It is a scenario readers of this blog are familiar with: intersections of homeschool, adoption, ideology, and homicide.
On March 27th, married couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both age 38, allegedly accelerated their SUV, with their six adopted children inside, off of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. Three of the children have been confirmed dead along with Sarah and Jennifer, and the other three children are missing and presumed dead. In the three days leading up to the crash, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services attempted to make contact with the Hart family to investigate claims of abuse and neglect. It appears possible that the family knew authorities were trying to investigate, and fled the area with the children, driving from Washington to California.
Authorities are treating the case as a homicide/suicide investigation. It appears that the SUV accelerated to 90 mph and drove off the cliff, and there are no skid marks or any evidence that the vehicle was trying to avoid crashing. Heavy.com reports:
“19-year-old Markis Hart, 14-year-old Jeremiah Hart and 14-year-old Abigail Hart were recovered along with Jen and Sarah Hart. But 12-year-old Sierra Hart, 16-year-old Hannah Hart and 15-year-old Devonte Hart remain missing, police said.”
The family lived in Woodland, Washington, which is not far from Portland, Oregon. A neighbor had called authorities recently because the children appeared to be dangerously thin, and had come to their door claiming to be starving and abused. One of the children, Devonte, age 15, had come to the neighbors asking for food, and told them that he and his siblings were often not fed as a form of punishment. Neighbors reported that the children were small for their age and appeared malnourished. Neighbors also said that the children were homeschooled, and did not go outside much.
In 2011, Sarah Hart was charged with a misdemeanor domestic assault after teachers at a Minnesota public school, where the family then lived, noticed bruises on the back of one of the girls, Abigail, age 6 at the time. From Heavy.com:
“Later reports revealed more about what happened in 2010. During an interview with police, Abigail told a detective that Jennifer was the one who hit her (although Sarah was the one who ultimately pled guilty), Oregon Live reported. Abigail said that Jennifer was angry because a penny fell out of her pocket. She said Jennifer dragged her to the bathroom and submerged her head under cold water in the tub, then spanking her repeatedly with a closed fist. Abigail said she was grounded, and sometimes her punishment would include missing lunch.”
Submerging a child’s head under cold water, beating them hard enough to get a domestic assault charge, along with starving the child, all indicate to me that this was a severally abusive family, and these behaviors are often found among the worst child abuse cases. I would also not be surprised if the children were pulled from public school to hide the abuse and continue the isolation.
As readers may know from my previous blogs, child victims of torture are often not biological children. In the paper Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse, which is based on a study of 28 child abuse and torture cases:
“We observed that 79 % of the primary abusers were not the child’s first degree relative; they included such caregivers as boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, adoptive parents, and stepparents.”
Readers may recall that homeschool homicide victims Erica Parsons and Hana Alemu were also adopted. Erica, Hana, and her adopted brother Immanuel were all starved and malnourished, as were the 13 Turpin children, another recent homeschool torture case that has been all over the news. The above cited paper also states that the tortured children in the study experienced having food withheld from them:
“Eighty-nine percent experienced food deprivation and 79 % were fluid restricted.”
Withholding food is common in severe abuse cases.
Isolation and deprivation are crucial to maintaining an environment where children are subjected to this specific type of torture. Keeping children in a public school could potentially expose the abuse and subject the parents to scrutiny and possible arrest by law enforcement. This is likely why the Hart family pulled the children out of school, and they most likely did so after Sarah Hart was arrested for domestic assault. This is also a reason that neighbors did not see the children very much. From the Knox child torture journal article cited above:
‘This social isolation typically involved preventing the child from attending school or daycare. Twenty-nine percent of school-age children were not allowed to attend school; two children, though previous enrolled, were dis-enrolled by their caregiver and received no further schooling. An additional 47 % who had been enrolled in school were removed under the auspice of “homeschooling.” This “homeschooling” appears to have been designed to further isolate the child and typically occurred after closure of a previously opened CPS case.’
I am not sure about the other children, but sources indicate that Devonte was disabled. Marginalized identities all have things in common, and one of those things is being objectified and pitied by the hegemony. Hana Alemu’s case highlighted the propensity for people to adopt children that they feel sorry for in order to appear like saviors and martyrs to their communities, in particular, white families adopting black children. It is hard not to look at the Hart case and perceive that this is a part of it. While the Hart family were not a part of the Christian Patriarchy, as Hana’s adoptive family was, they were a part of a community in the North West and went to festivals and attended rallies for Bernie Sanders. So they were part of a larger community of people with a certain ideology. An ideology can be liberal or conservative and still play a role in the reasons people abuse children. The Harts were using the children to gain respect and traction in the largely white liberal scene of the Pacific Northwest. Devonte, in particular, was known for his “Free Hugs” sign.
The Harts very likely gained accolades and attention from this community due to having adopted six children of color and “saving” them.
As a Deaf person who works in a disability rights field, I am constantly being approached by able-bodied and hearing people who are looking for “a disabled person” to include in a project they are doing to make them look more “inclusive”. Every marginalized identity has experienced being used in this way; to make a person from the dominant class seem more “down”, or like a better person for “including” marginalized people in their lives somehow.
It is not a stretch for me to see how someone with this mindset would could be objectifying and abusive behind closed doors, because false, biased notions of marginalized identity are based in a historical materialism of abuse and pain. These notions are predicated on a fantasy of what role marginalization plays within the enclave of white, able-bodied life, and how that role will benefit the dominant person. Objectifying an oppressed person and using them for your benefit aligns closely with reasons why victimizers abuse and torture other people, so it is not difficult to see how the two could overlap and even fuel each other.
In the public environment, the abuser is using the victim(s) to further their reputation and gain respect amongst a community of people; in the private environment of the home, the abuser is using the victim to satisfy their own sadistic or emotional urges. In the case of the Harts, Sarah and Jen were using the children, Devonte in particular, to gain traction and attention in a community with shared ideology and politics. In the context of the home, they were sadistically abusing and starving the children, which is another form of using them to feel whatever emotions the abuse would foster within the offenders. Overall, using the marginalized identities and backgrounds of the children to exploit and objectify them on a few different levels, all for their own gain, up until the final act of control was deployed: the murder of the entire family at the hands of the parents.
It is important to understand that abuse, torture and homicide of marginalized identities can happen for a different set of reasons than is always understood or discussed. Understanding the reasons behind identity-specific abuse, objectification, and homicide can help us to identify such cases in the future and have better insight into the minds of abusive people.