb regarding Devonte and his siblings can be watched here:
The DeKalbs also claim that in mid to late 2017, Hannah Hart came to their house around 1 a.m. after allegedly jumping out of a two-story window. Hannah arrived wrapped in a blanket after she ran through briar bushes to escape her adopted parents. The DeKalbs say that Hannah begged them to protect her from her adopted family because they were “punishing and abusing her.” The Dekalbs further state that Hannah hid and crouched down to prevent the family from finding her. Hannah also pleaded not be returned to the Hart Family and asked them to let her go to Seattle. Soon after Hannah arrived at the Dekalbs, Jennifer and Sarah, along with the other children, began searching for Hannah. They were seen carrying flashlights and calling her name. The family soon approached the neighbor’s house. Jennifer and Sarah found Hannah and firmly told the child to apologize for her actions. The two women forced Hannah to explain to the neighbors that “she had had a rough week” and that “her cat died.” Strangely, the Dekalbs state that all of the children seemed “robotic” and they expressed that the entire experience was “surreal.”
The story becomes even more bizarre when the DeKalbs say that they thought the small-framed girl was maybe 7 or 8 years old and explained that she was missing two front teeth. The DeKalbs insist that Sarah and Jennifer lied about Hannah’s age, stating she was 12 years old at the time. The Dekalbs were shocked to hear the age of the child in relation to her immature body size. It is estimated that Hannah was actually 15 or 16 at the time of this incident. The Dekalbs have also stated that Sarah and Jennifer told “a story” about how Hannah lost her two teeth. According to the Hart’s, Hannah didn’t want to get her two teeth replaced. This narrative regarding Hannah’s missing teeth and her alleged desire not to get her two front teeth replaced has been repeated by many of the people who claim to have been close with the Hart family.
Photo evidence shows that Hannah Hart lost her two front teeth in 2012. Nearly all of the pictures after 2012 show a seemingly shy and timid, small-framed child who does not show her teeth when smiling. There are only a few photos from the 2012/2013 era that show Hannah’s toothless smile. It is currently unknown if Hannah Hart ever received proper dental care after this traumatic injury. A 30 page DHS report from 2013 indicates that Hannah was reported as underweight and did not have replacement teeth. According to the documents, Hannah informed the social worker that she would have to wait until she was 18 to get permanent dental implants. It is important to note that the social worker who made the report believed that the children had been coached by the adopted parents on how to answer questions and further thought that the children had rehearsed prior to the interview. Police have reportedly been unable to find any dental records for the children.
Despite the Dekalbs discomfort and confusion by the incident involving Hannah, they decided not to call 911. The next day the Dekalbs allegedly went over to the Hart’s house and determined that there was no reason for them to get involved. It wasn’t until November 18, 2017, that the incident involving Hannah was ever reported. Steve Frkovich, who is the father of Dana Dekalb, called 911 after he became concerned about the story of Hannah Hart showing up at their home late at night. This Seattle times article reported that the police did not fully investigate this call.
There are several other reports of child abuse surrounding the Hart Family, including a 2011 conviction for Sarah Hart regarding reports of domestic violence and malicious abuse of a child. Sarah plead guilty to lesser charges. It is important to note in the three years prior to Sarah Hart pleading guilty to domestic violence, one of their adopted children reported to the police that they had been abused. The child claimed to be hit with a belt across the arm which left a bruise, and the child also reported that food was withheld from her as punishment. Both Sarah and Jennifer Hart told police that they were unaware of how the child became bruised but insisted that the child fell down the stairs earlier in the week. The police closed the case without filing any charges or contacting CPS/DHS agencies.
According to the timeline provided by OregonLive, it is likely that this incident occurred during the probationary trial period prior to adopting the final 3 siblings (Devonte, Sierra, Jeremiah) from Harris County, TX. The article goes on to explain that the trial period is a requirement prior to finalizing adoption. The Hart family should have been monitored by an agency within the state of Minnesota. The agency would have been required to share its evaluation reports (including child abuse reports/claims) with the state of Texas prior to approving the adoption. Information found within the article states that the abuse report regarding the bruising on the child’s arm from 2008 was reviewed by Douglas County Social Services in Minnesota, but it is not currently known if the agency shared any information regarding the abuse report with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
In 2011 Sarah Hart plead guilty to abuse charges after she stated that she let “ anger get the best of her.” During the 2013 DHS interview, Sarah insisted that the incident became “out of control” but remained mostly quiet and withdrawn during the interview. The report indicates that Sarah allegedly made Abigail lay over the bathtub and punished the child for “lying” about having a penny in her pocket. The incident left severe bruising on the Abigail’s stomach and back which lead to a school teacher filing a CPS report. Abigail told her teacher that she had “owies” on her stomach which promoted the teacher to ask for permission to look at the child’s stomach which revealed the bruising. A disturbing fact regarding this incident is that Abigail insisted that it was Jennifer who hit the her with a closed fist, not Sarah. Abigail also stated that Jennifer put two hands around her throat and put her head under cold water. Abigail hit her head during this attack. Abigail also reported that Jennifer hit her with a closed fist, and also denied the child food as punishment.
