Woman says she reported 'cruel' treatment by Jennifer and Sarah Hart

From Left: Markis, Sarah, Jeremiah, Sierra, Devonte, Jennifer, Abigail, and Hannah Hart family at a rally in Portland on March 25, 2016 - Photo from Jackie Labrecque, KATU News

SEATTLE (AP) — A woman said Tuesday that she told Oregon child welfare officials in 2013 that Jennifer and Sarah Hart — who plunged off a California cliff with their children last month in an SUV — had been depriving the kids of food as punishment.

In a statement provided to The Associated Press, Alexandra Argyropoulos, a former friend of the Harts, said she "witnessed what I felt to be controlling emotional abuse and cruel punishment" toward the six children.

RELATED: Jennifer Hart spotted in Fort Bragg; large search for missing kids planned Wednesday

Argyropoulos said she was told the children had been interviewed by officials but there was nothing more the Oregon Department of Human Services could do because there was not enough evidence to make a case.

The family was living in Woodland, Washington, before their SUV plummeted 100 feet on March 26 from a highway near Mendocino, California.

Three of the children were found at the crash site. Three others are missing.

RELATED: Hart parents denied using belt to discipline child in '08, claimed she fell down stairs

Days earlier, authorities in Washington state began investigating whether the adoptive children were being neglected and going hungry.

Authorities have said social service officials in Oregon contacted the West Linn Police Department about the family in 2013 while they were living in the area. Police referred media questions to the Oregon Department of Human Services, which cited privacy laws in refusing to say whether the agency was involved.

After reporting her concerns in 2013, Argyropoulos said, she was told the Hart children had been interviewed by officials from the Oregon department; it was apparent that each child had been coached by their mothers on what to say; and nothing more could be done.

Argyropoulos said she was unaware of a 2011 domestic assault conviction against Sarah Hart. She said the couple broke off contact with her after she went to Oregon officials.

"My heart is completely broken. The current system failed to protect these children from their abusers," Argyropoulos said.

Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota over what she said was a spanking given to one of her children.

Last month, concerned neighbors in Woodland contacted child welfare authorities, saying the parents may have been withholding meals from the children.

On Sunday, authorities disclosed that data from the vehicle's software suggested the crash was deliberate. They said the SUV had stopped at a pull-off area before speeding straight off the cliff.

Authorities are investigating whether a surveillance video from Fort Bragg, California, shows one of the women a day before the SUV was found at the bottom of a cliff at a scenic viewpoint along the Pacific Coast.

California Highway Patrol investigators are working with the FBI to try to enhance the video.

One of the missing children is 15-year-old Devonte Hart, a black youngster who drew national attention after he was photographed in tears while hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest.

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