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Records reveal years of child abuse in former Minnesota family driven over cliff in California

The Hart family, formerly of Alexandria, Minn., were in a van that ran off a cliff along the California coast on Monday, March 26. Courtesy of Mendocino County Sheriff's Office

ALEXANDRIA, Minn.—Oregon child welfare officials knew in July 2013 that Jennifer Hart - who last month drove her wife and six adopted children off a California cliff into the ocean - had already faced abuse allegations in Minnesota, according to records from their investigation released Monday, April 23.

They knew that when the family previously lived in Alexandria in west-central Minnesota, Hart allegedly deprived them of food and left them to rummage through trash for something to eat at school. School officials eventually stopped telling the Hart parents when their children took food from other students so that the children wouldn't be punished, records released to The Washington Post show.

And officials knew the Harts faced abuse allegations in Oregon, including an incident in which Hart forced her children to lie on an inflated mattress for five hours with sleeping masks over their faces after pizza went missing from an acquaintance's fridge.

Still, Oregon's child protective agency closed its investigation into the family after five months, in December 2013. A welfare agent concluded that, despite at least seven independent reports of abuse across the two states, they were "unable to determine" if those reports were warranted because of "insufficient data."

When Minnesota's child protective agency closed its investigation in Alexandria in 2011, a welfare worker said it was because Jennifer and her wife Sarah, both 38, appeared to "look normal." The family was believed to have lived in Alexandria for four or five years before moving to Oregon in 2013.

The Minnesota social worker feared that because the children didn't have medical or welfare records from before their adoption, taking them out of the Harts' custody put them at risk of "falling through the cracks."

Now, at least four of those children are dead after the family's SUV plunged 100 feet off a scenic Pacific Ocean overlook on March 26. Authorities believe the plunge was intentional, and preliminary toxicology results found that Jennifer Hart was drunk, with a blood alcohol level of 0.102. In California, drivers are considered legally drunk if they have a level of 0.08 or higher.

Authorities have so far recovered the bodies of Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart and four of their six children: Markis, 19, Jeremiah, 14, Abigail, 14, and Ciera. (Authorities previously referred to her as Sierra.)

Two children - Devonte, 15, and Hannah, 16 - remain missing and are feared dead.

Records released Monday by the Oregon Department of Human Services reveal a troubling narrative of how officials in both Minnesota and Oregon knew about the alleged abuse. The reports trace back to 2010, a few years after the Harts adopted two sets of siblings from Texas, in 2006 and 2009. They then moved from Minnesota to Oregon and finally to Woodland, Washington, where the Harts bought a house in 2017.

An Oregon welfare official told The Washington Post that since the state closed its investigation in 2013, case workers have been receiving training to make better decisions about children's safety. She did not immediately provide further explanation.

The Post earlier this month obtained records from the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, which revealed that three days before the crash, officials began investigating the family for abuse after a neighbor reported concerning incidents. Bruce DeKalb told The Post that one of the sons, Devonte, came to his home several times in March to ask for food and said his parents weren't feeding him.

He also reported that one of the daughters, Hannah, pounded on his door at 1:30 a.m. She had jumped out of the family's second-story window and run through the woods toward the neighbor's house. The 16-year-old, who DeKalb thought was only 7 and was missing some front teeth, was "rattled to the bone."

In 2013, at the time of the Oregon investigation, five of the six Hart children fell "below their growth charts" and appeared "small in stature," records show. But a doctor expressed "no concern," in part because the parents said the children had been small their entire lives.

The report read that all six children were "high risk, adopted children who were reported to have some medical or mental health history and trauma at adoption. The children are completely dependent upon their caregivers and do not have regular contact with any mandatory reporters, as they are home-schooled."

Officials said they have searched the family's home since the crash, as well as the couple's bank and credit card statements and phone records. They have yet to outline what they have found, aside from saying there were no suicide notes.

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