A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 10, 2020

The Hart children
The Hart children  

When, on March 26, 2018, Jennifer Hart, at the wheel of an SUV, drove herself, her wife, and their six adopted children off a cliff — evidently speeding toward the edge, without any attempt to slow down, and then plunging 100 feet to the rocky shoreline below, killing everyone in the vehicle — the social media response was swift and damning.

The tragedy was compounded, though when that red-hot rage and hatred extended to friends of the Harts, as well as to their neighbors. When Rachel Morgan decided to produce a documentary about the tragedy, the venom — far from dissipating or cooling off — turned toward her and her production crew, some of whom left before the production was complete.

As Morgan and co-producer Chris Kobin delve into the story with interviews, archival footage, and what look like home movies from the Harts, more details emerge that suggest that social media didn't just wake up to the Harts after their deaths, but may have played a role in driving them toward the tragedy. Jen Hart was a prolific and skilled social media user herself and shared photos of what seemed to be a flawless family; that in itself was enough to mask the family's internal conflicts from friends and acquaintances. But when a photo of son Devonte — who, like the other adopted children, was a person of color - tearfully hugging a white policeman in the wake of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, went viral, that threw the family into the glare of international attention. The image melted many hearts and inspired many others, but it also made a target of the family for trolls and their inexhaustible reservoirs of ugliness and emotional violence.

Jen, in particular, seemed hard hit, and the children seemingly suffered; a neighbor describes how Devonte began relying on her to provide food that the young man then smuggled back to his siblings. That same neighbor recounts an incident that took place when, in the middle of the =night, one of the girls, Hannah, appeared at her door looking for shelter and saying that she was being abused.

This was not the first allegation of abuse; the film uncovers allegations that another of the girls, Abigail, had indicated that Jen had been physically abusive. Though Jen was identified, it was Sarah who "took the blame."

The family's troubles seem to have begun long before the deadly events of March 26, 2018. Sarah was arrested in 2011 and put on probation after Child Protective Services in Minnesota, where the Harts lived at the time, received allegations that the children were being physically abused and denied food, the film tells us. A couple of years later, after the family had moved to Oregon, Child Protective Services there began an investigation into the family. In 2017 the Harts left Oregon for Woodland, Washington. A pattern seems to emerge of a family on the move ahead of the law. Their final flight took them along the West Coast to California, where — several days after abruptly leaving their house — the women and their children went over that cliff. The documentary notes that authorities believe the women had dosed the children with Benadryl to put them to sleep.

While the exact family dynamics remain a mystery — and this hour-long doc lacks for context in some places, leaving many questions unanswered — what stands out with stark clarity is the way the children affected everyone who knew the family. Whatever might have been going on with Jen and Sarah, one interviewee after the other tells us, there was real love in the family as a whole, and the children were special.

Was that because they had been given a home life that was in certain important ways nurturing — even if in other ways there seems cause to fear that the children suffered horrifically? Was it a matter of sheer chance? (Three of the children were siblings. The other three may also have been siblings — it's not quite clear, and that's one of the bits of context upon which one wishes one had a firmer grasp.)

The family friends who were excoriated, despised and even threatened for defending the Harts speak out about this confounding paradox, but they also indict the culture at large — a culture in which brutish voices, screamed the loudest, seem to have taken over every public conversation. Whatever their flaws and misdeeds may have been., it's hard to see how the haters who emerged from the woodwork to spout rage and vitriol could have much claim to a moral high ground.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.