On March 26, an SUV filled carrying a family plunged off a cliff. The car belonged to Jennifer and Sarah Hart. Their bodies, and those of three of their children, were found on the scene. Three children are still missing although another body found in the ocean may be one of the children. Initial coverage focused on the fact that the family consisted of two white mothers and six adopted black children. The family had had an earlier brush with fame when one of the boys was in a viral photograph hugging a police officer at a Ferguson protest.
As the days passed, disturbing details came to light. Days before the crash, Washington Child Protective Services (CPS) had opened an investigation of the family after a neighbor called the child abuse hotline. We eventually learned the family had a history of abuse reports. Then we learned that the crash appeared intentional, and probably triggered by the CPS report.
With each new discovery, we learned of another systemic failure to protect these vulnerable children. The Hart case brings together several common themes found in many cases of severe child maltreatment. Each of these themes highlights a different gap in the system that is supposed to protect our children.
Adoption: All six Hart children were adopted from foster care in Texas: three in 2006 and the next three in 2009. It is not that being adopted makes children more likely to be abused. Indeed, one Dutch study indicated adopted children were less likely to be abused than children growing up in their biological families. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that adopted children are overrepresented among children who are severely abused or neglected, at least in homeschool settings. Many of these cases involve common elements, including locking children up in a room, withholding food, and isolating the child by homeschooling or other means, all of which were present in this case. One possible explanation for this pattern focuses on the traumatic backgrounds of many adoptive children, which may lead to behaviors that adoptive parents are not prepared to deal with. While they may start out with good intentions, they end up resorting to punitive and eventually abusive parenting to control the undesired behaviors.
Writer Stacey Patton has described a “white savior attitude” among some white parents who adopt black children from the U.S. or abroad. These parents “wear their transracial adoption as a status symbol.” These adoptive parents often post on social media about their extraordinary efforts to deal with their children’s emotional and intellectual challenges that they attribute to the deficiencies of their birth parents.” The Harts fit this pattern. According to the Oregonian, the Harts often said their children suffered a multitude of early childhood behavioral and developmental issues that made parenting a challenge. Jennifer Hart also polished her image as an ideal mom who gave her underprivileged children a beautiful life. She frequently posted on Facebook portraying an idyllic family life full of trips, celebrations, community service, and events like the Ferguson rally in which Devonte sported a sign offering “Free Hugs.” When adoption is all about the parents, and the children become part of their public image, a bad outcome is not surprising.
There is reason for concern about the vetting process the Harts received when adopting the children. The Hart kids were among the 300 to 400 Texas children adopted each year by out of state foster parents, often because they are harder to place because they are in large sibling groups or have special needs. The Harts would have been vetted by a Minnesota agency, which would have submitted their home study to Texas for approval. After a child visit, the children would have probably moved in with the Harts for a six-month trial period. A Texas agency spokesman told the San Antonio Express-News that during the trial period for out-of-state adoptions, the out-of-state agency would be monitoring the family and reporting back to Texas. But in September 2008, probably during the trial period for the second adoption, Hannah Hart was asked about a bruise in her arm. She reported that her mother hit her with a belt. Police and social services interviewed the mothers, who denied the beating and said she had fallen down the stairs. Nevertheless, the second adoption went through. We need to know whether Texas was informed of this investigation.
Once the adoption was finalized, there was nobody monitoring the Hart children, even though Texas continued to pay for their care. The San Antonio Express-News reports that Jennifer Hart received nearly $1,900 per month in adoption subsidies from the State of Texas. The paper estimates that she collected a total of $270,000 from the state for caring for the six children during the time they lived with her. Unfortunately, children who receive adoption subsidies are not monitored to ensure that they are being properly cared for, are still in the home, or are even alive. Such monitoring has not been imposed even in the wake of cases in which adoptive parents like Renee Bowman and Edward and Linda Bryant have fraudulently collected adoption subsidies after killing–or allegedly killing–their children.
Home Schooling. On April 11, 2011, Sarah Hart made a plea agreement a week after pleading guilty to physical abuse of a six year old child. The next day, all six children were removed from school, never to attend again. The Harts joined a long line of abusive parents that removed their children from school after a brush with CPS. The notorious Turpin family, who gained worldwide attention this winter when one of their 13 malnourished children escaped confinement in their home, who also liked to dress their children in matching tee shirts. As the Coalition for Responsible Home Education points out, Pennsylvania is the only state that bars convicted child abusers from homeschooling, and then only if the conviction is in the past five years. No state has any mechanism to identify cases where parents remove a child from school after a child protective services case is closed, or after a series of child abuse allegations.
Failure to report: At a festival in Oregon, the Oregonian reports that one acquaintance observed the mothers become enraged after she brought Devonte and Sierra back to her parents from a day out, bearing food. Sarah Hart grabbed Sierra’s arm, inflicting a bruise that lasted for days, and both mothers chastised her for “being selfish” and not sharing. Sierra told the woman that she often got in trouble for talking to people her mothers did not know. But the neighbor did not report the disturbing incident. The Hart family’s neighbors in Washington, Dana and Bruce DeKalb, told reporters that they had suspected that something was not right in the Hart household. A few months after the Harts moved to Washington, the DeKalbs reported that Hannah Hart came to their door at 1:30 AM. She had jumped out of a second-story window and ran through bushes to their home, begging them to protect her from her abusive parents. The neighbors noted that she was missing her front teeth and appeared to be about seven years old, although she was twelve. The other children also appeared small and thin when the family came over the next morning.
The DeKalbs told the Washington Post that they considered calling CPS but “tried to overlook the incident.” In the next eight months, the DeKalbs saw Devonte doing chores but never saw the other children outside. About a week before the crash, Devonte began coming to the DeKalbs’ house requesting food and saying that his parents had been withholding food as punishment. The visits escalated from daily to three times a day. It was only after a week of such visits that they finally called CPS, setting in motion the the escape attempt that ended in the fatal crash.The DeKalbs’ hesitation echoes that of the Turpins’ neighbors, who never reported the many red flags they saw.
Lack of Data Sharing Between States: Court records indicate that Minnesota’s child protection agency had at least two interactions with the Hart family before they left the state. In 2008, Hannah reported that her mother hit her with a belt, as described above, resulting in an investigation by police and CPS. In 2010, six-year-old Abigail’s teacher found her with bruises covering much of her stomach and back. Abigail told police and a social worker that Jennifer Hart hit her repeatedly with a closed fist and submerged her head underwater. She also said that Jennifer Hart withheld food as punishment. Sarah Hart (not Jennifer) was eventually arrested, pled guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence, and received a suspended jail sentence and a year of probation.
But this information never found its way to Oregon, where CPS was unable to confirm a report from a family friend that the Harts were punishing the children by withholding food and using “controlling emotional abuse.” The Harts then moved to Washington, where CPS would not have known that the parents had a history with their counterparts in other states. There is no national child welfare database that a state can check to determine if a family has history in another state. If Oregon had wanted to check with Minnesota, it might have taken months and the state might have refused access to the data unless the parents gave consent.
Biased Investigative Process: As mentioned above, Oregon CPS was unable to substantiate a report from a family friend that the Harts were punishing the children by withholding food and emotionally abusing them. CPS interviewed the children but told the friend that it appeared they had been “coached” to lie, so there was no evidence to substantiate the allegation. The question is, why were the parents given enough warning that the children could be coached? This is only one example of how the system is biased toward parents’ rights over children’s safety.
Multiple systemic gaps allowed the abuse of the Hart children to continue until it culminated in the deaths of the entire family. A variety of policy changes are needed to address the gaps highlighted by this tragic case. I will discuss these in my next post.