When a photograph of Devonte Hart tearfully hugging a white police officer at a Portland rally went viral in 2014, much of the country saw this as a signal of racial harmony. Devonte, who was adopted by Jennifer and Sarah Hart, is now reported missing. Authorities found the dead bodies of three of his siblings and his white adoptive parents at a crash scene at the bottom of a California cliff along the Pacific Ocean. It is now presumed that the crash, with Jennifer Hart at the wheel, was a murder-suicide.
The feverish coverage of Devonte during that brief moment in his life as he protested brutality far surpassed the scant national reporting of the brutality he and his five siblings experienced in their own home.
In an appearance last month on Dr. Oz, the Harts’ neighbors Dana and Bruce DeKalb revealed that Devonte went to their home anxiously begging for food on consecutive nights, just 10 days before the Harts fled their Portland home. This was the last time the neighbors would see any trace of the family.
“Each time [Devonte came over] it was ‘don’t tell mom… don’t tell mom,” Dana remarks, “I took a moment to unemotionally look at [his appearance]. He was definitely disproportionate. [His sister] Hannah, same thing. She was tiny.” In other reports, the DeKalbs have said that 16-year-old Hannah appeared to be 7.
Dana presumed Devonte was attempting to feed himself and his siblings because he “was specific about six jars of peanut butter, six packages of tortillas. And it was six children.” He informed her that his parents “withhold food as punishment…and it used to only be a meal at a time, but now it was going for days at a time.” In the interview, Dana remarks that she specifically asked Devonte “are they abusing you?” “He said yes and didn’t elaborate.”
These details point to parents who subjected their children to increasing neglect and isolation the more their abuse began to surface publicly. As journalist Kristin Rawls observed, among her extensive investigation of the Hart family, the parents “very much used homeschooling to hide, circumventing already lax regulations.” There is also a pattern of the parents fleeing their homes, apparently whenever authorities caught on to their abuse. First from Minnesota, then to Washington, Oregon, and finally to California, which would be their last, fatal trip.
The troubling depths of Jennifer and Sarah Hart’s abuse is exacerbated by the lengths to which they obscured it with a sort of performative wokeness. In a most extreme form of virtue signaling, the mothers paraded their children at liberal festivals, marches, and meticulously curated photo shoots while privately abusing the adolescents’ frail bodies.
Sherry Davis, the birth mother of Devonte and his biological siblings Ciera and Devonte, told a local news outlet recently that her children were well fed and never neglected even in the midst of her drug problems. Yet, the narrative Jennifer Hart primarily spun to outsiders was that Devonte had “a life of little hope and a future that was over before it began…until Jen and her wife Sara entered [his] life and adopted him,” as shared on a blog.
These fabricated depictions underlie a harsh reality: the exploitation of Black bodies begins early. These six children, malnourished and isolated in the Harts’care, were mere props in the white saviorship saga Jen frequently pushed. What now looks to be the forced invasion of Devonte’s personal space in the 2014 viral photo was part of a pattern, as Devonte wore a “Free Hugs” sign in many public spaces. Forced to be embraced by complete strangers, Devonte’s general lack of bodily autonomy and the physical and emotional abuse he and his siblings suffered under the Harts’ care underscored their prevalent objectification.
Last year, when Jordan Peele debuted his film Get Out to critical acclaim, many Black audiences noted the fictional story was compelling precisely because it dramatized the very real horror of Black American life. Get Out specifically targets the curated images of white liberals, who may speak passionately about equality in theory while capturing Black people from their communities and preying on Black bodies to occupy. I imagine Jennifer and Sarah Hart — who traveled across multiple time zones to adopt six Black children plucked from their homes — would have also “voted for Obama for a third term.” The film’s plot reflected our real trauma while allowing some much-needed comedic relief. Though, tragically, many of our kids don’t actually get out.
The toxic mix of white supremacy and white saviorship that permeates our social institutions, including the child welfare system, means that there are no easy solutions. Sherry Davis told local news outlets that at the time she lost custody of her children to the Harts, she was doing live-in care at least two days a week for work and housekeeping on the side to make ends meet. “They’re so quick to snatch [children] from people like us,” she said, “but once they’re adopted, they don’t even check on them?”
The multiple levels of failure — from next-door neighbors who took months to report the children’s’ abuse, to the child welfare system, to society at large for hinging the weight of white supremacy and police brutality on the shoulders of a terrified Black child — are clear. The solutions are less explicit.
Some advocates are calling for a national child abuse database to track parents who, like the Harts, may cross state lines to avoid detection. With each state operating within their own jurisdiction, records from child protective services aren’t readily available.
Others, like the DeKalbs during their appearance on Dr. Oz, are asking that people contact authorities early on when they see signs of abuse. The irony of having to compel white neighbors to call authorities when they witness Black vulnerability — while cops are called at a moment’s notice to police perceived Black threats — is not lost here.
Because reporting mechanisms may be mired in the same white supremacist attitudes that lead to the disproportionate separation of Black families, another policy measure is to require implicit bias training in child protective services and enhance their existing resources so qualified, diverse social workers can enter the field.
Until legislatures take aggressive measures to create systemic change, we must continue to fight for our lives and make it abundantly clear that Black kids matter