Broken Harts: The Tragedy of the Hart Family

In 2018, a tourist called authorities after spotting something horrifying: a brown car upside down in the Pacific Ocean. In Mendocino County, California, police responded to the call, bringing them to the edge of a cliff. What they discovered in the car was a sad sight, which led to a shocking investigation.

Sarah Hart, Jessica Hart / Devonte Hart / Hart Family / Wrecked Car.
Source: Facebook

Inside the car, Jennifer Hart was behind the wheel, and her wife, Sarah Hart, was trapped between the roof and the back seats. Both of them were dead. It took another three weeks to recover the remains of the rest of their family. However, this wasn’t an accident; it was murder.

College Sweethearts

Long before they were found at the bottom of a cliff, Sarah and Jennifer Hart were a sweet couple. Both were South Dakota natives and met while attending Northern State University. Jennifer and Sarah majored in elementary education, with Sarah focusing on special education. They had many classes together and quickly started dating.

Jennifer and Sarah take a picture together.
Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart. Source: Facebook

Sarah graduated in 2002, and Jennifer left the university before graduating to be with Sarah. The couple decided to move to Minnesota. They were happily in love, but same-sex marriage wasn’t legal yet. They knew they wanted to get married, so Sarah changed her last name to match Jennifer’s.

Troubled Past

Jennifer was the more outgoing one in the relationship. People described her as confident, funny, and “kind of abrasive.” She also had a history of breaking the rules. While in college, she was arrested for stealing running shoes and Green Bay Packers collecting cards from a store.

Jennifer takes a photo with her foster son, Devonte.
Devonte Hart, Jennifer Hart. Source: Amazon

While being questioned, Jennifer admitted to stealing movies on a different occasion. She was also outspoken. She once sawed off the nipples on female mannequins where she worked because she said it was “sexist.” Jennifer went against the grain while Sarah was much more sensitive. Sarah would cry when she was under pressure.

Their First Foster Child

In 2004, Jennifer and Sarah were both working at a Herberger’s store. Sarah wasn’t using her teaching degree, but they needed to earn a living. Jennifer took up odd jobs until she became a stay-at-home mom in 2006, when they fostered their first child, a 15-year-old girl.

An outdoors portrait of Sarah and Jennifer.
Sarah Hart, Jennifer Hart. Source: Facebook

Sarah and Jennifer didn’t have their foster daughter for a long time. They took the girl to a local kindergarten where the girl was supposed to attend a therapy session. However, when they dropped her off, the therapist told the girl that the Harts wouldn’t be coming back for her.

No Bad Energy

The Harts said they couldn’t keep the teenager because of her suicidal thoughts and threats. They were preparing for the arrival of their first three adopted children, and they didn’t want her negative energy to impact their children. That should have been a red flag to everyone, but it wasn’t.

Sarah and Jennifer pose for a portrait on a sunny day.
Sarah Hart, Jennifer Hart. Source: Facebook

A week after they left their foster child, Jennifer and Sarah welcomed their first three adopted children into their home. Abigail (born 2003), Hannah Jean (born 2002), and Markis (born 1998) were adopted from Texas in September 2006. The three came from diverse backgrounds, and it wasn’t an easy transition.

The First Night Wasn’t Easy

Social media played a huge role in Sarah and Jennifer’s lives. They posted about everything on their Facebook pages, and the process of adopting and bringing new children into their home was no exception. During the first night with their three children, Jen described the challenges.

A picture of the Hart siblings.
Hart Siblings. Source: Facebook

She shared that Abigail wet the bed and gashed her chin falling down the stairs. Hannah “gorged herself with food until she needed the Heimlich,” causing her to throw up. Markis also hit his head on the closet wall and “claimed to be possessed by demons.”

“If Not Us — WHO?”

Sarah and Jennifer portrayed a persona that they were doing the work no one else wanted to do. They said they were committed to healing the kids. In Jennifer’s Facebook post, she wrote, “If not us — WHO?” They had this righteous complex about them.

Abigail, Hannah, and Markis pose with their adoptive mother, Jennifer Hart.
Abigail, Hannah, Markis, Jennifer Hart. Source: YouTube

At first, their posts seemed relatable and heroic, but people later realized they were just putting on a front. Jennifer and Sarah wanted the world to believe that they were this “woke” couple with a mixed-race family unlike any other.

Expanding the Family

Soon after adopting Abigail, Hannah, and Markis, the smiling family was pictured on the adoption agency site looking for three more children of “any ethnicity” up to eight years old. In 2008, Jennifer and Sarah took in three more foster children: Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera.

