The women found dead with three of their adopted children in an apparent murder-suicide last month appear to have misrepresented key aspects of their circumstances in order to promote an image of an idyllic, harmonious family life that may have been a cover for abuse and neglect. And according to a new report, signs of abuse were present on the same weekend that Devonte Hart, who is still missing after his mother allegedly drove the family’s SUV over a cliff, was recorded sobbing in the arms of a musician who invited the boy onstage for a “free hug.”
A former friend of Jennifer and Sarah Hart’s told The Oregonian that she witnessed an alarming incident while at the Beloved art and music festival in Tidewater, Oregon, in 2013. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the news outlet that she had spent the day with Devonte and his sister Sierra, and bought the children some food. When she and the two children returned to meet their parents with the food she had bought them, she said Sarah became enraged and grabbed Sierra by the wrist so violently that the girl was bruised.
“It left a mark around her wrist for days,” the friend said. “Red turned to blue and yellow. She was in trouble for not sharing with everyone and [she was] called selfish.”
The incident, coupled with reports that the Hart children complained on multiple occasions that their parents were withholding food, suggests that the children may have sometimes gone hungry. The same neighbors in Woodland, Washington, who finally called Child Protective Services after Devonte came to them several times asking for food told The Oregonian that when Hannah Hart came running to their house claiming her parents were abusing her, they believed she was about 7 years old, based on her size. She was actually 16, but the Harts reportedly told the DeKalbs she was 12.
The Hart mothers may have lied about another child’s age. Until late last week, police searching for the missing children — Devonte, Sierra, and Hannah — believed that Sierra was 12 years old, but she is actually 15. The Mendocino County Sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to an inquiry about how they originally calculated her age and how they corrected it. It is unclear if Sarah and Jennifer Hart kept the original birth certificates for their children, who were all adopted out of foster care in Texas at various ages. Abigail Hart appears to have been the youngest — about two years old — at the time of her adoption, and all of the other children would have been between the ages of four and seven.
Sarah and Jennifer Hart shared a narrative of their children’s troubled past and difficult behavior that appears to have been taken at face value by their friends and acquaintances — and even law enforcement. In an interview with police after one of their daughters accused them of hitting her with a belt, the parents said they had no idea where she got her bruises, but that she had fallen down the stairs days earlier. They also claimed the girl had “food issues” and would sometimes eat from garbage cans or steal snacks at school. The investigation closed with no charges.
Friends of the Harts have said in media interviews that Sarah and Jennifer frequently spoke of their children’s traumatic early childhoods, which purportedly included abuse, parental drug use, and food insecurity. When CrimeOnline asked one friend if the children themselves ever spoke of these troubles, she said they never did — only their mothers talked about their lives before they were adopted. That friend, who primarily saw the Harts at music festivals, said that she couldn’t recall ever being alone with any of the children; the mothers were always nearby. And the woman who witnessed Sarah allegedly hurt Sierra said that the girl later told her that she got in trouble for talking to people her mothers didn’t know well.
In 2014, a photo of Devonte Hart in a tearful embrace with a white police officer at a Black Lives Matter demonstration went viral. Devonte was wearing a “Free Hugs” sign that day, like he was at the Beloved festival the year before. The Harts were living in Oregon at the time, and Jennifer Hart reportedly complained that her family was receiving death threats because of the photo, and that they were afraid to go out for fear that Devonte would be recognized. But according to The Oregonian, there is no record of the Harts ever reporting any threats to the police. When they were living in Minnesota, they reported a dozen neighborhood complaints to law enforcement.
Jennifer and Sarah reportedly claimed the family was moving to Washington from Oregon to escape the attention brought by the photo. And when they first met the DeKalbs, the mothers reportedly told them they had pulled Devonte out of school because he had been bullied about the image. But none of the children had been enrolled in schools since the family lived in Minnesota. The parents took them out of school after Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault after he daughter showed her bruises at school. They homeschooled the children from then on, and did not properly register in either Oregon or Washington.
If none of the Hart children survived the crash that killed their parents and siblings Markis, 19; Jeremiah, 14; and Abigail, 14; we may never know the truth about their lives or why Jennifer Hart drove her family over a cliff in Northern California. Sierra, 15; Devonte; 15; and Hannah Hart, 16, are still missing. On Saturday, a vacationing couple spotted the body of what police say is an African-American female in the Pacific Ocean near the crash site. A medical examination is scheduled for Tuesday, and police said it could be weeks before they identify the body.
[Feature image: The Hart Family/Associated Press]