A search warrant was served at the home of a Woodland family killed in a crash on the California coastline as neighbors share their concerns that led to the opening of an investigation by Child Protective Services.
Jennifer Jean Hart and Sarah Margaret Hart were in a car with at least three of their adopted children when Jennifer Hart drove off a cliff near Highway 1 in the Westport area of Mendocino County on Monday, according to deputies.
The bodies of the 38-year-old women and three of their children – ages 14 to 19 – were recovered at the scene. The children were thrown from the car.
Investigators believe the couple’s three other adopted children – ages 12 to 16 – were in the car at the time of the crash, but they have not been found.
Wednesday showed a smiling family holding messages of positivity. One of the missing children, 15-year-old Devonte Hart, drew nationwide attention for a viral photo showing him hugging a Portland Police Bureau officer during a protest in 2014.
Investigators believe the family moved to Woodland from West Linn to escape media attention from that image.
Neighbors in Woodland said the family moved in about 10 months ago and the happy photos people are seeing now are not what they witnessed over the last year.
Dana and Bruce Dekalb said for the first three months the Harts lived next door, they didn’t even known they had children, let alone six kids.
Last September, in the middle of the night, the Dekalbs said 16-year-old Hannah Hart – one of the children still missing – jumped out of a second-story window and ran to their home, knocked on the door, barged in and hid in a bedroom while the rest of her family looked for her.
The Dekalbs said they were worried, but they didn’t see anything illegal going on.
Then, about a week ago, they said Davonte came over begging for food, saying it wasn’t just for him, but also his brothers and sisters.
The Dekalbs called Child Protective Services. They said caseworkers came right out, but the family did not answer the door. The Dekalbs said the next day, the family’s SUV was gone.
“Just observing the behaviors, I was very concerned that their welfare was not being taken care of,” said Dana Dekalb. “I look at the pictures from their previous life and it’s not the picture of what we saw here.”
The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services released a statement Wednesday confirming a case was opened regarding the family last Friday, as “the now-deceased children were identified as potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect.”
Case workers attempted to contact the family Friday, Monday and Tuesday. No findings were made as part of their initial investigation and there was no prior history between the agency and the family.
The Clark County Major Crimes Unit served a search warrant at the home Thursday, working in conjunction with California agencies as part of the search for the still-missing children.
Sarah Hart was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault involving one of the children in 2011 in Minnesota. Court documents show the child, then 6 years old, told a teacher, “Mom hit me.”
A complaint filed at the time stated Sarah Hart took responsibility for the “spanking,” and said they do not ordinarily use spanking as a disciplinary measure, but they had “resorted” to it to deal with that child’s behavior.
The cause of the crash in California remains under investigation.
The officer in the 2014 viral image with Devonte, Sgt. Bret Barnum, released a statement Thursday saying, "As you can imagine, the tragic news about Devonte and his family deeply saddens me. The short interaction with Devonte in November 2014 was certainly one of those moments in my career which reinforced my love, passion, and duty in providing compassion and service to my community. At this point I am uncomfortable speaking about the Hart family tragedy until the investigation is complete."
Copyright 2018 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.