How It Is
Why Jennifer and Sarah Hart Killed Their Adopted Children
Recent reports from child-welfare workers reveal that the white adoptive parents of six abused Black children was a perfect storm of narcissism and twisted racial fantasy.
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Last week, dozens of pages of reports from child-welfare officials were released that offer harrowing details of the abuse that six Black children suffered at the hands of their adoptive white parents, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, in Washington State. A drunken Jennifer drove them all off a 100-foot cliff in Northern California in the family’s SUV. Markis, 19, Jeremiah, 14, Abigail, 14, and Ciera, 12, are all confirmed dead; Devonte, 15, and Hannah, 16, remain missing, but are feared dead.
But while the report provides a lot of disturbing details about the degree of physical and emotional abuse, it poses more questions than offers answers, and paints a gruesome portrait of the parents, who beat and starved and gaslighted their children before murdering them all, and committing suicide.
The child-welfare reports revealed that officials in Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington State recorded incidents of neglect and abuse, and people in their communities noticed there was something off. The children were malnourished and were described by neighbors as behaving “like trained robots” and “like little soldiers”; they were forced to raise their hand before speaking; they were punished for laughing at the table and for “stealing” pizza from the fridge when they were hungry. In 2011, Sarah Hart shoved banana and nuts into her daughter Hannah’s mouth after the girl had told the school nurse she hadn’t eaten, and then Sarah said she was “playing the food card” and to just give her water. School officials witnessed this. Neighbors. Friends. They’d seen the kind of meticulous, orderly and punitive unlivable environment they’d set up for their six beautiful Black children, whose souls they were trying to crush.
Rather than face the consequences of their actions, they chose to flee and kill themselves and their whole family just as they were being pursued by the Department of Social and Health Services, who showed up at their door on March 23, in Washington, to find an empty house. They came, incidentally, following a call it took a neighbor six months to make, after Hannah jumped out of a second-story window at 1:30 a.m. and scrambled into her home home asking to be hidden, and telling the neighbor that her racist parents whipped her with belts and begged her not to make her return to the Hart household.
I honestly don’t know what could motivate a parent to exact such abuse on children. And I can’t tell whether these women were trying to, consciously or not, fulfill some deranged modern-day plantation narrative or live out a Blind Side fantasy, but regardless, their position as the racial superior, be it as the slave master or the white savior, was all but assured. They were raising young Black children to be beholden to them, to worship them, to submit to them.
Many people are still trying to make sense of this nightmare. While some of their friends continue to defend the mothers, this case reveals a lot of discomforting truths about race in America. One: Why are their friends still defending them? Two: Why, when there were members of the children’s own family availing themselves to care for them, did the system insist on placing the children with the Harts? And after so many citations in so many states, why didn’t anyone intervene and sooner?
The complicity of systems that conspired to keep these children in these women’s care is as violent as the household in which they were enslaved. These pages of documents can attest that these children were far from safe. That this could have been stopped before it was literally too late.
The Hart children are not an isolated incident either: Cassandra Killpack, Michael Tinning, Hannah Grace-Rose Williams, Lydia Schatz, Timothy Boss, Hana Williams, Ahmad King are Black adoptees murdered by their white adoptive parents. You wonder why. Why did these parents take in these children and kill them? And why were they not screened carefully? Why was no one paying attention to allegations of abuse?
Officials hope that by releasing these documents on the Hart case, much can be learned to prevent future tragedies like this. Just a few highlights from the child-welfare reports paint a portrait of a perfect storm of narcissism and twisted white imagination. A portrait of a white couple who gained control over threatening Black child bodies and changed the way they experienced themselves as white liberal women.
These women could not successfully live out the experience of transforming a brood of Black teens into things that white people could control, that they could experience salvation from, and gain social credibility. I have to ask, why were these two white women posting photos of their Black children in their underwear on social media? Why did they post a late-night video of Devonte dancing in his briefs in a dimly lit living room on YouTube? I think as a culture, folks have long been comfortable with seeing nude and half-nude bodies of Black children. It’s so normalized that people don’t see it as exploitative or fetishistic or pornographic.
But they’re children. They’re minors. They don’t have agency in the matter. They’re being put on display for the enjoyment of strangers. We see photos of them being offered up for free hugs to white people— police officers no less—and to a white male singer, who is fondling Devonte’s head. Black people are very sensitive about strangers touching their children’s heads and hair—especially white people.
White people have a long history of sexualizing Black children under the guise of anthropology; in pediatric literature; in the circulation of consumer goods imbued with pedophilic themes. In medical literature, doctors crudely examined and graphically described Black children’s genitals. They’ve done this sexualization in ways that makes it seem like they aren’t. The ultimate catnip high for some white liberals is to get sexual and social gratification by their proximation to Black bodies and Black life.
