Hart family home was devoid of evidence children lived there, new report says
Dakin Andone and Keith Allen, CNN
(CNN) — In the days after the Hart family’s SUV was discovered at the bottom of a California cliff, investigators visited their Washington state home and were surprised to find almost no evidence that six children, ranging in age from 12 to 19, lived in the house.
There were no toys in the home and no personalized decorations in the kids’ bedrooms, according to documents released by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
“Upon entering the house, it was found to be extremely clean and organized,” one detective wrote, “giving a perception of being very sterile.”
“There was very little to show the children had access to any toys or items of entertainment, save for some board games found in the downstairs family room.”
The Hart family first made headlines when their upside down SUV was discovered at the bottom of a 100-foot cliff in Mendocino County, California, on March 26.
Investigators later determined that Jennifer Hart was legally intoxicated when she drove her wife and several of their six adopted children off the side of the cliff.
The bodies of Jennifer, her wife Sarah, and three of the children were recovered soon after the crash.
The body of Sierra, 12, was discovered in the surf a couple weeks later. Two of the children, 16-year-old Hannah and 15-year-old Devonte — once the focus of media attention after a photo of him hugging a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, went viral — have not been found.
Authorities soon learned the adopted children had repeatedly accused their parents of abuse, according to reports from neighbors and a social worker.
The kids specifically said their parents would withhold food from them as punishment, prompting repeated visits to neighbors to beg for food. The neighbors eventually decided the issue warranted a call to Child Protective Services.
The family had also drawn the attention of child welfare authorities in Minnesota and Oregon after reports the children were neglected and malnourished.
Family left behind toiletries, suitcases
When authorities showed up on the doorstep of the Hart family home in Woodland, they found a social worker’s business card wedged in the front door, along with a paper from Clark County Animal Control that said some of their pets had been taken for safekeeping, according to the sheirff’s office report, which details investigators’ initial efforts to uncover information about the family in the days after their car was discovered in California.
Investigators also found a refrigerator recently stocked with groceries, and fresh fruit in bowls adorning countertops.
It appeared the family had made a hasty departure, leaving behind their toothbrushes in a cup in the bathroom, and their suitcases still stacked in the garage.
“It seemed that if the family was planning a trip,” the detective said, “they would have packed some bags with clothing and other personal belongings.”
One detective said it was difficult to distinguish which bedrooms belonged to the children. Only the parents’ room could be identified based on their clothing and the decor. But none of the others rooms “were personalized for the children or showed the supporting elements that children lived in the residence,” according to the report.
The family was apparently in the process of renovating the home, and had stored some remodeling supplies in one of the bedrooms.
Some picture frames hung on the wall, but they didn’t contain family photos — simply pieces of paper specifying the frames’ measurement that were included when the frames were purchased. Otherwise, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Co-worker was told kids would eat from garbage can
The report also details interviews with Sarah Hart’s co-workers, who told investigators that Sarah spoke openly about the financial and emotional pressures of having a large family. Sarah also told them the children had “food issues and would eat out of the garbage after being provided dinner,” according to the incident report.
One told authorities she received a text from Sarah around 3 a.m. on Saturday, March 24, informing her coworker she was sick and wouldn’t be able to open the Kohl’s department store where they worked later that morning.
Police later said the family was in Newport, Oregon, around 8:15 that morning, and continued driving south until they reached Leggett, California, that evening. It was also the day after child protection officials attempted to check on the family.
Sarah didn’t show up to work on Sunday, and didn’t respond to text messages and phone calls from her co-workers. One her co-workers, Cheryl Hart — no relation — became concerned. The behavior was “odd and out of character for Sarah,” Cheryl Hart said.
When Sarah didn’t get in touch on Monday, Cheryl Hart called 911 and requested a welfare check.
None of Sarah’s co-workers heard from her again.
Some of them were aware that Sarah was the primary source of finances for the family of eight. She told one coworker the kids were “mentally delayed” and would have to live with their adopted parents for the rest of their lives.
Sarah also said the kids “caused emotional stress on Jennifer,” and that her wife “would often call about the kids making her crazy and arguing with them,” the report notes.
According to Cheryl Hart, Sarah said the family had faced threats and harassment because she and Jennifer were lesbians and their adopted children, who were black, were a different race.