A portrait of the Hart family soon after becoming a unit of eight at their former home in Alexandria.
Photo by Carol Jacobson

Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera were siblings from Texas. Their mother, Sherry, was a drug addict, which caused the children to be placed with their aunt, Priscilla Celestine. However, Celestine violated the court order by letting Sherry watch the kids, so they were taken away.

Early Signs of Trouble

There were warning signs of abuse early on in the Hart household. In September 2008, a police report was filed by the school. Hannah had bruising on her arm and told a teacher her mother whipped her with a belt.

Dana and Bruce, neighbors of the Hart family, speak during an interview.
Neighbors Dana Dekalb, Bruce Dekalb. Source: YouTube

Jennifer and Sarah told authorities that they weren’t sure how it happened. They said it could have been the result of Hannah’s fall down the stairs a few days before. There were no criminal charges, but the women took their three school-aged children out of school a few months later.

Custody Battle

In early 2009, Celestine fought for custody of her nephews and niece. She had been fighting to get Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera back for more than two years. Unfortunately, Sarah and Jennifer had already adopted them because of the state’s pressure to find permanent homes for foster kids.

An image of the oldest brother of the Hart siblings not adopted by Jennifer and Sarah.
Photo by Annie Mulligan for The Washington Post/Getty Images

Celestine and her family were devastated that they couldn’t get the three kids back. To add insult to injury, Sarah and Jennifer changed the spelling of Jeremiah and Ciera’s names to Jermiah and Sierra.

Making It Official

It seemed like they had been married for years when they were finally able to make it official. In 2009, Jennifer and Sarah drove to Connecticut, where same-sex marriage was legal, and married at the courthouse. They were overjoyed to be legally married.

A family portrait on a sunny day out.
Hart Family. Source: Facebook

Their children were the only witnesses. Jen posted on her social media that they only brought the children to their wedding because their “support system was so small.” They lost a lot of friends when they came out, so this was apparently all they had.

Finding a Community

While they might have felt ostracized in the past, the Harts found a community that embraced their rainbow family. They regularly attended “transformational festivals,” days-long retreats with music, yoga, dance, and whimsical costumes. It made them reconsider their living situation.

The Hart siblings pose, holding signs that celebrate love and happiness.
Hart Siblings. Source: Facebook

In 2013, the Harts relocated from Minnesota to Portland, Oregon, to be closer to many of their favorite musicians. They moved to the upscale neighborhood of West Linn and settled into a modest, rented ranch home where they raised goats and chickens in the backyard.

Their Social Image Was a Priority

Whenever there was a photo-op, Jennifer took it. While Sarah got a job as a supervisor at Kohl’s, Jennifer took the kids on cross-country road trips to national parks and festivals. She would dress the children up in matching outfits and post photos of them on Facebook.

Sarah and Jennifer pose with their foster children while making funny faces.
Source: Facebook

Jennifer racked up likes with status updates that wove a years-running narrative, showing her as the world’s most progressive parent. Her feed featured Abigail and Ciera covered in mud holding fists to their chests as “warrior women,” and the kids eating breakfast with hens on their heads.

What Followers Didn’t Notice

Between the photos of Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera painting on the living room floor and the kids grinning with a “Kindness is contagious” sign, Jennifer’s followers failed to notice that Markis’ face was so thin his jawbone popped out, and Jeremiah looked alarmingly thin.

A photo of the Hart siblings playing together.
Source: Facebook

Jennifer would hide it by captioning photos, “That’s my string bean!” No one mentioned these warning signs in the glowing comments. Instead, people begged for Sarah and Jennifer to adopt them because it seemed like they were the world’s best parents. Each post reaffirmed their storyline.

Social Warriors

Besides showing how “happy” their lives were, Jen also wrote about the challenges of raising Black children in a racist world. She told her followers that Devonte had been called the N-word and reminded her white followers that “having Black friends, spouses or children doesn’t make you immune to racism.”

A picture of Jennifer and Sarah.
Source: Pinterest

Jennifer used her mixed-race family to present herself as a social warrior fighting against racism. She was doing whatever it took to keep her glowing image on social media. As long as her followers were writing kind comments, Jennifer was pleased.

Everyone Was Envious

Although Sarah wasn’t as active on social media, Jennifer often posted glowing tributes to her wife to show Sarah was her cheerleader. There was nothing about the way Jennifer presented their life that seemed at odds with people’s understanding of the family.

