“[A]fter the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.”

“[A]fter the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.” May 1, 2018

I wrote twice several weeks ago about the Hart children and the importance image appeared to have to their parents, Jennifer and Sara Hart, who murdered them last month by driving off a cliff in California while fleeing a child welfare investigation. More details have come out, and they’re heartbreaking—and a perfect illustration of what I wrote then about the carefully curated image the couple created around their family.

Oregon Department of Human Services records have revealed more information about a 2013 report in Oregon which resulted in a child welfare investigation that ultimately failed to rescue the children. The call was made by an individual who reported that the Harts spent the night at her house shortly after moving to Oregon from Minnesota.

One of the caller’s statements referred directly to posed Facebook pictures:

The referrer also said that Jen made her children pose for photos she would post on Facebook — photos showing a smiling, happy family. “[B]ut after the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.”

The photos were a farce. A baldfaced farce. It was all about creating a perfect smiling image, nothing more. We all suspected that before, when the children died and the pictures stood in such contrast to the sad details coming out about their lives, the abuse they suffered and the many investigations, but now we have confirmation.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to get children to look and smile all at the same time? I have two children myself, both in elementary school. Outside of formal family pictures—think kind you go to a studio or hire a photographer for—I’ve given up on getting them both to look and smile and pose for perfect pictures.

I take pictures of only the one child if the other isn’t interested. I take a picture of the two of them being goofy when I’d wanted a smile. You know what? That’s life. My children are not my dolls to pose this way and that. And besides, forcing them to smile and pose would turn a happy memory into a negative one. Why would I do that?

Jennifer and Sarah Hart had six children, all adopted, all black and biracial. When they died, these children ranged in age from 12 to 19. In 2013, when the caller made the above report, the children would have ranged in age from roughly seven to fourteen. Usually, teens and preteens start having minds of their own.

Consider how hard it would be to get six teens and preteens to pose like that under ordinary circumstances. Someone is going to say “Thanks, but I’ll sit this one out.” Someone is going to say “Stop embarrassing me, mom!” We’re talking teens and preteens here! But what if opting out isn’t an option? What if opting out might mean not getting supper that evening? “[A]fter the photo event, they go back to looking lifeless.”

The human services records that have been released reveal other horrors as well—and I want to take a moment to point to one specifically. Namely, the children were not listened to. Nor were those who tried to help. Jennifer and Sarah were able to explain their way out of things they should never have been able to explain their way out of.

The caller, whose named was redacted from the report, said that the Jennifer Hart and the children had slept over at her home one night a few months after the family moved to Oregon. It is unclear if Sarah Hart was present at the time. The group ordered pizza, and Jennifer Hart gave each child one slice, the caller said. During the night, someone had gone into the refrigerator and taken more pizza. The next morning, Jennifer Hart reportedly became enraged and dragged Sierra Hart out of bed by her arm. She then reportedly forced the children to lie on an air mattress with the arms by their sides, while wearing sleeping masks, for five hours.

This was the call made in Oregon in 2013.

Oregon officials’ failure to intervene in 2013 has been explained by an assumption that they must not have had access to the family’s records in Minnesota, where numerous reports were made about the children and where one of the children’s mothers was sentenced for assault on a child. But it now appears that that is not true.

Oregon officials did obtain the family’s Minnesota records.

As part of the case initiated on June 28, 2013 by a report from a worried family friend, Oregon DHS made contact with Minnesota Child Welfare. The family lived in Alexandria, Minnesota, before moving to Oregon, and the friend who made the call told Oregon DHS about an open case in Minnesota.

Many of the allegations in Minnesota also involved food.

The 2013 Oregon DHS report includes records from Minnesota Child Welfare services from 2010 and 2011, showing that both child welfare workers and school faculty in Minnesota were concerned for the Hart children’s well-being. Both Abigail and Hannah Hart were reported to be seeking food at school – either taking it from the garbage, asking classmates for food, or reporting to the school nurse that they had not eaten.

When Sarah Hart was told that Hannah was asking for food at school in 2011, the adoptive mother reportedly said, “she’s playing the food card, just give her water.”

School staff stopped reporting the food-seeking behavior to Jennifer and Sarah Hart “because they didn’t want the children being disciplined or punished,” the report states.

Following a referral, Abigail was taken to a doctor for an assessment. According to the report, she was six years old at the time and appeared to be two years old. The doctor who examined her reportedly said, “she is just small, and being adopted, we don’t know their bio family history.”

The girls’ siblings said in interviews with child welfare workers that their parents would sent them to bed without supper, force them to stay in bed all day, and stand in the corner for a long time as discipline. The mothers reportedly said the children had food issues because of their “high risk” backgrounds.

 

The children said those things in interviews and nothing happened. The school was so worried they stopped telling the girls’ parents that they were foraging for food and nothing happened.

These children were failed every step of the way. Abigail was taken to a doctor who found that she was severely small for her age and even he believed their parents’ lies.

The Minnesota Child Welfare worker expressed expressed concern about the children’s home life, reporting saying the problem was “these women look normal” and would explain away the children’s behavior and complaints by pointing to their backgrounds.

“Without any regular or consistent academic or medical oversight, and unknown child welfare reviews through the state of Texas for either foster/adopt subsidies, these children risk falling through the cracks,” the report reads.

Whoever wrote this report, their hands must have been tied.

You would think that a history like this would make Oregon officials more likely to do something, but no. Apparently not. Jennifer and Sarah talked their way out of those allegations too.

After reporting her concerns in 2013, [Alexandra] Argyropoulos [the caller referred to above] said, she was told the Hart children had been interviewed by officials from the Oregon department; it was apparent that each child had been coached by their mothers on what to say; and nothing more could be done.

Case closed.

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