Many news agencies have since reported that there are multiple CPS reports regarding the Hart children being mistreated, emotionally abused, and withheld food as punishment. There are also at least four 911 calls from concerned citizens and mandated reporters who expressed serious concern for the children. The details of this story paint a very bleak picture of how several agencies continued to let these 6 children slip through the cracks of the failing CPS system.
A former friend of the Hart family has shared her experiences of reporting the Hart family to CPS in an interviewed with Oregon Live. Alexandra Argyropoulos stated that the Hart family stayed with her for nearly two weeks. During this time, she began to notice what she considered to be “emotional abuse” and “using food as a punishment.” She has also stated that the Hart family household was highly regimented and run like a “boot camp.” Argyropoulos contacted CPS multiple times to express her concerns for the family. The CPS worker who was investigating the claims of Argyropoulos stated that they felt that the children had been coached by the parents and that their answers were rehearsed. The CPS investigator concluded the reports without finding any concrete evidence of abuse. Argyropoulos has made public statements since the details of this tragedy have emerged. She has also created a petition to help create a National Child Abuse Registry in hopes of changing the ineffective child abuse reporting system.
Other facts have emerged regarding the sibling adoption from Harris County, Texas. Court dockets show that a biologically related aunt was fighting for custody during the adoption process. The details of the case show that the children were removed from the aunt’s custody after her daughter allowed the children to have unsupervised contact with their biological mother. The aunt obtained an attorney and fought to regain custody of the children but ultimately she was unable to win the legal battle due to missing the court hearings. The biological aunt maintains that the courts made massive errors in properly filing the court dockets and misinformed her of the proper court date which she missed the custody hearings. According to KATU the attorney remembered this specific case because she felt that the children should have been returned to the aunt. The former attorney recognized the children’s’ faces from the news report after the car wreck and reached out to the biological family. This aspect of the case seems to expose more failings within the CPS and judicial system. The adoption agency who handled Devonte, Seirra, and Jeremiah’s case is no longer in operation and all adoption records have been sealed.
The Hart family frequently attended music festivals and political protests. There are several videos and pictures that have been uploaded of the children from these music festivals and political gatherings. In fact, Devonte Hart’s image went viral in 2014 after photos of him crying while hugging a police officer and holding a “Free Hugs” sign during a protest in Portland,Or. The protest occurred after the courts Ferguson, MO decision regarding the police shooting involvong Mike Brown. CNN reported that the image of Devonte Hart crying was “the picture we needed to see.” The image was later described as being “The Hug Shared Around The World.” Meanwhile, the online community began questioning the nature of the photos. Some even went so far as to question if the images were staged.
In this video link there is discussion of the photographic documentation that transpired the night that the photo of the “hug shared around the world” was taken. In the images, Devonte Hart can be seen in front of his guardian with a distressed expression on his face prior to the hug. The next image shows Devonte approaching the police officer while a handful of photographers focus their cameras to take a shot of him hugging the officer. One of Devonte’s guardians can be seen kneeling down to capture the shot. The video also has commentary from the officer that Devonte hugged, which gives us more insight into the situation
In an article from OregonLive, the photo-blogger Intisar Abioto, who publishes on http://theblackportlanders.com, stated that she was not comfortable taking a picture of the “Hug Shared Around The World” in part because she “felt the trauma she saw in Devonte’s tears mirrored the trauma she felt after the Ferguson decision.” She further discussed the picture and said, “I think people clung to this image for solace and healing, which in itself isn’t a bad thing, but when I saw that picture, I didn’t feel those feelings at all.” Abioto went on to discuss her thoughts on people questioning the authenticity of the images. “I’ve seen people say the photograph is a lie. It’s not a lie. The photograph doesn’t lie. The photograph is a photograph. It’s a rendering of reality that has flaws.”