A picture of the Hart family shows them smiling together.
Source: YouTube

According to one of their friends, Ian Sperling, everyone was envious of the couple because they had a “perfect marriage with perfect kids.” Sperling saw the couple as “overachievers” who wanted to prove something to the world. People couldn’t see behind their picturesque image.

A Different Version of the Harts Emerged

Their social media followers might have fawned over the family, but government files told a much different story. When they lived in Minnesota, all six children were re-enrolled in public school after the couple pulled them out in 2008. The staff immediately noticed red flags.

A close-up on Abigail in a family picture during a trip.
Abigail Hart. Source: YouTube

Abigail reported “owies” to her teacher. She told the police that after a penny fell out of her pocket, her mom thought she’d stolen it, so Jennifer took her into the bathroom and put her head under cold water and hit her.

Two Different Stories

When investigators noticed bruises on Abigail’s back and stomach, they interviewed the other Hart children. The kids said they were often grounded, spanked, or sent to bed without food. However, Jennifer and Sarah told a different story when questioned separately.

A picture of the Hart siblings.
Source: YouTube

Sarah said she was the one who hit Abigail in anger. Jennifer backed up her story, and investigators believed them. Sarah pled guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault and received a year of community service and probation.

Going off the Grid

The school reported instances of the Hart kids saying they hadn’t been fed or asking classmates for food. Jennifer and Sarah would tell a social worker that the kids had food issues that “the school didn’t understand.” The children’s teachers were concerned for their safety.

A picture of Devonte Hart.
Devonte Hart. Source: YouTube

In 2011, the mothers pulled all six kids out of school, but they didn’t return this time. It seemed like the Hart family officially went off the grid. If they wanted to homeschool their children, they legally had to notify the school district, but they never registered their kids in Oregon.

Getting CPS Involved

Even though they moved away, news of the family still reached authorities. An anonymous tip to Child Protective Services claimed Jennifer posed her children to make them look like a happy family, but after the photo, their faces would go back to looking lifeless. They were terrified of Jennifer.

Jennifer poses next to Devonte, showing a big smile.
Jennifer Hart, Devonte Hart. Source: Facebook

Another anonymous tipper said Jennifer would limit their food and punish them if someone snuck extra food. The kids looked small for their ages. People also said they were forced to raise their hands before speaking and couldn’t laugh at the dinner table.

A Regimented Boot Camp

Alexandra Argyropoulos, a friend whom the family stayed with a few times, told CPS after their deaths that Jennifer was extremely strict. She said kids were not allowed to cry and got punished for laughing too loudly. Argyropoulos claimed, “True kindness, love, and respect for the kids was largely absent.”

Alexandra Argyropoulos speaks to the media.
Alexandra Argyropoulos. Source: YouTube

When CPS questioned the family, each child had a nearly identical answer, with no mention of past abuse. The kids gave rehearsed answers, and Markis said he was grateful for his mom. The social worker said the children appeared reserved and emotionless.

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

As CPS backed off because officials determined there wasn’t enough data to prove abuse and neglect, Jennifer and Sarah continued to use their family to attract attention. In 2014, the Harts appeared at a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland following the Ferguson, Missouri riots.

A picture of Jennifer and Devonte carrying a “free hugs” sign.
Jennifer Hart, Devonte. Source: YouTube

In tears and carrying a “free hugs” sign, Devonte approached a cop in riot gear. The cop later told reporters that he apologized to Devonte and asked him for a hug. Photographers snapped pictures of the moving moment, and it went viral.

Something Changed

People debated whether the powerful photo was a symbolic moment or staged theater because Devonte was crying before approaching the officer. The event should have made Jennifer proud because of the social exposure, but Sarah told a co-worker that it changed her.

A photo of Devonte crying before approaching the officer.
Source: Facebook

Jennifer claimed she started getting death threats. She was stressed and started turning down offers to appear on TV. Jennifer told her friend that she had to disguise the children in costumes to play outside without being recognized. She also stopped posting the children on Facebook as frequently.

Taking a Break From Social Media

In 2016, Jennifer told her followers, “We’ve come to realize that some think our lives are next to perfect. We’re human, and we struggle through life’s obstacle course like everyone else.” She then took a six-month break from posting, leaving everyone confused.

Sarah poses, kissing Jennifer on a family portrait.
Source: Facebook

When Jennifer returned in 2017, she announced that the year had been challenging and that the family had to relocate to Woodland, Washington. Their friends tried to make plans to visit the Hart family, but Jennifer and Sarah always canceled last minute. Sperling noticed that Sarah was worn down.

