PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — New documents released Monday show that Oregon Child Protective Services show the agency knew that the Hart family had been investigated for child abuse in Minnesota.
Despite this knowledge, the investigation into Jennifer and Sarah Hart – whose family car was found crashed off a northern California cliff in late March – was closed 5 days after it was first opened in July 2013.
The DHS investigation has raised questions over the past few weeks. Public records have revealed that a trail of child-abuse concerns followed the Harts from Minnesota to Oregon, and then to Washington, where the family most recently lived. A Child Protective Services investigation was initiated by a neighbor in Woodland, Washington on March 23 — three days before the family’s fatal crash.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the fatal crash as a crime. Jennifer Hart was found to have a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, while toxicology reports showed that Sarah Hart and two of the family’s children had a drug in their system that causes sleepiness. Four of the children – Jeremiah, Abigail, Ciera, and Markis Hart – were found dead following the crash; investigators are still searching for the bodies of Devonte and Hannah Hart.
While details were released from Washington and Minnesota regarding those states’ child-abuse investigations, Oregon DHS initially claimed the investigation records were exempt from disclosure, due to privacy laws.
The records were released after KOIN 6 News filed an appeal citing a law allowing for disclosure of otherwise-confidential records in the event of a child’s death as a result of abuse.
The records now show that Oregon DHS investigators first tried to contact the family on July 19, 2013. “No movement was observed in the home,” DHS records show, but a card was left asking the family to contact a caseworker. Three days later, Sarah Hart called the caseworker, saying the family was soon going out of town. She denied that the children were undernourished.
However, a doctor, who provided growth charts for the children, found that all but one of the children were below the chart for height and weight, though the doctor said there were no concerns for any of the children, despite their size.
After DHS investigated, they concluded that they were unable to determine whether there was abuse. According to agency records, “there are some indications of child abuse or neglect, but there is insufficient data to conclude that there is reasonable ause to believe that child abuse or neglect occurred.”
Two contacts DHS investigators were able to reach did express concern that the Harts limited food for the six children and noted excessive discipline, including having the children lay on the ground in a dark room for between 4 and 7 hours.
Previously, the only account of the Oregon DHS investigation came from the former family friend, Alexandra Argyropoulos, who told the media she had alerted Oregon DHS in 2013 after spending two weeks with with the family.
In her account of the two weeks, she called Jennifer Hart’s reactions to the children “overblown,” and described her punishments as seeming “unnecessarily cruel.”
“She would deprive them of meals, take away talking privileges for a day, and make them stand in a corner and stare at a wall for a long, extended period of time,” Argyropoulos wrote in an email.
Argyropoulos told Jennifer Hart she was concerned the children weren’t being fed. Hart told her the children had food-related issues prior to their adoption. After Argyropoulos repeatedly raised her concerns, the women cut off contact, prompting Argyropoulos to report the family to DHS.
“I was later told that the children had been interviewed by Oregon Child Protective Services, and it was apparent that each child had been coached by their mothers on what to say,” Argyropoulos wrote. She said the DHS caseworker told her there was not enough evidence at the time to make the case.
A trail of child-abuse investigations
The Harts’ first child-abuse investigation was in 2008, when the family was living in Alexandria, Minnesota. Hannah, then 6, told a police detective and a social services caseworker that her mother Jennifer hit her in the arm with a belt.
In their interview with investigators, Jennifer and Sarah said Hannah had been dealing with constant food issues, including stealing people’s food at school and eating out of garbage cans. They said they did not know how the bruise got on her arm but claimed she had recently fallen down the stairs in the family’s home. Law enforcement closed the case without investigating further.
Two years later, however, 6-year-old Abigail told a teacher in Alexandria’s Woodland Elementary School that she had “owies” on her stomach and back. The teacher found bruises on Abigail’s body, stretching from her sternum to her belly button, and from the middle of her back to her waistband.
Abigail told the teacher she had had a penny in her pocket, which made her mom Jennifer mad. Abigail said Jennifer put her in the bathtub, turned on cold water, and hit her with a closed fist. The little girl also said that Jennifer would get mad and ground her, forcing her to miss lunch.
Sarah, however, took the blame for the child’s injuries. She admitted to spanking Abigail as she was bent over the edge of a bathtub. Sarah said she and Jennifer didn’t ordinarily use spanking as a form of discipline, but they had recently started spanking Abigail to deal with lying.
In April 2011, Sarah pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor domestic assault; a charge of malicious punishment of a child was dismissed. She was placed on supervised probation for a year and was sentenced to community service in lieu of a fine.
The children were pulled out of public school eight days after the conviction, and never attended school again. Their parents never took the necessary steps to register the students for home-schooling in either Oregon or Washington.
The Washington CPS investigation that was launched in the days before the family’s death was initiated by neighbor Dana DeKalb. DeKalb reported that, for a week, Devonte was coming over to her home multiple times asking for food and begging DeKalb not to tell his mom.
DeKalb said Devonte told her that his mothers were “sometimes” abusing him, and that he and his siblings are hungry because they go long periods of time without food. DeKalb also told CPS that, six months earlier, Hannah jumped out of a second-story window in the middle of the night and rang DeKalb’s doorbell, telling her that her mothers were abusing her.
The Washington CPS investigators deemed the living situation to be “immediately dangerous or unhealthy,” and sent a social worker to the family’s Woodland home that day, on March 23. The family didn’t answer the door, and no movement was noticed. The social worker left a card.
Three days later – after the weekend – social workers tried to make contact again. The card had been removed; DeKalb would later tell investigators that the family had left on Friday shortly after the social worker drove away from the home.
Later that day, the family’s car was found crashed off the cliff in Mendocino county.
Communication between state social services agencies
The children’s deaths have brought attention to the fact that there is no national clearinghouse for child-abuse records.
While the 2006 Adam Walsh Act authorized Congress to create a national registry for child abuse, the registry was never put into effect. Feasibility reports, created in 2009 and 2012, found that the registry would be difficult to implement. States have different definitions for what constitutes child abuse, and, in some states, laws would likely have to be changed to allow for the sharing of information with a national registry.
In the case of the Hart family, records now show that Oregon was able to successfully get records from the state of Minnesota prior to investigating the family. Even in states with shared borders, such as Oregon and Washington, records of abuse or previous investigations must be requested on a case by case basis. The social workers in Washington requested records on March 26 – three days after their investigation began. Before the records could be received, the family was dead.
Argyropoulos believes a registry should exist – and that a national clearinghouse would have helped save the six Hart children. She has created a White House petition to raise attention to the issue. Argyropoulos argues that the lack of communication between the various state agencies that had investigated Jennifer and Sarah Hart allowed the women to get away with years of abuse.
“Jen and Sarah were able to skip from state to state with six children knowing that a trail of their documented abuse would go without further investigation or consequence,” Argyropoulos wrote.