Jennifer Hart later made a post on facebook regarding the famous photo that was quoted as:
“We hit the streets (Nov. 25) with the intention of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (ALL) people that they matter in this world. … I noticed Devonte was struggling. Tears. He wouldn’t speak. He was inconsolable. My son has a heart of a gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police and people that don’t understand the complexity of racism that is prevalent in our society. …It was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother. He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. Tears rushing from his eyes and soaking his sweater, he gazed upon them not knowing how they would react. After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. … There were generic questions about his favorite subject and what he liked to do in the summer, but the one that mattered hit straight to the heart. He asked Devonte why he was crying. His response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic (to Devonte), “Yes. *sigh* I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” The officer then asked if he could have one of his hugs.”
Devonte’ Hart was often seen caring a “free hugs” sign and admitted to being “inspired” by Ken Nwadike, the creator of the Free Hugs Project. Ken Nwadike reached out to the Hart family after Devonte’s photo went viral. He wanted to connect with Devonte and hoped to have the chance to be a strong and positive black male role model in his life. However, Jennifer and Sarah responded to Mr. Nwadike’s requests and told him that they were not interested in letting Devonte meet him because they wanted their children to have a more “private” upbringing. The statements from the Harts regarding wanting the children to have a private life creates contradiction with the very public lifestyle the Hart family participated in, which included being featured in music videos and speaking at festivals. Nwadike has since made a very moving video on FB where he shares his personal experience with the Hart family. Nwadike has also expressed concern for Devonte being allowed to promote his free hugs movement at dangerous police protests. In the video, Nwadike discusses his personal struggle with the situation and talks about the challenge of not knowing if there is any authenticity within the children’s smiles. He wonders if there was something more sinister behind the images of Devonte crying. He ends his video by asking the painful question, “How can we ever help those who do not ask for help?”
A sad truth is that it appears that the Hart Children repeatedly asked for help yet they were continually failed by their neighbors, CPS workers, and the police.
Many people have defended the #HartTribe by saying that they wanted to have a more private life after receiving harassment from the viral image of Devonte; however, there are countless conflicting images that clearly show the Hart children were not exposed to a “private” or “normal” upbringing. The children are often seen on stage at concerts and performing in music videos for well known artists. The children were also frequently seen at political protests and gatherings.
It does appear that the Hart children’s home life was isolated as many neighbors have reported to rarely seeing any of the children outside playing. The Hart children were homeschooled and there are very few images that show the Hart Children playing with any friends or kids their own age. There have not been any images made available to the public that show the Hart Children participating in any kid/teen friendly hobbies or events. Furthermore, there has not been a diploma or proof of education certificate made for Markis Hart (age 19) who was allegedly homeschooled. Multiple images depict the children doing mature, adult related tasks like meditating (although the expression on Hannah’s face while she meditates seems more annoyed than relaxed) while other images show the boys posing in photo shoots with what appears to be “mock” cocktails.
Other bizarre and unusual aspects of this case involve the Hart Family connection with the music festival scene.The Hart Children were often photographed with well known and famous musicians. The family even owned a guitar that had been signed by a famous music artist. During Thanksgiving 2012 the children performed a song for the artist Nahko Bear where they sing one of Nahko’s songs titled “We Are So Provided For.” In the video a guitar signed by the artist can be seen. Also, the children were frequently photographed while dancing at the front stage of concerts. The family was even featured in this music video by a Portland,OR, band called Acoustic Minds. It is currently unknown if the children were ever compensated for being featured in the music video.
One person who chose to remain anonymous shared their insight with Oregon Live regarding their experiences with the Hart family while at a music festival. This individual discussed an incident that transpired after they bought food for one of the children. According to the OregonLive report, Sarah Hart became irritated and angry that the child had eaten food without “sharing” and called the child “selfish.” Sarah also allegedly grabbed the child’s wrist so aggressively it left a bruise that lingered for days. The child later told the adult who bought her the food that she would likely be grounded for the incident and admitted that she was often punished for speaking to people her parents didn’t know well. Sarah and Jennifer were further described as being “totally incapable of handling normal child behavior.”
Some of the music festivals that the Hart family attended are reported as being “kid friendly.” Devonte Hart had been involved in fundraising for charity with “Project Earth” thru a charity music festival involving a band called WookieFoot. There are a few images that show Devonte speaking at this festival although no audio recording has been found. Reports that Devonte helped raise thousands of dollars for charity have been published.
