The women found dead with three of their six adopted children took in a foster child before they adopted two sets of siblings. And former friends who knew them at the time Sarah and Jennifer Hart fostered a teenage girl have recollections of the couple that diverge from the image of the family shaped by reports of alleged abuse and neglect.
The Seattle Times spoke to three people who knew Sarah and Jennifer Hart when they lived in Minnesota in the early 2000s. At the time, both women, who reportedly met in college, were in their early twenties and worked at a Herberger’s department store.
Former co-worker Kayla Schmitz told the Seattle Times that she believed both women to be good people who genuinely cared about providing disadvantaged children with a better life.
“They were passionate about trying to help,” Schmitz said. “The people I know wouldn’t starve their kids and lock them up.”
Schmitz told the newspaper that she remembered when Jennifer and Sarah took in a 15-year-old local girl to foster for a few months. The only issue she recalled the women talking about is the girl’s reluctance to do her homework.
“It was more of a ‘How do we help her?’ kind of thing,” Schmitz said.
Another co-worker remembered it somewhat differently.
Jordie Smith told the newspaper that she remembered the mothers seeming stressed out during the foster period, and telling people that the girl was not intelligent and sometimes ate food out of the garbage. Years later, the mothers would claim to police that one of their adopted daughters ate out of garbage cans, after the girl accused her mother of hitting her with a belt.
Smith also recalled an incident unrelated to the foster teen. She said that Jennifer Hart was upset about store mannequins with visible nipples, believing they promoted the exploitation of women’s bodies. Jennifer found a hacksaw in a toolroom and saw the nipples off the mannequin, Smith said, adding that no one reprimanded her, because the couple was so well-liked.
The ex-husband of a third former co-worker said he went camping with Jennifer and Sarah in Duluth while they were fostering the girl. He saw no signs of trouble.
“Everyone was treated equally,” Cortney Johnson told the Seattle Times. Johnson stayed friendly with the Harts for some time after that, even living with them briefly after he split from his wife. He moved out when the Harts adopted their first set of children.
It is unclear how long Jennifer and Sarah Hart fostered the girl. One of the friends said they believed it was only for a few months, while another said they thought it was two years. Though social services was notified of welfare concerns for the adopted children in the three states where the family lived, a representative of the Minnesota Department of Human Services told the Seattle Times that the women received no sanctions during the time they fostered the girl.
Eventually, the friends lost touch with the Harts, though Johnson said he was occasionally in contact with the women on social media.
“I don’t want to believe it,” Johnson said of the abuse allegations.
Schmitz, too, struggles to reconcile the women she knew with the reports that Jennifer and Sarah hurt and neglected their children for years, before three of those children died in an apparent murder-suicide, with Jennifer behind the wheel.
“What happened to them in the last few years?” she asked.
[Feature image: The Hart Family/Tristan Fortsch for KATU News via Associated Press]