Documents released Monday detail Oregon child-welfare officials' 2013 investigation of the Hart family. Officials found "insufficient evidence" to determine abuse and neglect, according to the documents.
When pizza went missing from the fridge of an acquaintance’s home, Jen Hart forced her six children to lie on an inflated mattress for five hours with sleeping masks over their faces and kept them from getting up, a caller concerned for the children’s welfare told officials in 2013.
The caller further reported that neither Jen Hart, nor her wife, Sarah Hart, showed the children any affection, and that anytime anyone confronted the Harts about their parenting approach or discussed food “they will just cut people out.”
The new allegations were contained in child-welfare documents released by the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) Monday. DHS released 42 pages about its involvement with the Hart family, as well as a letter explaining its decision making, after an appeal from The Seattle Times and other news organizations for public disclosure.
The documents detail allegations of abuse during the family’s time in Oregon and provide new information about what officials in both Minnesota and Oregon knew about the family’s history of alleged abuse. Despite concerns, officials in Oregon ultimately decided there was “insufficient” evidence of abuse and neglect in the case, according to the documents.
Six members of the Hart family, most recently of Woodland, Wash., have been confirmed dead after the SUV carrying the mothers and at least four of their children plunged last month from a 150-foot cliff in Northern California onto the oceanside rocks below. The mothers, both 38, died, as well as their adopted children Markis, 19, Abigail, 14, Jeremiah, 14, and Ciera (also known as Sierra), 12.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation lists Devonte, 15, and Hannah, 16, as missing, but authorities have said the two children might have been in the vehicle and swept out to sea. Jen, who was driving when the SUV plunged from the cliff, had a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit at the time of the wreck, authorities said. Sarah, along with two of the Hart children, had an allergy drug in their systems that can lead to drowsiness.
Child-abuse allegations trailed the Hart parents, who adopted two sets of siblings from Texas in 2006 and 2009, as the family moved from Minnesota to Oregon to Washington state.
The new records show that Child Protective Services (CPS) workers interviewed each Hart child individually as well as both Jen and Sarah. A doctor also examined the children. The children “made no disclosures of abuse or neglect” during interviews, according to the documents, but two people interviewed by CPS “expressed concern regarding the parents limiting food for the children and having witnessed what they believed was excessive discipline.”
Five of the six children fell “below their growth charts and appear small in stature,” but the doctor “expressed no concerns at this time,” according to a report, which covered contact with the family over the course of 2013.
The new records show Oregon officials also knew of extensive previous concerns about the Harts in Minnesota, dating to the years the family lived in the small town of Alexandria. A DHS employee contacted a Minnesota child-welfare worker and learned of six separate incidents and allegations – most of them not made public before Monday’s release of documents.
Among them was Sarah’s domestic-assault conviction, which followed what the Harts said was a 2010 spanking that “got out of control” and left Abigail with bruising on both sides of her body. Though Sarah took the blame, Abigail said at the time that Jen was the one who beat her. Reporters previously unearthed the incident from court and police records, but Minnesota child-welfare officials refused to discuss their interactions with the Harts, citing privacy laws. The Oregon documents released Monday, however, said that as a result of the incident, the couple agreed to “in-home therapy,” counseling, “and a variety of skill-building activities.”
Still, there were other incidents after that beating. They included a report from Hannah, who showed a dime-size purple bruise on her hand, that her “mom, Jen, hits her all the time.”
Hannah was also getting food from other kids at school and reported to the school nurse that she had not eaten that day. The child said Jen had gotten angry with her and shoved a banana and nuts into Hannah’s mouth.
A concerned party (it’s not clear who from the documents) contacted Sarah, who reportedly said: “She’s playing the food card, just give her water.”
After a while, according to the Minnesota worker who relayed the information, the school stopped calling Jen and Sarah about the kids taking food from others at school because the school officials didn’t want the children to be punished.
During an assessment in Minnesota, other Hart children also talked about being denied food as punishment, as well as being made to stay in bed all day, or in a corner for long periods. When the parents were confronted, they explained their children’s complaints by saying they were “high-risk” kids with food issues.
The problem is “these women (Jen and Sarah Hart) look normal,” a Minnesota child-welfare worker said, according to the Oregon documents. They talk about the children being adopted and having high needs, and then people tend to assign problems to the children, the worker said.
Shortly after the assessment in Minnesota, the Harts pulled the children out of school and eventually moved out of town.
Oregon’s child-welfare agency begun its assessment soon after they arrived in the Northwest. One of the reports released Monday noted that the Harts had been in Oregon for just three months.
When a CPS worker and police attempted a surprise visit at the Hart family’s home in West Linn, Ore. on July 19, 2013, they found two vehicles with Minnesota license plates in the driveway, but “no movement was observed in the home,” and no one answered the door after several knocks, according to the documents.
Three days later, Sarah called the CPS worker, who had left a card, and said they must have “just missed each other” as the family often travels and had gone to the coast to pick berries. She told the CPS official that Jen often travels with the children to music festivals, and that she would be out of the state with the children for some time, the documents say.
More than a month later, on Aug. 26, a CPS worker met with the family.
“As we entered the home, all six children were observed sitting at the kitchen table coloring,” according to the documents. The Harts were hesitant to allow officials to speak to the children individually, but ultimately agreed. For about three months, officials followed up with the Hart family and recommended that the children see a doctor.
At least two women in contact with the family were interviewed by CPS officials, but their names were redacted in the report. Both apparently told officials about concerns of abuse by the Hart parents.
Both also told officials that Markis Hart was a primary target of Jen, who reportedly told one of the women that Markis had attempted to kill her, but Devonte stepped in to save her.
Devonte, who was wearing a fedora hat when officials visited, volunteered to be interviewed first. He was the “most outgoing and talkative child,” according to the report. The concerned women told officials Devonte received more privilege and affection than his siblings from his parents.
During the visit from officials, both Jen and Sarah said they were vegetarians who tried to eat “whole, sustainable food.” Jen said she believed strongly in “home school and naturopathic medicine.” She said she meditated and practiced yoga daily. Sarah worked at Kohl’s, and the women received about $2,000 a month in adoption assistance, Jen told officials.
In fact, the state of Texas paid out nearly $277,000 to the women from 2009-2018, according to records from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
Jen said people did not understand the family’s lifestyle.
“The couple report they have been harrassed [sic], had their tires slashed, threats made and home egged while living in Minnesota. They believe their ‘lifestyle’ was misunderstood and moved due to having a stronger community supportive of naturopathic medicine, vegetarianism and homseschooling [sic] here in Oregon,” the report says.
Ultimately, CPS decided to list the case as “unable to determine,” which means there are indications of abuse or neglect, but not enough information to reasonably believe it occurred. The agency concluded the allegations had not crossed “the safety threshold criteria.” The doctor who evaluated the children would “continue to monitor their growth,” the report says.
When asked by a reporter about what follow-up Oregon officials took or how DHS concluded the Hart family had not crossed the “safety threshold criteria,” officials said they could not discuss the case specifically. However, in a letter that accompanied the documents, officials said the agency “had no further contact with the family and received no further reports about them” after its assessment was completed.
The agency has increased ongoing training to casework staff and has improved assessment procedures, the letter says.
“Case workers are trained to assess factors that contribute to a child’s vulnerability such as isolation. Children who have no outsiders observing them are considered highly vulnerable.”