The Tragic Story Of The Hart Family

In the summer of 2014, as protests raged in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of unarmed Black man Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, a startling scene emerged from the chaos and then later went viral. The image, seen above, shows a tearful, young boy named Devonte Hart, who had previously been photographed crying while holding a sign that read, "Free Hugs," in an embrace with a police officer. The photo went viral, and Complex called the image "the hug felt 'round the world."

Four years later, Hart and his family would make news for a much different reason. Devonte, then just 16, died alongside his siblings in a murder-suicide after his adoptive mother Jennifer intentionally drove the family's SUV off a Northern California cliff.

The tragic murder revealed that the public image of a socially conscious family of two women and their group of adopted children was a carefully constructed front designed to look good on social media. Behind the scenes, the family was allegedly dysfunctional and abusive, and later evidence would reveal that one of the parents had even researched the effects of a sleep-inducing drug, and how much one suffers when drowning, as reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, before the family vehicle was driven off of a cliff in a murder-suicide.

The origins of an abusive family

Adoptive parents Sarah Gengler and Jennifer Hart were both born and raised in the same part of South Dakota, according to Glamour. They met at Northern State University in Aberdeen, from which Jen would eventually drop out, and where Sarah would get her degree in special education.

Though in a romantic relationship, the two stayed in the closet, at least at first, due to the rampant homophobia of the era. However, by 2005 the couple was out, according to The Oregonian, and in 2009 they officially got married, before same-sex marriage was legal in all 50 states, in Connecticut, per The New York Times.

A decade before the couple would become internet famous thanks to the scene captured at the Ferguson protests, there were signs that the two women were perhaps not cut out to be parents. In 2004, they  adopted a teenage girl. According to Glamour, however, less than a year later, the two women dropped their daughter off at a therapist's office and simply drove off.

A carefully constructed image on social media

In 2006, according to Glamour, the two women adopted three siblings from the Texas foster care system. On her first night as a foster mom to the three, Jen took to social media to humblebrag. She alleged that one of the children spread feces on the walls and another purportedly gorged herself on so much food that she projectile vomited. Still, Jen claimed in a Facebook post, that she and her wife were committed to rescuing the kids. "If not us — WHO?" she wrote.

By 2008, the two women had become ambassadors, of a sort, for interracial adoption. Smiling, the two appeared in publicity for an adoption agency, sharing that they were seeking three children, up to eight years old, of any ethnicity.

Indeed, in 2009, the Harts did adopt three siblings: Jeremiah, Ciera (sometimes spelled "Sierra"), and Devonte, the latter being the same young boy who was photographed in Ferguson. True to form, Jen published the event on social media, posting a photo of Jeremiah hugging her legs and claiming that the boy told her, "You my momma now."

Allegations of abuse

The public image that the couple constructed and propagated on social media did not match what was allegedly happening in the children's lives behind the scenes, court records would reveal. Indeed, though the couple seemed fond of adopting children, they left a three-state trail of allegations of abuse and neglect.

In Minnesota, according to Investigation Discovery, a teacher observed bruises on one of the children, who claimed that her mothers beat her with a belt. Two years later, another child claimed to have been hit and held under water for allegedly having stolen a penny; a year later, one of the children complained to a school nurse that she had not eaten all day, a complaint that Sarah brushed off as her daughter "playing the food card," per Oregon Live

When the family moved to Oregon, state officials contacted their Minnesota counterparts about the possibility of any allegations of abuse in their old home. However, according to The New York Times, officials in Oregon were unable to conclusively determine if there was any abuse or neglect in the family.

The family's final home was in Washington. There, a neighbor made gruesome and heartbreaking allegations about what she had seen.

A neighbor alleges horrific abuse and neglect

In 2017, according to Investigation Discovery, neighbor Dana DeKalb had a horrifying encounter with one of the Hart children. Specifically, Hannah Hart had jumped out of her second-story bedroom window in the early hours of the morning, and had gone to her neighbors' home to beg for help, saying that her parents were racist and abused them. However, Jen Hart was able to convince the neighbor that her daughter was lying.

From then on, according to Glamour, Dana was "obsessed" with what went on in the house next door. And though she couldn't see much, a short time later she learned all she needed to know from Devonte, the same child who, a few years earlier, had been photographed in Ferguson. The teen begged the neighbors for food, and even brought a grocery list of sorts, and asked his friends to leave the food where his mothers couldn't see it. Further, he begged his friends not to tell his parents. The DeKalbs called the police and Child Protective Services.

Washington authorities made two attempts to contact the family. The first was unsuccessful, and the second, three days later, was also fruitless, although for a much different reason: on the same day Washington officials tried to make contact with the Hart family, Jen was driving herself, her partner, and her children to their deaths in California.

The tragic end of the Hart family

The suffering of the Hart family's children came to an end on March 26, 2018, according to CNN, when Jen Hart is believed to have driven the family's SUV off a 100-foot cliff and into the ocean in Northern California. None of the occupants of the vehicle were wearing seat belts and Devonte's body has never been found. 

Officials at first thought it was a tragic accident, but soon the horrifying truth of the crash began to emerge. The vehicle's computer data revealed that it had not braked as it was heading toward the cliff. Sarah and two of the children had a sleep-inducing drug in their systems, according to BBC News. What's more, prior to the crash, Sarah had searched for information about Benadryl (a sleep-inducing over-the-counter allergy remedy) and drowning. Indeed, even as she was in the passenger seat, she and her children hurtling towards their deaths, Sarah was using her phone to look up how much she would suffer if she drowned, as Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

So why did the family end in such a tragic way? The only people who know the answer to that question for certain drowned in 2018. However, as People reported, a co-worker revealed that Sarah had once suggested that she wished she had never adopted so many children.