Recently a friend who knows my life-long passion for young people, the vulnerable, social injustice and abuse prevention rang me to tell me I had to watch a new documentary called Broken Harts. Fifteen minutes in, I was already appalled, annoyed and disturbed, and I knew exactly why she had recommended it.
As a psychologist, as a mother to many who has fostered hundreds of children, as a Black woman and as a human being, I had to speak up on the tragic and unnecessary fate of six African American children, Merkis (19), Hannah (16), Devonte (15, Jeremiah (14), Abigail (14), and Ciera (12).
In March 2018, the Washington couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart killed all six adopted children by driving off a California cliff in a horrific act of murder-suicide. At first, authorities assumed the car crash was an accident. Further investigation revealed that the women had been abusing the children and had premeditated the crash, drugging the children with up to 20 doses of Benadryl each before driving ‘pedal to the metal’ off the side of the cliff.
The documentary was compelling but challenging as the racial and economic factors underpinning the tragedy were revealed. With each new discovery, we learned of another systemic failure to protect these children. Each of them highlighted a different gap in the system that is supposed to protect our children, all of our children no matter where in the world.
You cannot read the story of the Hart children and not be concerned by the failings these children fell victim to at the hands of the state.
The Harts adopted children were also biological siblings, Merkis, Hannah and Abigail Scheurich, who were removed from the care of their mother after failing to report or act on incidents regarding Hannah’s health after ant bites were left infected and an appointment for pneumonia was missed. Their mother, handed them voluntarily to the state, believing CPS when they said that they would be placed with a loving family more economically equipped to raise the children in Houston. She was never told that the children had been adopted out of state, and never heard a word again until a phone call to tell her all of her three children were dead.
Biological siblings Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera Davis ended up in care after their mother developed an addiction to cocaine, the children had a loving extended family and the children’s aunt Priscilla Celestine, fought to keep them, even moving to a new home and hiring an attorney to help plead her case. Celestine was successful in getting them into her care, but after she let their mother watch them while she worked one day, social services permanently removed the children from the home. A home the Davis siblings had lived in for only five and a half months.
Celestine tried to fight the decision, but the presiding judge for the case, Patrick Shelton, ruled against her custody over a single incident of misjudgment. They were placed in the Harts care, despite an allegation of child abuse having already been made against them.
All six children were removed from mothers who loved their children but were deemed unfit to raise them and were all handed over to white women who consistently abused them for years leading up to their murders.
One of the many issues at play here was that all of the Hart kids were among the hundreds of children fostered and adopted each year by out of state foster parents, because large sibling groups or children who have special needs are harder to place. It is the same here in the U.K. The problem is that sometimes the eagerness to keep siblings together means that the vetting process is overlooked. Intersectionality plays a role here as white women their actions were overlooked, excused, or ignored. Compare this to the harsh treatment of the Davis children’s aunty and the difference is visible.
The children were routinely beaten, punished, and starved. At aged 6, Abigail told her teacher she had “owies on her tummy.” Believed to have been inflicted by Jennifer. When the teacher lifted her shirt, she saw she had bruises on her front side, from her sternum to her bellybutton, and on her back from midway down her back to the waistband of her pants. When they were interviewed by police, Sarah said she and her partner do not usually use spanking as punishment, but they recently “resorted to spanking” to deal with the little girl’s behavior. Sarah then told police she “let her anger get out of control the previous day. She took her into the bathroom and bent her over the edge of the bathtub,” hitting her over the backside. Sarah was charged with malicious punishment of child and domestic assault. She eventually pleaded guilty to domestic assault, and the malicious punishment of child charge was dropped. So why didn’t observations continue?
All of the children were homeschooled and removed from public in April 2011, a week after Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to physically abusing one of her daughters. In the USA, no state has any procedure in place to identify cases where parents remove a child from school after a child protective services case is closed, or after child abuse allegations.
