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Story of Harts’ foster child is one of heartbreak, though not the way some might expect

Jen and Sarah Hart (Thomas Boyd / Oregonian)
Jen and Sarah Hart (Thomas Boyd / Oregonian)

She was a 15-year-old who was, by her own admission, difficult to control. Her mom was young, single and overwhelmed. She had been in foster care in the past, due to chronic truancy, and it seemed time for that kind of change again.

Lee called up her old social worker, who found foster parents able to take her. Was she OK with living with a same-sex couple? the social worker asked.

“Yeah, whatever. It’ll be different, but why not?” Lee, now a woman in her late 20s, recalled responding.

That’s how she landed in the Alexandria, Minnesota, home of Jen and Sarah Hart — the Woodland, Washington, couple found dead on March 26 after their SUV, with at least three of their six adopted children onboard, drove over a California cliff.

Her recollections of living with the Harts offer the most intimate look yet at a couple at the center of a heartbreaking mystery and fevered speculation.

Lee’s tale, ultimately, is one of heartbreak, too, though not in the way some might guess from abuse allegations that later followed the Harts, including over a harsh spanking of one of their adopted children that resulted bruising and a 2011 misdemeanor domestic-assault conviction for Sarah. The worst thing about it is the way it ended.

Lee spoke to the Seattle Times on condition she not be identified, although she agreed to let the newspaper use a variation of her middle name.

She reckoned she moved into the Hart home in the summer of 2004, before her junior year of high school, and stayed until spring. Sarah and Jen were in their mid-20s, a few years out of Northern State University in South Dakota, their home state.

“The first six months were really good,” said Lee, who shared her memories by phone and email. “We went camping, we went to events, we kept busy. We did a lot of things I hadn’t really done before.”

Pictures show them together, smiling, on amusement-park rides.

“Sarah was more quiet. Jen was the more outgoing one,” Lee said. They lived in a two-story house with a dog and a bunch of cats.

She only vaguely remembers a makeover they brought her to at the department store where the Harts worked, described to the Times by former co-worker Jordie Smith. The girl looked unhappy, the co-worker said, and Jen and Sarah stood by with their arms crossed.

“I was a tomboy. Back then I never wore makeup,” Lee explained.

Smith said she heard from the couple about some problems they were having with the girl, including that she ate out of the trash – a claim that hurts and baffles Lee, who said she never did such a thing.

She said she wasn’t deprived of food, as allegations suggested the adopted children may have been, and she was never hit. “I didn’t know what to think,” she said of her reaction upon hearing those allegations involving the other children. “I still don’t know what to think.”

One thing that surprised her was that Sarah was the one charged with domestic assault. Jen was more moody, she recalled.

She was mainly the one Lee started to fight with, more and more frequently. It was all over petty things, Lee said.

One day, the threesome went to Lambeau Field for a Green Bay Packers game. “It was a little family trip.”

They had brought footballs, hoping to have them signed by star running back Ahman Green. Jen, in particular, was a huge fan. But when after the game they approached Green, holding up their footballs, Green picked the teen’s to sign.

“It turned into a huge fiasco,” Lee said. Jen “thought I had done it to be a brat. She just ignored me for days.”

In later years, neighbors in Oregon and Washington considered the Harts to be protective of their privacy. Some have wondered if their children were kept isolated, aside from the music festivals, rallies and outdoor activities they all did together.

Lee’s time with the couple perhaps contained hints of that.

“I remember getting upset at times because I couldn’t leave the house if it wasn’t to work or school,” she said. She worked at Subway, after the Harts had pushed her to get a job to learn responsibility.

When she asked the couple if she could see friends, she said, “it was always a no.” She had homework or chores to do. “If I wasn’t doing anything with them, I was home,” Lee said.

Maybe they were just trying to keep her safe, she allowed. Before living with them, she ran with a much older crowd and did things like leave her mom’s home in the middle of the night.

Also, Jen and Sarah were so young themselves. They probably weren’t ready to foster a teenager, Lee said.

Her mom, who continued to see Lee while in foster care, and keeps in close touch with her now, said she thinks the women “were trying to change her too fast” — perhaps using theories they learned in school. Jen and Sarah both studied education in college.

Despite growing friction, Lee was planning on staying with the Harts until she was 18. The Harts had asked if she wanted to, and she did. There had been a meeting with officials about it.

All the while, they also were planning to adopt children. Lee said fostering her seemed to be a way of paving the way, in part by making the couple seem like suitable candidates.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which sometimes places children with out-of-state families, has long offered adoption subsidies of between $400 and $545 a month per child.

In Lee’s estimation, the Harts’ desire to adopt was not about the money. “They loved kids,” she said. Jen, who later stayed home with those adopted children, seemed to want them the most, while Sarah was supportive, according to Lee.

Lee was all in, too. “I was going to be a big sister!”

The Harts seemed to be preparing her for the role. “They would tell me I needed to be a good influence for these kids.”

The couple went to Texas for a week to meet the first set of two sets of siblings they would adopt. As Lee remembers, there was a brother and sister. The mom was pregnant with a girl, and the Harts expected to adopt her, too.

Lee stayed with another family while they were gone and reunited with the Harts when they got back. They showed her pictures of the children. “We were super excited,” she said.

A week before the Texas children were due to arrive, the Harts dropped Lee off for a therapist appointment. Sitting her down, the therapist broke the news: Jen and Sarah would not be coming back to get her. Lee was going to live with a new family, starting immediately.

It’s not your fault, she recalled the therapist telling her. The Harts were just not a good fit.

And so, another couple picked her up and brought her home. All her belongings were already there.

She felt abandoned.

“I remember being devastated,” she said.

Laurie Bonds, director of Social Services for Douglas County, where Alexandria is located, said, “That wouldn’t probably be best practice.” She was speaking, generally, about a child being told about a move in this abrupt way, and not about Lee’s case specifically, about which she said she couldn’t comment. “We certainly try to prepare children.”

“They didn’t even say goodbye,” Lee’s mom remembered.

She never heard from them again.

But Lee isn’t holding onto grudges.

She said her new foster father, a Christian youth pastor, taught her the value of forgiveness. He and his wife are still in her life, so close she considers them grandparents to her toddler.

Lee now works with disabled people. “It’s a stressful job, but you leave for home knowing you did something good,” she said.

In recent years, she rarely thought about the Harts until the day her mom called her and asked, “Are you sitting down?”

She knows what some people are saying, that the couple, fleeing state officials investigating a report of abuse, purposefully sped off the cliff. Information at the site is not definitive, but there were no skid marks indicating braking.

“I don’t believe Jen and Sarah to be evil people, and I don’t want to believe that they killed their family intentionally,” Lee said.

What happened to the Harts? It was a painful question during Lee’s teenage years, and an even more puzzling one now.


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