A Look At 'Broken Harts,' Episode 5: 'Owies'

What was happening with the Harts in real life—behind the pixels, in ordinary time? How did Jen and Sarah Hart—“adventurous, tree-hugging, free-spirited peaceniks," as Jen called them on Facebook—go from being groovy trailblazers to moms who abused their six kids and drove off a cliff?

On March 23, Dana DeKalb, who lives next door to the Hart family in Woodland, Washington, places a call to CPS to report what she believes to be abuse happening in the Hart home. A caseworker visits the Harts that Friday, the 23rd, after Dana's call, and follows up again on the 26th. When she's unable to connect with the Harts either day, she calls 911. But by the time authorities show up to the Harts' home, the family is already on the run.

In a call to Child Protective Services on the 26th, you can hear the Clark County Social Services caseworker requesting a welfare check on the Harts at the family’s home in Woodland, Washington.

As it turns out, Jen and Sarah Hart have a long history of reported abuse and neglect, which, according to police reports, begins in September of 2008 when someone at Washington Elementary School in Alexandria, Minnesota, notices a suspicious bruise on Hannah Hart’s arm; Hannah claims the mark is the result of her mother's striking her with a belt. When Sarah and Jen are questioned, they tell police that the bruise was likely from a fall down stairs.

Two years later, in November of 2010, another report is filed; this time the subject is Abigail, who is in the first grade. The report claims she was stealing her classmates’ food and digging through the garbage. Later that month, Abigail reports “owies” to her teacher. According to a report later compiled by the Oregon Department of Human Services: “Abigail had bruising on her stomach area from her sternum to waistband, and bruising on her back from mid-back to upper buttocks, reportedly caused by Jen Hart (according to Abigail). But in the CPS interview with the couple, Sarah Hart said she is responsible for the marks. The worker said this incident was over a penny. They had discovered a penny in Abigail’s pocket and asked her about it, and Abigail said she found it. Jen and Sarah Hart did not believe her, and said she stole the penny, and was lying about it, hence the spanking—‘which got out of control,’ per Sarah Hart. Abigail also said they put her head under cold water, and Jen had her two hands on her neck." Upon questioning the other Hart kids, investigators learn the children are often grounded, spanked, or sent to bed without food.

In December of 2010, Minnesota Child Welfare learns about a bruise on Hannah’s hand. By this point she is in third grade. When she's questioned, Hannah claims Jen hits her all the time. Later the school nurse calls the Hart home to report that Hannah is asking her classmates for food, saying she hasn't eaten all day. Sarah’s response is simply: “She’s playing the food card. Just give her water.” The following April, Jen and Sarah pull all six children from school.

But despite these continued complaints to Child Services, many of those closest to the Harts are reportedly unaware of the abuse. In an interview with Bill Groener—the Harts' neighbor in West Linn, Oregon, where the family lives for four years before they move next door to the DeKalbs in Woodland, Washington—Groener says he had no idea that child abuse allegations had been filed against Jen and Sarah, and that he "wishes there would have been something" that tipped him off.

It seems the Hart matriarchs have become experts at fooling those around them into believing their home was one filled with love and laughter, and on Facebook, Jen continues to craft lengthy, emphatic posts describing the family's adventures. In one particular instance, in December of 2012, Jen writes that she's been in a car accident with the kids in Missoula, Montana. The car she is driving at the time is the family's Yukon—the same one that later goes off the cliff. Jen describes the accident at length, but a thorough investigation does not turn up any record of the accident Jen describes, and a Carfax report of the Yukon shows no body work was performed on the car around the time Jen claims the accident occurs.

PHOTO: Carfax

In another post to her page, this time from June of 2013, Jen shares a photo of a strikingly thin Devonte, naked and playing the guitar. In the post, Jen shares an exchange with her son, wherein she asks him: "Any particular reason you are naked?" to which he allegedly replies: "I’m not naked. I’m wearing a guitar." The exchange and photo are intended to be funny, showing a thick-as-thieves bond between mother and son. But instead the post raises red flags. Why would a boy of Devonte's age be so small and frail? Friends of the Harts—both those on Facebook and those who knew the family from the music festival circuit—were frequently told by Jen and Sarah that the children were “crack babies” who were developmentally delayed, giving friends and acquaintances reason to believe that was the cause of the children's small stature; meanwhile, the children are frequently asking neighbors and classmates for food.

A few short weeks after Jen posts this photo to Facebook, an anonymous whistleblower reports the parents to CPS. A doctor who later examines the children for the Oregon Department of Human Services finds that all but one of the Hart kids—Jeremiah—are behind in their growth to the point of falling off the chart for their ages. The doctor recommends that a caseworker monitor the family and request follow-up physicals in six months, though there is no record of this ever happening.

Online, Jen paints the portrait of a happy, healthy family, but as one anonymous whistleblower tells authorities: “Jen does this thing for her Facebook page, where the kids pose and are made to look like one big happy family, but after the photo event they go back to looking lifeless.”

So what, then, was the truth? That, and more, coming up on Broken Harts.

Subscribe now to our new podcast, Broken Harts, from Glamour and HowStuffWorks and based on this story from the October 2018 issue of Glamour. New episodes will air each Tuesday; find them on Apple, Google, Spotify, or wherever you like to get your podcasts. For the full transcript of this episode, click here. Have any tips, feedback, or questions? Email us at brokenhartspodcast@gmail.com

Top photo by Holly Andres.

Published at Tue, 08 Jan 2019 05:01:00 +0000