'Punishment seemed unnecessarily cruel': Hart family friend seeks change to honor children
A woman who says she was close with the Hart family has started a petition to protect children from the abuse she says the Hart children endured at the hands of Jen and Sarah Hart. The kids she says were “regularly punished” by the two women.
In a statement released to KATU, Alexandra Argyropoulos says she reported the Harts to child welfare in 2013 after witnessing what she calls “unnecessarily cruel” punishments. At the time, the family lived in West Linn, Ore.
“The kids were regularly punished for common childlike and adolescent behavior, such as laughing too loudly or taking a small piece of food that was offered without permission from Jen. Her reactions were overblown, and the punishments seemed unnecessarily cruel,” Argyropoulos said.
She says the Hart family stayed with her for two weeks. That's when she realized Jen was not the loving mother she pretended to be. Instead, she says the family was run “like a regimented boot camp, where true kindness, love, and respect for the children was largely absent.”
Argyropoulos says on top of taking food away as a form of punishment, sometimes for a full day, Jen would also make them stand in a corner staring at a wall for extended period of times. She says usually these punishments were for small "misbehaviors."
After spending two weeks with the family, Argyropoulos says she confronted Jen and Sarah about the punishments. She says she even expressed concerns about the kids getting enough to eat even when they weren’t being "punished." After doing so, she says Jen and Sarah broke off contact.
That’s when she says she turned to Oregon’s Human Protective Services in 2013.
“I was later told that the children had been interviewed by Oregon Child Protective Services, and it was apparent that each child had been coached by their mothers on what to say, but there was nothing more CPS could do because there was not enough evidence to make a case,” Argyropoulos said.
At the time, she says she wasn’t aware of the abuse allegations and convictions that have come to light since the crash.
As Argyropoulos learned more about the Hart family and all the allegations of abuse, she realized something more needed to be done.
“How is it in this great country of ours, two mothers with a history of reported child abuse in three states, disclosed by eight adults, over a 10-year span still have custody of six children? This happened because our state agencies are unable to communicate effectively. Jen and Sarah were able to skip from state to state with six children knowing that a trail of their documented abuse would go without further investigation or consequence,” Argyropoulos said.
Argyropoulos has started a petition called Protect Our Children- Call for a National Child Abuse Registry on the White House's website. She says she hopes to get support for an agency-wide National Child Abuse Registry (NCAR) that would allow state agencies immediate access to prior reports of abuse.
She believes such a registry would have made a difference for the six children adopted by Sarah and Jen Hart.
“I believe each abuse investigation’s outcome would’ve been different if the state agencies had access to all prior information,” Argyropoulos said.
Her goal, she says, is to protect other children who may not have a voice of their own.
“My hope is that it receives enough signatures to grab the attention of lawmakers who can make a difference and impact change. I have the utmost respect for those who work in Child Protective Services and understand that they are limited by the current policies and state laws. But it is our duty as a nation to protect innocent children from their abusers and to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable, so this type of unspeakable tragedy doesn't happen again,” Argyropoulos said.
Jen and Sarah Hart and three of their adopted children were found dead in or near a vehicle crashed at the base of a cliff in California. Investigators in Mendocino County say based on the vehicle's on-board computer, they believe the crash was intentional.
A case worker attempted to visit the Hart family home in Woodland, Wash. on the morning of Friday, March 23. Their vehicle was found crashed on March 26.
Three children, Hannah Hart, Sierra Hart, and Devonte Hart, are still missing.
Oregon's Department of Human Services (DHS) said information about child abuse cases is not always shared state to state.
The Harts moved to Washington last year, according to a neighbor. They previously also lived in other states including Minnesota, where Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to domestic assault in 2011.
West Linn police confirm they contacted the family in 2013 and referred the case to DHS, which has said it can't confirm whether it investigated the case.
Daphne Young, a spokeswoman for the non-profit child abuse prevention group Childhelp, told KATU a bill in the group's name aimed at creating a national database was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006.
"The registry was to collect, this central electronic database, and bring forth information on children reported to a state, a tribe, a political division of a state and it was covering both abuse and neglect," Young explained.
But she said that database was never built because there's no money for it and no funding was included in the law itself.
"That kind of national infrastructure requires a lot of money," said Young who still supports the construction of a national database. "When you have people moving from state to state to state it allows them to kind of get lost in the system," Young said on Friday. “Those people that have harmed children need to be on alert, that they’re being watched, that they are known.”
Norah West, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, said the agency responded to the Hart home on March 23, 26 and 27 regarding an abuse or neglect allegation. The family's crash was first reported on March 26.
West said her agency had no previous contact with them.
"There is neither a national database/child abuse registry nor is there a requirement for families to report to another state when they move out of state," she said. "If a state has concerns that children might be at risk, and the state is aware that a particular family is moving to another state, those states may provide relevant information to each other on a case-by-case basis."
A DHS spokeswoman told KATU if there's not an open investigation or safety threats they're aware of they can't keep track of a family's location or report their past records to other states.
Officials with Minnesota's Department of Human Services did not immediately answer questions Friday regarding whether information about abuse allegations in that state were reported to Oregon and Washington or to a national database.