Oregon DHS docs show agency knew of previous Hart family abuse a - KPTV - FOX 12

Oregon DHS docs show agency knew of previous Hart family abuse allegations

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DHS inspected child abuse claims that had followed the Hart family from Minnesota. (Hart family photo provided by friend). DHS inspected child abuse claims that had followed the Hart family from Minnesota. (Hart family photo provided by friend).
Hart family photo from friend. (KPTV) Hart family photo from friend. (KPTV)

The Oregon Department of Human Services released documents Monday about its investigation into the Hart family that it previously said were secret.

The department, in a letter, said it changed course in an effort to avoid future tragedies by “encouraging consideration of a national clearinghouse for records or identification of other systems or processes for the prevention and protection from child abuse and neglect, particularly as to children and families who move across state lines.” 

Six of the eight Hart family members were found dead after their SUV plummeted off a California cliff nearly a month ago. Investigators said the driver, Jennifer Hart, was drunk, and they believe the crash may have been intentional.

The crash came just days after child protective authorities in Washington state launched an investigation into the family, prompted by neighbor reports that one of the children was repeatedly begging for food. 

The few details that have emerged paint what appear to be dark months, and perhaps years for Jennifer and Sarah Hart’s six children, who neighbors and at least one social worker say repeatedly accused their mothers of abuse.

The dozens of documents released Monday date back to 2013, when DHS officials investigated Sarah and Jennifer at West Linn home. The investigation followed allegations of child neglect involving the couple's adopted children.

But the DHS report also shows how Oregon caseworkers traced the warning signs back to the family’s previous home in Minnesota, where in 2011, a caseworker there made an ominous prediction: “Without regular or consistent academic or medical oversight…these children risk falling through the cracks.”   

The DHS report notes six separate cases out of Minnesota that include allegations of physical abuse, malnourishment and even a misdemeanor domestic assault conviction for Sarah Hart after one of her daughters was discovered with large bruises at school. 

Oregon investigators coupled those reports with new allegations that the kids weren’t being fed properly at their new Oregon home in West Linn. 

An anonymous reporter offered “concerns regarding the parents limiting food for the children,” as well as excessive discipline by having the children lay on the ground in the dark “from between 4 and 7 hours.”

According to documents, that person told authorities the children were punished for eating leftover pizza, and had to miss breakfast and “lay on their bed as punishment for 4-5 hours.” 

The concerned tipster noted certain children seemed to be more often targeted for ridicule and punishment by Jennifer Hart. 

There were other concerns documented by DHS: all the children, except for Jeremiah Hart, were undersized and Hannah Hart, at age 11, was missing her front teeth. 

But despite it all, DHS closed the case, listed it as “unable to determine” and never contacted the family again. It was noted in the report that there were “some indications of child abuse or neglect…but insufficient data to conclude…that child abuse or neglect occurred.” 

The caseworker reported that all the children denied the abuse, and a doctor who examined them was not concerned about their conditions. 

Sarah and Jennifer Hart also vigorously denied their children were malnourished or mistreated. Instead, they painted a picture of a socially and ecologically conscious family that was vegetarian, tight-knit, and had made great strides to nurture special-needs children who came to them with mental problems and cognitive delays. 

Often, the mothers would relate the children’s sizes to circumstances beyond their control saying the “children struggled with food issues from abuse suffered by their (biological) parents.”

One Minnesota child-welfare worker noted the outlook was a problem, saying “these women look normal” and talk about the children in a way where people “tend to assign the problem to the children.”

The red flags followed the family across three states, and ultimately to a heartbreaking tragedy in the ocean off California.

DHS said the nature of the 2013 investigation into the Hart family was under guidelines different than what is now practiced. The department said since the time of the family’s assessment, DHS has shifted practice from incident-based investigations to comprehensive safety assessments.

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