Neighbours claimed in May 2017 that 16-year-old Hannah jumped from a second story window and rang their doorbell at 1:30 a.m, saying “her mums were racist and were abusing her.” She also said she was being whipped with belts. Hannah was forced to write a letter of apology saying she was sorry for disturbing their peace, that she was telling lies for attention, sad about the death of their cat, not behaving maturely and will try to be more honest. When Devonte turned up at the same house some time afterwards, he confirmed his sister had been telling the truth.
A week before the crash, Devonte began running over to the neighbours house requesting food and saying that his parents had been withholding food as punishment. The visits escalated from daily to three times a day. It was only after a week of such visits that they finally called Child Protection Services, who stopped by and left a card but by then it was too late. The system clearly failed these beautiful children.
If adoption is about white privilege and the ‘white saviour’ syndrome, the outcome is even worse. A major issue in this story is the high doses of white privilege and ‘white saviour’ syndrome at play, orchestrated by and played out on social media. Adopting 6 African American children gave Jennifer and Sarah enormous ‘kudos’ as saviours, which is perhaps why Jen saw a need to write endless posts about her ‘drug babies’, most of them false, including a Facebook post describing Devante as ‘Born into a world of drugs (pumping through his newborn body) weapons and extreme poverty. By the time he was 4 he had smoked, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at…’ Attorney Shonda Jones later confirmed that Devonte was not born on drugs and had never been exposed to guns or violence.
Jennifer and Sarah used their status as a same-sex couple to claim they were going to change the world. For years, they used social media and community platforms to create a false picture of diversity, inclusion, and happiness. Jennifer Harts’ use of charismatic Devonte’s image after a photo of him holding a Free Hugs placard at a police brutality protest went viral, earned her thousands of likes and a reputation as the ultimate modern parent. These smiling photos, set against Devonte’s plea for food and the abuse documented by neighbours, friends and family, was masked by what we call in the PR industry, ‘spin’. One allegation of child abuse from 2013 touched on Jennifer’s use of Facebook, saying that, “… the kids pose and are made to look like one big happy family, but after the photo event, they would go back to looking lifeless. Jennifer Hart expertly created an image as an ideal mother who gave her poor underprivileged Black children a chance in life. The Facebook post on this piece says It all when you look at the delusion, ego, white saviour element of Jennifer Hart’s facade. It is disturbing to say the least. When a middle-class white woman impersonates someone who genuinely cares about anti-racism work, even though they are racist behind closed doors and are actively abusing black children. In the foster care profession, great lengths are usually taken to ensure children are placed with foster parents or guardians who have some cultural similarity. I just cannot see how six African American children were placed with two Caucasian women without a second thought.
When Jennifer was interviewed, she claimed that any family problems were the results of others not being tolerant of two lesbian mothers with six African American children.
At their deaths, their estimated weights, and heights were Devonte Hart, aged 15, 5’1, 90lbs, Sierra Hart aged 15, 4’5, 60lbs, 15 years old; Hannah Hart aged 16, 4’1, 45lbs. These shocking stats are not anywhere near the age-appropriate heights or weights for children of their ages. These six vulnerable children were literally withering away before our eyes and the time to save them has long passed. In the CPS where they deal with the most vulnerable of children, we simply cannot afford hindsight.
The CPS visited their home 3 times, identified children as ‘potential victims of abuse or neglect’ but each time when they interviewed the children in the home and not a neutral location which helps children to feel safe enough to speak. In my opinion, the CPS should be charged with gross negligence and corporate manslaughter. Had the CPS done their jobs from the get-go, and in the many years after their placement I believe all six children would still be alive. Instead, they were beaten and starved for years until they were murdered, even though they tried to speak out.
The documentary has been made, investigations have concluded, verdicts reached, and the family are all gone. My next stop is to create a panel discussion to explore the chilling patterns and invisibility of child abuse in a world where our children deserve better. My hope is that the next case will not be so easily ignored.