The picture of Jen and Sarah Hart, who drove off a California cliff with at least some of their kids, gets more complicated as friends recall a Minnesota teen they fostered. The women seemed caring and outgoing. “What happened to them in the last few years?” one friend asked.
When Sarah and Jen Hart drove off a cliff in California last month, they left a lot of questions about their treatment of six adopted children, at least some of whom died with them. Yet, they weren’t the only kids the couple took care of over the years.
The Harts fostered a teenage girl in the mid-2000s, according to three friends who knew them in Minnesota, where the couple lived before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services confirmed the Harts had a foster-care license for two years beginning in April 2005. They were in their mid-20s then, a few years out of college.
Their Minnesota friends remember the couple talking about challenges with the teen they were fostering. But the overall picture they give is of a caring, friendly and outdoorsy couple during this part of their lives.
“They were passionate about trying to help” and being good people. “And they were,” said Kayla Schmitz, who got to know the Harts when all of them were working at Herberger’s department store in Alexandria, Minnesota. “The people I know wouldn’t starve their kids and lock them up.”
She’s referring to allegations of abuse that dogged the Harts — including depriving their adopted children of food, and a harsh spanking that resulted in a 2011 domestic-assault conviction for Sarah — as well as reports from neighbors suggesting the family lived an isolated life outside of the music festivals and rallies they attended.
Schmitz wondered, “What happened to them in the last few years?”
The friends’ recollections add to the mystery that surrounds the family and a tragedy that may or may not have been intentional. California authorities have suggested their drive over the cliff was deliberate, based on software from the Harts’ family SUV, and the lack of skid marks at the cliff.
Sarah and Jen’s Minnesota friends said both women worked at Herberger’s in the early 2000s. Sarah was one of a handful of managers there. Jen was working in the Juniors department.
A lot of people didn’t know they were a couple, but with those who did, they talked about adopting children.
“We don’t really have the parts to get it done,” Schmitz remembered Jen joking in reference to having biological children. And there were so many kids who needed homes, Jen said, according to Schmitz.
She recalled the couple first signed up to foster children.
As Schmitz remembered it, the teen who came to them was a local girl, around 15, who was placed there temporarily.
The only frustration she remembered the couple voicing was about the teen neither doing homework nor listening to them on the subject. “It was more of a ‘How do we help her?’ kind of thing,” Schmitz said.
Jordie Smith, who also worked at Herberger’s then, said she heard more, and that the women seemed stressed. The girl would eat garbage out of the trash and wasn’t very smart, one of them told her.
One day, the couple brought the teen to the makeup counter where Smith gave her a makeover. “I feel like they were trying to get her out of her shell a little,” Smith said.
She said the girl wasn’t into it, and Jen and Sarah watched with their arms crossed, seemingly unsympathetic.
Cortney Johnson, whose ex-wife worked at Herberger’s, went camping with Sarah, Jen and their foster child one summer near Duluth, on Lake Superior. Nothing struck him as amiss. “Everyone was treated equally,” he said.
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The Minnesota Department of Human Services said the Harts had no sanctions during the time they were fostering. She referred further inquiries to the local county’s social-services department. A county official did not return messages seeking comment.
The Harts’ three friends couldn’t remember how long the foster girl stayed with the Harts. Schmitz believed it was a few months, Johnson a couple of years.
Both stayed in touch afterward. Johnson, who lived with the Harts for a while after he got divorced, said he drove Jen and Sarah to the airport when they flew to Texas to pick up the first of two sets of siblings they adopted. “They were so excited,” he said.
He moved out of the Harts’ home then to let them get on with family life, but he would go over to dinner, he said. “We all sat around the table. Everyone cleared the dishes when they were done.”
“I don’t want to believe it,” he said of the abuse allegations that later surfaced.
He acknowledged Sarah’s domestic-assault conviction, which she told Alexandria police resulted from a spanking that got out of control. (The girl had said Jen hit her, but the couple said it was Sarah.)
“That can happen,” Johnson said. “Your anger gets the best of you. You don’t realize your own strength.”
Said Schmitz: “I’m not going to pass judgment,” noting that most people she knows spank their children.
“They can spank, but not to the point of bruising,” said retired-Detective Sgt. Larry Dailey in a phone interview this week, relating his investigation of the case.
Fallen out of touch
Other abuse allegations, made by neighbors, followed the couple after they moved to West Linn, Oregon, and then to Woodland, near Vancouver, Wash., with their six children.
Smith, Schmitz and Johnson had mostly fallen out of touch with the couple by then, though Johnson said he sometimes texted and kept up with their Facebook pages. To Schmitz, it seemed that the couple had cut ties with many of the people they used to know.
Unsure what to believe about the allegations, they spoke about the women they knew.
Schmitz, who was 18 when she met them, remembered Jen and Sarah always being willing to listen, and surprising her and her roommate on Christmas with a kitten.
Smith recalled a time that Jen, unhappy with the way female mannequins at Herberger’s had visible nipples because she believed it fed into society’s exploitation of women’s bodies, found a hacksaw from the store’s toolroom and sawed all the nipples off.
No one at the store reprimanded Jen, Smith remembered. Jen and Sarah “were really loved at that store,” Smith said.
And Johnson remembered Jen’s passion for photography and both women’s love of hiking and camping. “They were awesome, outgoing, always laughing,” he said.
Did they see only one side of the Harts, or did the couple change? There’s still a lot to learn.