PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon’s Department of Human Services released records on Monday detailing the agency’s 2013 investigation into Jennifer and Sarah Hart.
The Hart family car was found crashed off a Northern California cliff in late March – three days after a neighbor prompted Washington Child Protective Services into opening an investigation into the family. The crash killed Jennifer, who was driving the vehicle under the influence of alcohol, Sarah, Markis, Jeremiah, Sierra, and Abigail. Devonte and Hannah Hart remain missing, but are presumed dead.
After an appeal by KOIN 6 News and other media outlets, DHS agreed to release redacted records, which the agency wrote, “[M]ay help avoid future tragedies by encouraging consideration of a national clearinghouse for records.” The agency pointed out that it has shifted its practices since it investigated the Hart family, and that case workers are now trained to assess factors contributing to children’s vulnerability, including such factors as isolation.
Here is a timeline of the major steps in DHS’s investigation into the Hart family:
- July 18, 2013: Former family friend Alexandra Argyropoulos reports family to Oregon DHS, alleging neglect and malnourishment. Argyropoulos remained anonymous to the agency. Oregon DHS soon thereafter reaches out to Minnesota Child Welfare for prior records.
- July 19, 2013: An Oregon DHS worker and West Linn Police Detective made a surprise home visit to the family’s home in West Linn, leaving a car. Two cars with Minnesota plates were in the driveway, but no movement was observed in the home
- July 22, 2013: Sarah gets in touch with DHS, and says that the family will be out of state at a festival. She also tells investigators that the family is vegetarian and “more slender,” but she denies the children are undernourished.
- August 26, 2013: Two DHS employees meet with the family. Sarah and Jennifer are “hesitant” to have individual meetings with each family member, but eventually agreed to allow it.
- September 24, 2013: After being briefed on the family’s history, Clackamas County-based Children’s Center recommends the children be seen by their primary care physician. The Children’s Center reportedly declined to see the children because the kids did not disclose any instances of abuse. That same day, DHS learns Sarah was charged with malicious punishment of a child in 2010, and convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence assault.
- September 24 and 27, 2013: DHS contacts two people who know the family. One asks for confidentiality, out of fear the family would cut her off; the other said she had concerns regarding the care of the children.
- November 19, 2013: DHS receives fax with all six children’s growth charts from doctor. All but Jeremiah are off the charts, below normal height and weight. Doctor says there are no concerns for any of the children, despite their small stature.
- December 3, 2013: DHS receives call from family physician and discusses the history of child abuse concerns.
The Oregon DHS records also include notes about each of the family members. Through the accounts of the interviews, investigators describe Devonte as being the “most outgoing and talkative child,” while the other children are said to be quieter and more reserved. Devonte is also described by the family friends who spoke to DHS as being the favorite child, while Hannah and Markis are said to be targets for Jennifer’s discipline.
During their Oregon DHS interviews, none of the children told investigators they were physically abused, even when asked about discipline. They are described as having provided “nearly identical answers to all questions asked.”
The caseworker in Minnesota told Oregon DHS the problem was “these women [Jennifer and Sarah Hart] look normal” and explained away the children’s issues by saying that the kids have high needs due to their lives prior to their adoption.
Jennifer described her disciplinary strategies to investigators in the interview, telling them she redirects the children and has them meditate. The two family friends who spoke with DHS, however, both reported concerns of Jennifer’s “inappropriate and excessive discipline,” according to the reports. This included having the children lay on the ground in a dark room for between 4 and 7 hours, withholding food, and grabbing and dragging the children.
In her interview with Oregon DHS, Jennifer was “adamant” that her family’s issues were a result of others not understanding their alternative lifestyle, which included advocating for social justice issues, home schooling, practicing meditation and yoga, and eating a vegetarian diet.
DHS investigators note that Sarah is often away from the children for weeks or months at a time when Jennifer takes the six kids to music festivals. One of the family friends described Sarah as being “cold” to the kids – parading them around for pictures, but not showing them affection.
Investigators identified no imminent threat to the children’s safety. However, the children were assessed as being “high risk” in terms of vulnerability, given that they don’t regularly see people outside of their parents who would be mandatory reporters. Mandatory reporters – people who are required to contact DHS if they suspect abuse — include teachers and doctors.
In the end, DHS concluded that it was “unable to determine” whether the children were being neglected or abused, despite some indications that was the case. The agency decided there was “insufficient data.”