It is important to note that not all of the music festivals the Hart’s attended were considered kid friendly. One particular event known as “Shangra Lai” has been compared to a new-age rave and has had multiple drug arrests associated with the festival. The children can be seen appearing on stage at the Shanga Lai festival as well as in several photographs.
In a questionable video from the music festival Beloved, Devonte Hart is seen dressed as in a zebra print costume, where he climbs onto the stage with musical artist Xavier Rudd. Devonte hugs Xavier Rudd and cries inconsolably while people in the audience nervously laugh and applaud. Xavier Rudd continues to chant and play music while also crying with the child. The ending shot of the video pans across to the audience, which appears to be mostly comprised of older white adults.
His adopted mother eventually made this public statement regarding the incident and described it as a moment of “raw love” and further uploaded a card that Devonte’ allegedly made for Xavier Rudd.
Numerous POC have spoken out about their concerns regarding the video of Devonte crying on stage in front of a crowd of mostly white peers. We may never know the true source of Devonte’s emotional crying. Other more concerning images of Devonte laying on top of a white man in front of a crowd of white onlookers have been publicly dissected and analyzed. The underlying concern is the apparent isolation and alienation that POC believe Devonte may have been experiencing at these events.
Many POC and users from within the #BlackTwitter community have spoken out about the confusing and questionable images of the Hart children. Several concerned internet citizens want to discuss the very real racial aspects of this case, a stance that has put white privilege under the microscope. Meanwhile, other activists have raised serious questions about why two liberal and seemingly progressive white lesbians were allowed to adopt 6 black children. These women were allowed to move multiple times across state lines despite abuse reports being filed in every state in which they took residency. In what has been described in this article as “WhiteGaze “ many have implicated CPS, law enforcement, and the “bliss seeking” music community of being blinded by “WhiteGaze.” The whitegaze syndrome is essentially encompassed by white privilege, white savior-ism, and racial biases that run rampant within our world. The large majority of commentators from within the POC community believe that racial bias has prevented people from seeing the painful truth behind the Hart children’s beautiful smiles.
Those that continue to defend the Hart Family insist that the children always had fun at the festivals and events. Many people who defend the Hart Family seemingly ignore the reality that the family was essentially famous within the music scene and even had their own hashtag #HartTribe.” It appears that the Hart family had a very public lifestyle within this community; only those who experienced close one-on-one contact with the family were exposed to the abusive nature within the family unit.
One thing that cannot be debated about the photographs and video footage that have been publicly shared, is the very small and short stature of all of the children. The children were often photographed in their underwear with their ribs and clavicle bones protruding. One article even described the children as appearing to be modern day “starving African children.” Only a thorough autopsy report would be able to provide conclusive information regarding whether or not the children were malnourished, which may have contributed to delayed growth and development.
It is my deepest hope that Devonte and Hannah Hart will be miraculously found alive and well, which would allow for this tragic story to have somewhat of a conclusion. Until then, we are left with the provable and undeniable facts of this case. The Hart Family story involves a twisted murder-suicide, a broken and failing CPS system, numerous reports of child abuse along with tales of cruel punishments including with-holding food. Tied together with the involvement of an unsuspecting “free love” music community, a major aspect of this family’s public life. Countless posed and staged photographs show the Hart children’s beautiful smiles and their hauntingly skinny bodies.
We may never know the complete truth about the Hart Family but it is my hope that this story will help create dialog for discussing the major failures that have contributed to the Hart family tragedy. There is currently no national child abuse registry available. If this actually existed, it could have prevented Sarah and Jennifer Hart from moving the children across state lines to avoid the repercussions of abuse claims.
I feel it best to end this article by re-quoting the photo blogger Intisar Abito who spoke about her experiences with Devonte Hart and talked about how she painfully resonated with the trauma expressed in his cries.
“I’ve seen people say the photograph is a lie. It’s not a lie. The photograph doesn’t lie. The photograph is a photograph. It’s a rendering of reality that has flaws.”
These statements seem to be even more relevant and powerful now in light of the abuse allegations surrounding the family. In conclusion, I will share this image of the family which I have personally struggled with. In the photograph the 6 beautiful children are seen smiling with their adopted parents, but upon deeper inspection, we see Devonte’s smile accompanied by what seems like an angry closed fist. Ultimately, we all see what we want to see. Our own personal cognitive biases will always influence how we render reality.