PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Investigators say Jennifer Hart was drunk when she drove her family off a California cliff.
Records show a trail of child abuse concerns going back to 2008, when the family lived in Minnesota.
And yet, Nusheen Bakhtiar says she still cannot believe that the Hart family home was filled with anything but love and laughter.
“We weren’t duped – that love wasn’t fake,” she said.
Bakhtiar is now trying to reconcile memories of the family she knew and cared for with the narrative she says feels like a Netflix documentary, in which there were horrible abuses perpetrated against innocent children.
“That was not the reality I knew,” she said.
Instead, Bakhtiar says the family she met at a 2013 concert was led by two caring women who only wanted to protect their six adopted children – children the Harts said were still dealing with the aftermath of troubled early years. Records associated with the adoption of Jeremiah, Devonte and Ciera Hart confirm that the children’s biological mother was a long-time crack cocaine addict with a history of abuse against her seven children.
The image Bakhtiar paints, however, is one of contradictions. On one hand, she said Jennifer told her that the children would never be able to live normal, independent lives as adults – that they would never be able to marry or have children of their own.
On the other hand, Bakhtiar says the children she knew were smart and politically engaged and they were always dancing to music. She said they loved to read, and they were healthy, strong and physically active. She said they seemed younger than their years, but not immature.
Bakhtiar says the family sought solace in the more rural town of Woodland, Washington. Jennifer told her that the family had received threats and hate mail, following the publication of a photo of Devonte hugging a Portland police officer at a 2014 protest that went viral.
“After this picture with Devonte, Jen went into the deepest, darkest depression ever,” Bakhtiar said.
Looking back at their text messages, Bakhtiar says it’s possible she should have seen warning signs. In one text message, Jennifer tells her that for eight months, she had only texted three people – her wife Sarah, Bakhtiar and a stranger in New Jersey, by accident. In the 2017 text, Jennifer told Bakhtiar it had been the hardest year of her life.
Still, Bakhtiar finds it impossible to think that Jennifer or Sarah abused their children – even after learning that Child Protective Services had opened investigations into the family in Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington. Another family friend, Alexandra Argyropoulos, contacted CPS in Oregon in 2013, telling caseworkers there that she believed the children weren’t being fed and were being punished inappropriately.
“I want investigators to come out and prove [signs of starvation or abuse] — they can prove that, right? If a child had years of physical trauma, I want them to come out and say it wasn’t true,” Bakhtiar said.
As she waits for more information from California investigators, Bakhtiar is struggling to come to terms with the possibility that the crash may have been intentional. Even if that is proven to be the case, she said it doesn’t mean the Harts were not great mothers, up to that point.
“They were alone, scared, desperate, in pain. They didn’t do it out of malice,” Bakhtiar said. “I think they did what they did because there was no other option.”
The last time Bakhtiar heard from Jennifer Hart was in late 2017. Bakhtiar texted her for Christmas and New Year’s – but never heard back.
At the time, she said the silence didn’t worry her.
“It does now,” she said.