Three years before Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault, one of her and Jennifer Hart’s adopted children reported alleged abuse to the police. According to the San Antonio Express-News, that report was likely made when three children the Harts would later adopt from Texas were in their Minnesota home for a trial period.
One of the Hart children — the six-year-old child’s name and gender was redacted from police reports obtained by the San Antonio Express-News, but The Oregonian reports that it was Hannah Hart — told police in 2008 that Jennifer Hart had hit her with a belt, leaving bruises on her arms. The parents reportedly told police they didn’t know how the child got the bruises, but pointed out that she had fallen down the stairs a few days earlier. Police closed the case without filing any charges, though Sarah Hart would later plead guilty to misdemeanor domestic abuse in another case.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, the accusation was likely made during a trial visit from the three siblings the Harts would later adopt: Jeremiah, Sierra, and Devonte. The newspaper reports that the trial period, a requirement before the adoption could be finalized, would have been monitored by an agency in Minnesota, which would share its evaluation with officials in Texas before the adoption was approved. The newspaper reports that the 2008 abuse claim was reviewed by Douglas County Social Services in Minnesota, but it is not known if the agency shared the information with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (TDFC).
Douglas County Social Services declined a request for comment on the case from the San Antonio Express-News, citing privacy laws. In a statement to the newspaper, a TDFC spokesperson did not confirm or deny if Texas officials knew about the abuse claims before the adoption was finalized.
“A typical adoption includes trial visits, and at least a six-month placement with the adoptive parents. During that time, for out-of-state adoptions, the child welfare agency in that state would be monitoring the family and reporting back to us, and we in turn report it to judge overseeing the case. The judge reviews all the information on the adoptive parents and decides to approve, or deny, or ask for more information.”
California authorities believe that Jennifer Hart intentionally drove her family’s SUV over a cliff from the Pacific Coast Highway on March 26. Jennifer and Sarah Hart and three of their adopted children — Abigail, Markis, and Jeremiah — were found dead in or around the vehicle. Sierra, Hannah, and Devonte Hart remain missing. On Saturday, a vacationing couple reportedly spotted the body of a black female in the water near the crash site. It may be weeks before the body is identified.
In the two weeks since the apparent murder-suicide, allegations of abuse, neglect, and starvation have called into question whether Sarah and Jennifer Hart were fit to adopt the six children. But even in light of these reports, some who knew the family insist that the children were well cared-for.
Tyler Boggs is the president of the Good Neighbor Family Pantry in Oregon, which provides produce free of charge. The Harts were reportedly regular customers at the food pantry and also volunteered at the farm operated by Tyler and his wife Elizabeth.
Boggs told the The News Tribune that he had spent time with the children when their parents were not present, and they seemed content, and sincerely dedicated to social justice issues. The children enjoyed playing with the farm animals, he said, and none of them ever alerted him to possible abuse or neglect. The Hart children “had opportunities in abundance to reach out,” he told the newspaper.
But the Hart’s neighbors in Woodland, Washington, where they were last living, had a much different impression of the children’s circumstances. In multiple media interviews, Dana and Bruce DeKalb claimed that Hannah Hart ran to their home in the middle of the night about a year ago, claiming her parents had abused her, and begging them to drive her to Seattle. The DeKalbs said they believed the girl to be about seven years old, but she was likely 16. More recently, the DeKalbs said, Devonte Hart had come to their home a dozen times asking for food, claiming that his parents were withholding food as punishment. Eventually, the DeKalbs called Child Protective Services. Within a day of a CPS worker first knocking on the Hart’s door, the family was gone in their SUV. Three days after that, at least five members of the family were dead.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s office said in a press release on Monday that a search and rescue team would be resuming the water search for the missing Hart children after a storm temporarily suspended search and rescue efforts.
The search was expected to resume at 11 a.m. on Monday.
“A low tide is expected for this time of the day and should provide the best conditions for searchers,” the release stated.
[Feature image: The Hart Family/Associated Press]