The Neighbors Worried

Shortly after the Harts moved to Washington, their neighbors became alarmed. Bruce and Dana DeKalb never saw the Hart kids in the yard and quickly said hello to Sarah while Jennifer ignored them. However, the Dekalb’s were woken up in the middle of the night when Hannah knocked on their door.

Dana and Bruce speak to the media.
Dana DeKalb, Bruce DeKalb. Source: YouTube

She frantically told Bruce that she had escaped the home and needed to hide. Hannah said, “They whip us with a belt.” She then ran upstairs to wake Dana up, begging for help and protection. Hannah told Dana that she didn’t want to go back.

They Came Looking

It didn’t take long for flashlights to flood the DeKalb’s front yard, with people calling for Hannah. Jennifer, Sarah, and their children knocked on the DeKalb’s door and entered the house without permission. The women went upstairs and found Hannah hiding. Dana agreed to leave them alone to talk.

Bruce speaks on a televised interview.
Bruce DeKalb. Source: YouTube

Dana was groggy from her sleeping supplement, so she didn’t think twice about leaving Hannah alone. When they came downstairs, Hannah stared straight ahead and apologized. Dana planned to call CPS in the morning, but she got a surprise visit.

A Strange Explanation

At 6:30 a.m., the DeKalb’s doorbell rang. They ignored it, but an hour later, it rang again. The couple opened the door to find the entire Hart family standing in a row. Jennifer talked for nearly an hour. She said her kids were adopted and had been “drug babies.”

An exterior shot of the Hart house.
Hart Home. Photo by Holly Andres

Jennifer said Hannah was 12, and her teeth were missing because she knocked them out in a fall. She explained that the kids were homeschooled because Devonte was bullied. Jennifer told them their whole story, having Hannah hand Dana a handwritten letter.

Another Bizarre Interaction

In March 2018, Devonte approached Bruce and asked for tortillas. It seemed like a normal neighborly request. However, Devonte returned the next two days, asking for more food. He looked nervous, glancing back at his house. He asked the DeKalb’s not to tell his parents.

Dana tears up while talking to the media.
Source: YouTube

Devonte once showed up with a wish list of food and asked the DeKalb’s to leave it in a box by the fence where his moms couldn’t see. Dana would ask many questions and type up notes on her phone for CPS. Devonte confirmed that Hannah was telling the truth.

They Were on the Run

On March 23, after ten visits from Devonte, Dana called CPS. The social worker visited that afternoon and saw Jennifer’s car pull into the driveway. However, when she rang the bell, no one answered. The social worker left a card in the door.

A photo of Jennifer’s car.
Source: YouTube

Less than an hour later, Sarah came rushing home. Dana and Bruce noticed the red kayak they’d always seen on Jennifer’s car was now gone. On March 24, Jennifer’s car was also gone. Dana said it looked like they were running away.

One Last Road Trip

There was no Facebook post about the Hart’s final road trip, as their phones showed they traveled down the Oregon coast to California. Sarah was supposed to open Kohl’s at 6:00 a.m. but texted her co-workers that she was too sick to work.

A surveillance tape shows Jennifer buying groceries.
Jennifer Hart. Source: California Highway Patrol

A surveillance video showed Jennifer buying groceries using her club discount. She was alone, and friends said she looked heavier than usual. After a few days of not showing up for work, Sarah’s co-workers called 911 for a welfare check after she stopped responding to texts.

A Fatal End

On March 26, 2018, Jennifer drove to a cliff on California’s Highway 1. It was a place she would typically line her children up for a photo-op, but this time was different. Instead of stopping to take in the view, Jennifer drove her car off the cliff into the Pacific.

A photo of what appears to be a door panel lays discarded on the side of the cliff.
Photo by Kale Williams

Jennifer had been behind the wheel with Sarah in the passenger seat and their six children in the back. When rescuers reached the turned-over vehicle, they found Jennifer behind the wheel and Sarah wedged in the back. The bodies of the children took time to find.

What Happened?

The coroner ruled that Jennifer and Sarah intended to die with their six children. Jennifer got drunk to build her courage to drive off the cliff, while Sarah googled how she could overdose on over-the-counter medications and how much Benadryl would kill her.

