I can’t get the haunting image of their tiny arms and protruding ribs out of my mind. The picture is of 3 little kids doing “Jackson Pollock” painting, posted to Facebook by their adoptive mom, Jen Hart. The caption on the photo gushed about their artistic endeavor, but it’s difficult to see how anyone could have looked at that picture and not seen starvation. The pain and tragedy was happening behind closed doors, but in a way also right out in the open. This picture of emaciated children was liked and commented on widely by Jen’s robust Facebook following. Truly seeing what was going on was unimaginable to most people who knew the Harts. The story of 6 abused children of color “saved” by a peace-loving two mom family filled so many with happiness that honest inquiry into their family was halted.
The kids were black and had 2 white moms. They were politically progressive and engaged. They lived on an acreage and raised vegetables and chickens. They ate organic food. They homeschooled their large brood of children. They encountered racism and homophobia. Their kids difficult pasts were used as explanations when things seemed off. All of this sounds uncomfortably close to my family.
Thirteen years ago my wife and I adopted a sibling group of three Latinx kids. Over the years we added two other transracial brothers. We garden, eat organic food, are politically active and have homeschooled some or all of our kids for years on our rural property. Jen was purportedly a person who wanted to heal proverbial little birds with broken wings. Honestly, I can relate to that a lot. Adoption was always my preferred route of family creation because I want all kids to have “forever” families and felt little pull toward raising my own biological children. The Hart children had special needs and challenges and those were used as excuses to justify their flat affects and harsh parenting. The number of times I’ve felt compelled to discuss some facet of another of what my kids have done or how I parented them using somewhat similar justifications is saddeningly familiar. In part it is these congruences that have kept this family on my mind. It’s like a dark parallel universe with them on one side and my family on the other.
What lurked behind the smiling Facebook pictures of the Hart family was an ugly, brutal reality. Jen and Sara Hart starved, neglected and abused their kids. They used the kids’ race and their being a same-sex couple as a way to deflect and beat back questions about what was going on in their home, using other people’s “live and let live” attitude as a shield. They used the kids’ backgrounds to obfuscate the very real calls for help the kids were making. They homeschooled their children to keep prying eyes at bay. They claimed their fragile, painfully thin bodies were the result of their healthy organic diet. They cloaked themselves in the verbiage of new-age spirituality and feel-good politics to cover the horrors perpetrated upon their kids.
There is no doubt that the Hart women were monstrous parents. But, if we stop the conversation about this horrific tragedy with platitudes about how unhinged those women were and not take a deeper look at how those children met that fate, we do yet another disservice to them. This case brings up so many of the complexities and moral dilemmas involving child protective services. These inconsistencies and contradictions bounce through my head and my writing as I try to make sense of my own life and how it intersects with the world. The Hart case highlights so many of these issues that I’ve been grappling with.
Several different CPS agencies failed to address life-threatening abuse perpetrated by the Hart moms. Systemic challenges in how we have organized and funded CPS nationally are leading to excessive actions at times and tragic inaction at others. Most people will look at the Hart case as a tragedy where CPS failed to protect kids from their abusive adoptive moms. And this is absolutely the case. But CPS also failed the kids when they unjustly removed kids from their aunt’s home. As such, the story of these children represents nearly all the ways in which child protection fails to safeguard and respect children and families. The same system that can leave kids languishing and scared in abusive homes is also guilty of overzealous and cruel removals of kids. CPS did both to the Hart kids.
The kids’ entry into the home of Jen and Sara Hart underscores familiar race and class bias concerns with child protection. Little is known about the circumstances behind the first 3 children they adopted. But the story of the second sibling group spotlights the original success and then failure of CPS. They had a drug-addicted mother and were placed by Child Protective Services (CPS) with an aunt who wanted to adopt them. We cannot always prove unfairness in any particular case, but the statistics bear it out – the vast majority of kids in foster care are children of color and by far the majority of adoptive parents are white. Both conscious and unconscious racial and class bias plays into this dynamic in ways big and small.The Hart kids were then taken from what appears to be a loving, competent biological relative because of a single infraction of the rules. Their aunt did not at that moment have all the resources she needed to provide for the children (i.e.suitable babysitter) or the ability to fight CPS when the kids were taken from her. So all contact with her was cut-off and the kids were moved across the country to Minnesota to live with their new parents who were socially, biologically, racially and economically completely alien to the kids. As such, the kids come with challenges. And for those adoptive parents who then look for stabilizing support from the system that placed the children, all too often help is too little or nonexistent. I don’t know if the Hart mothers ever sought resources. In fact it looks like the opposite in that they tried to avoid any possible resources that could have saved them. But for those decent parents who adopt with good hearts and good faith, the system can then let those kids and families down all over again.
How can one system be so messed up that it has so many destructive outcomes? It is important to realize that CPS is no single government agency, but are mostly independent agencies run by each county. Funding levels, competency and ethics of staff, the ways in which statute is interpreted and how cases are handled varies widely by each agency. There is often no higher-level authority to ensure quality, common sense and morality of the agency. This lack of oversight is a point where the system really breaks down, because without any additional eyes on decision-making, extremes on either end of the spectrum of dysfunction are more likely to occur. Children’s rights and point-of-view within the system are often not respected, child protection workers and supervisors can be wildly off in their assessments of families or misapply statute, some caregivers can seemingly be allowed to get away with murder, and other times parents or other caregivers have cases opened and lose custody with dubious justifications.
County governments that supervise child protection agencies need to exercise more robust authority in overseeing outcomes and resolving constituent disputes regarding decisions – be they removals or failures to remove. In addition, we need state-level oversight in the form of an ombudsman for children and families in every state. An ombudsman is an official appointed to investigate individuals’ complaints against maladministration, especially that of public authorities, according to Google. Ten states have no form of higher-level governance at all and most have only very weak, often ineffective and underfunded offices. Ombudsman offices need independence and capacity to investigate and make recommendations in cases where parties involved feel a miscarriage has occured. There are a lot of smart people with excellent agency-level recommendations for reforms and those also need to be heard and brought into CPS sooner rather than later. Child protection needs to be viewed as one of our most sacred responsibilities as a society because getting it wrong can literally destroy lives. Each day that goes by we have vast numbers of kids being removed, placed in foster and adoptive homes that may or may not be better than their last home, their needs and the needs of their families routinely ignored and too many kids become wards of an exceedingly flawed system where their outcomes are highly variable. Only with more accountability will agencies have incentives to address the myriad ethical challenges they face.
The news just broke yesterday that Jen and Sara sat in the front seat of their vehicle and planned out their murder/suicide. I cannot stop thinking about how those kids, sleeping, drugged up on Benadryl, were simply pawns in their adoptive mother’s destructive mindset. They deserved so much more from those women who adopted them, from child protective services, from those around them who suspected something but did nothing. It is time for us to take seriously our massive collective failure to have a sensible, humane and trustworthy CPS system. It is far past time that CPS continues on as a disparate collection of agencies with no oversight, to leave kids in horror, rip them away cold-heartedly, and not support the children and families who need them. We require a reckoning of what and who we are as a people when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable, and the Hart tragedy reminds us of that. Every state needs a strong office of ombudsman for child protection matters to reign in the worst excesses that are leading to such nightmares. Markis, Hannah, Jeremiah, Abigail, Devonte, and Ciera need us to not only remember them, but actively work to do better.