Amid the intimacy of an abusive transracial adoptive home, I feel the Harts were rendering their kids vulnerable by posting videos and photos of their half-nude bodies onto social media for others to fetishize them.
And then there are the new photos that emerged on social media last week. They show some of the kids wearing underwear, looking gaunt and malnourished, with swollen bellies, and bones protruding through their skin.
Why did they starve these children?
The kids’ skin and bones reminded me of starving kids from foreign countries in crisis. You starve people to weaken them, and indeed that’s just what they were doing to their children—weakening them physically, breaking them emotionally, to stunt their growth and to maintain their savior narrative. They wanted their Webster and Diff’rent Strokes children because white people have long feared growing and maturing free Black bodies in their midst—and don’t want to risk the possibility of insurrection or revenge. They created their carnival freak show that would allow these six kids to be infantilized forever so they wouldn’t grow up to be a threat to them, to white society, or to fulfill their potential as full autonomous Black adults.
One witness told authorities that the mothers staged photos of the children smiling and looking happy. After the photos were taken, the kids would go back to being listless and the mothers acted disinterested in the children. Even in the photos of the children at play their bodies seemed very ordered and controlled. In their moments of “play,” the kids appeared organized, lined up, kept into place. Regardless of who set up these play areas, the meticulous play areas evoke a level of anxiety that is common among abused kids, who tend to play this way because they feel the world around them is so chaotic—and, but also because their abusers need to craft a façade of orderliness, as if that somehow undermines or distracts from any suspicions or allegations of abuse.
While local and national media outlets that analyzed these reports noted how tragic and disturbing these details are, they all stopped short of going deeper on the racialized sadism that jumps off the pages and harkens back to the slavery era when white plantation mistresses, America’s first transracial adopters, meted out brutal treatment against enslaved Black children. The way Sarah and Jennifer were controlling these children—starving them, keeping them in line in this creepy way, humiliating them, calling them liars and gaslighting them—reeks of racialized control, amusement, and ownership.
White people also have a long history of fetishizing racial Others that they fear. Sarah and Jennifer would give every indication of having had a deep and unspoken inherent fear of Black people.
But … but … but they adopted Black kids, people say.
Which is supposed to absolve them of what, exactly? Is the Duck Dynasty family any less racist for having adopted a black baby? I believe the Harts’ fear of blackness made them desperately desire a relationship with Black bodies they could touch, control, manipulate, and work over in ways that could be hidden. Perhaps some of the abuse the Harts meted out onto their children was subconscious. Maybe they imagined or could only see themselves as kind and good parents. Which is why anyone who disagreed with that self-assessment was consistently removed from their lives or why they constantly moved from state to state. So much of what they did—their social activities, especially—seemed focused on maintaining this magnanimous façade.
But this falls into a textbook case of narcissism. They needed to be seen the way they saw themselves. Anything that threatened that would have been unbearable. If their kids could tell the truth or break the façade they crafted for themselves they would have to die too—and so they did. Narcissists only see other people as extensions of themselves, not as whole, independent people with their own purposes and lives.
Their supporters saw on the most superficial level two white liberal ladies who “saved” two sets of siblings who might have otherwise been separated by the system, bounced from foster home to foster home or worse, and implicitly and wrongly trusted them. They manipulated and subverted that trust for their own sick purposes. Sarah and Jennifer might not even have been fully aware of what motivated them, or even realized their racism. These are the types of white liberals who psychologically haven’t dealt with their shit and are in denial (I couldn’t be racist! I’m a liberal!). They are much more destructive because it’s all subconsciously driven as opposed to outright racists who can be spotted, whose moves are obvious and can be countered.
These six precious children were never human to these women. What folks can’t reconcile is that Sarah and Jennifer Hart were people who were functional in polite society and were also cruel to their Black children. But this is not an anomaly. These were not just bad people who made a mistake. These are completely functional white people in white supremacist America who sought to commodify and abuse Black bodies.
Yes, child-welfare officials are right: It is absolutely critical that we learn everything we can about what went wrong in the Harts’s household. We need to keep talking about this case; about the role of white saviorism in transracial adoptions. The friends who missed the warning signs of abuse and remain in denial about the fact that they didn’t see anything because they probably didn’t see these Black children as fully human either. We need to talk about how to protect children who are homeschooled and don’t come into frequent contact with mandated reporters. We also need to talk about how the courts too quickly removed the children from their biological families and how social services agencies weren’t able to track the Harts from state to state.
And we must discuss the intersections of race and parenting.
We talk a lot about intergenerational race trauma from the standpoint of the victims, which we should. But rarely do we interrogate and examine the other side of that coin—the passing down of intergenerational white sadism. What the Hart tragedy shows, and the scores of cases of children of color who’ve been killed by their white adoptive parents proves, is that we need to keep turning the gaze back onto whiteness in all its funhouse-mirror forms.
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