A photo of the wrecked car.
Source: California Highway Patrol

The CPS visit was the final trigger that made them succumb to the pressure. Sarah and Jennifer made the conscious decision to end their lives and take the children with them. Jennifer had five beers in her system, Sarah and the children had Benadryl in their systems.

Still Missing

The bodies of Markis, Jeremiah, Abigail, Ciera, and Hannah were found near the vehicle in the weeks following the crash. However, Devonte’s remains were never found. There are theories that he escaped, so he was declared a missing person, but he has since been presumed dead.

A picture of Devonte smiling for the camera at a music festival.
Devonte Hart. Photo by Danielle Gruber

Investigators believe his body washed out to sea, while others think Devonte was killed before the crash and his remains are buried somewhere. His biological mother, Sherry, was devastated by the news that all three of her children had died. She was critical of the investigation.

Systematic Failures

As reports about the crash hit the media, many people had questions. There had been multiple reports to the police and CPS about possible abuse, but no one ever helped the children. Everyone wanted to believe Jennifer and Sarah because of the image they portrayed.

An aerial view of the accident by the cliff.
Source: YouTube

The system failed these children because there was clear evidence of abuse and neglect. The children were underweight and small for their ages. They had bruises and looked malnourished. Dana still wonders if she should have called CPS earlier.

A New Image of the Harts

After the abuse reports came out, Jennifer’s followers turned on her. They said she was a narcissist and Sarah was an enabler. Jennifer’s high school teachers and friends posted about her compassion on Facebook, and one of Jen’s favorite musicians defended the couple.

A portrait of Jennifer and Sarah by the beach.
Sarah Hart. Source: Pinterest

Despite people trying to stick up for them, it was clear that the Harts’ lives were a charade. It was important for Jennifer to manage her public image. Maybe they tried to manifest the perfect blended family with their photos and stories, but they couldn’t run anymore.

Outrage From the Public

Not only did CPS fail these children, but the public was also upset that the children were removed from their Black families and placed with white parents. Some believe their whiteness gave them a pass despite all the warning signs.

A dated photo of Devonte and Jeremiah before their adoption.
Devonte, Jeremiah. Source: Pinterest

Shonda Jones, Celestine’s attorney in her custody battle, said the court had a disregard for Celestine even though she never had as much as a traffic ticket and was an abiding member of society. The judge on the case said there was a lack of criminal charges against the Harts.

Sarah Had Regrets

As authorities sifted through their lives, Sarah’s co-worker came forward with an interesting story. She said Sarah once alluded to having reservations about adopting six children. The co-worker said Sarah wished someone had told her it was okay not to have a big family.

A portrait of the Hart family during a trip.
Source: Facebook

The conversation happened a few weeks before the fatal crash. Sarah was always taking calls from Jennifer during work about how the kids were “making her crazy.” She also told a colleague that Jennifer struggled with depression and anxiety.

They Were in Debt

Although Sarah’s tax form showed that she made $45,000 in 2017, and the Harts collected about $270,000 from Texas to help care for the children, the couple was $16,000 in debt. Despite the credit card debt, a charge was posted the morning of the crash.

A picture of Sarah and Jennifer celebrating their love carrying a positive sign.
Source: Facebook

Markis, the oldest, was no longer eligible for a subsidy because he was 19. The others weren’t far behind him, and it must have caused added stress to Jennifer and Sarah’s financial situation. They were in a losing situation with Jennifer not working.

No One Really Knew Them

As everything played out, it seemed like no one knew who Jennifer and Sarah really were. Ian Sperling wrote on Facebook, “It seems obvious that we didn’t know Jen and Sarah Hart as well as we thought. They didn’t let people in.” Everyone believed their stories about the children’s past.

A portrait of Devonte / A photo from the Hart siblings’ memorial.
Source: YouTube

After searching through their past posts, Sperling’s wife said she spotted a picture of one of the kids posing in front of their artwork. However, she noticed there was no paint on the kids’ brushes. They didn’t know what was real or fake.

The Hardest Question

Everyone still wonders why Jennifer and Sarah did it. It’s possible that Jennifer became overwhelmed with looking after six children. Maybe they really believed they were heroes who couldn’t overcome racism and childhood trauma, so they kept running from state to state.

An aerial view of the scene after the car falls through the cliff.
Source: Alameda County Sheriff’s Office

According to Dr. Hannah Scott, Jennifer’s motive to take her whole family down with her had to do with loyalty. She was under too much pressure and suicidal but thought she couldn’t leave her family behind because there wouldn’t be caregivers after she was gone. The California cliff seemed like the only way out.