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Years of abuse allegations gathered on Oregon parents who drove over ocean cliff with kids


Six incidents were alleged against Jennifer and Sarah Hart when they lived in Minnesota with their 6 adopted children. 

By Paul Walsh Star Tribune

FILE - This March 20, 2016, file photo shows Hart family of Woodland, Wash., at a Bernie Sanders rally in Vancouver, Wash. Oregon child welfare officials knew the family in an SUV that plunged off a California cliff had faced a child abuse investigation in another state when it looked into allegations in 2013, according to documents released Monday, April 23, 2018. (Tristan Fortsch/KATU News via AP, File)

Newly released state documents from Minnesota and Oregon reveal years of food deprivation and other allegations of troubling punishment by the parents of six children in the family that plummeted down a northern California cliff in the SUV into the ocean.

The latest details of the parenting practices of Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who adopted their six children while living in western Minnesota, surfaced this week in 42 pages of investigative documents released after a public records appeal by the Oregonian/OregonLive and other news organizations. While the bodies of the parents and four children have been recovered, the FBI now considers the two children not yet found as missing and says they possibly were not in the vehicle when it crashed nearly one month ago.

The crash off the Mendocino County coast on March 26 with a drunken Jennifer Hart behind the wheel happened three days after authorities in Washington state — where the family moved last year from Oregon — opened an investigation following allegations that the children were neglected, abused and denied sufficient food. One Facebook photo obtained by the Oregonian shows some of the children wearing little clothing on their bony frames.

The new documents disclose that Oregon investigators collected a substantial amount of information about how the 38-year-old parents treated their children in Minnesota and later when the family moved to West Linn, Ore.

The women countered that they were under scrutiny for “being a vegetarian lesbian couple who married and adopted high-risk abused children,” according to the Oregon investigation. They told investigators that they were harassed in Minnesota by people who slashed their vehicle tires, made threats and egged their home. They moved to Oregon in early 2013 to better fit in.

Among the information collected from Minnesota was a criminal case filed in 2010 against Sarah Hart, when the family lived in Alexandria. Abigail Hart was 6 years old when she told a teacher at Woodland School that she had “owies” from when “Mom hit me,” according to the criminal complaint. The teacher lifted the girl’s shirt and saw bruises on the child’s chest and back, the charges continued.

Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault. Her 90-day jail sentence in April 2011 was stayed, and she served a year’s probation.

However, that case was no isolated incident of alleged child abuse in Minnesota by the Harts. In two months’ time in late 2010 and early 2011, six additional allegations were filed with Child Protective Services. They said Abigail Hart was spotted going through garbage at school and was taking other students’ food, and Jennifer Hart was accused of hitting Abigail’s head against a wall.

Hannah Hart had a small bruise on her hand from being hit by Jennifer Hart for lying, and Jennifer was hitting Hannah “all the time.” Children in Hannah’s class were giving the girl food, and she was approaching fellow students for something to eat.

Asked by a Minnesota investigator about discipline in the home, “the children talked about not getting supper, getting sent to bed without food, being made to stay in bed all day, or stand in the corner for a long time.”

Others who knew the Harts told Oregon investigators that they saw Jennifer Hart forcing “the children to lay on the ground in a dark room for 4 to 7 hours, grabbing and dragging the children ... and not allowing anyone to say Happy Birthday to Markis,” the case file noted.

When authorities confronted the Harts, they said the children are “high risk,” adopted and had “food issues.” Soon after, the children were pulled from their schools and taught at home.

Child protection investigators in Oregon opened their case in July 2013 after a tipster said the children, ages 8 to 15 at the time, “appear undernourished,” one state Department of Human Services document read.

Later that year, growth charts provided to investigators showed all but one of the children were far behind for height and weight, though the doctor said there were no concerns for any of the children despite their size.

But the agency closed the Oregon case after five months concluding that they were “unable to determine” whether there was abuse in the home, despite numerous indications of abuse or neglect. While the children spoke of firm discipline, they denied being abused.

Devonte Hart’s famous photo

The bodies of the couple along with children Markis Hart, 19; Jeremiah Hart, 14, and Abigail Hart, 14, and Sierra, 12, have been recovered. There has been no sign of Hannah, 16; Devonte, 15, either in the ocean or elsewhere.

“The missing children could currently be traveling together and may have last been seen with the family members” in the SUV, which the FBI noted had tinted windows. As recently as last week, the FBI made another plea to the public for any leads on where the two teens might be.

The family gained attention after Devonte Hart was photographed during a 2014 protest in Portland, Ore., over a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black man, in Ferguson, Mo. The boy, holding a “Free Hugs” sign, stood crying. In another widely shared photo, a Portland officer and the boy embraced.

Oregon’s investigators spoke with two people who knew the Harts, and they described Devonte as the favored child who received more affection and privilege than his siblings. Jennifer Hart “will talk to Devonte but not the other children unless she is telling them not to do something,” the Oregon case file read.

Another person who knew the family reported that Jennifer Hart liked to “parade” the children around at music festivals and staged them for photographs but then gave them little attention otherwise. Sarah Hart also was described in the documents as being “very cold to the children.”

The Harts moved north 45 miles from West Linn, just south of Portland, to Woodland, Wash., in the spring of last year, saying they were weary of the media coverage.

Further insight into the family

The newly released files from Oregon also disclose more about the background of the couple as well as how they came to adopt their children:

• The six were comprised of two groups of three biological siblings: Markis, Hannah and Abigail; Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra. All were living in Texas at the time they were adopted.

• Jennifer Hart was from Huron, S.D., and Sarah Gengler, from Ortonville, Minn. They met while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., and were married in Connecticut in 2009.

• A friend asked the Harts to be foster parents to a teenager, but the placement “didn’t work out very long,” in part because the girl used a wire hanger.

• Sarah Hart, who earned a teaching degree, worked for a Kohl’s department store in Beaverton, Ore. Jennifer Hart did not have a job. Otherwise, the family was receiving about $2,000 a month in unspecified “adoption assistance.”

Paul Walsh is a general assignment reporter at the Star Tribune. He wants your news tips, especially in and near Minnesota.

paul.walsh@startribune.com 612-673-4482 walshpj

2018 Apr 25