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Cliff crash: Child abuse concerns were raised; son was in famous protest photo

Posted at 11:09 PM, Mar 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-28 20:04:06-04

(RNN) – One of the mothers of six children believed to have died in a car crash off a cliff in California had a prior domestic assault conviction stemming from a child abuse case in Minnesota, and neighbors had called child services last week to check on the six children.

It also came to light one of the children, Devonte Hart, appeared in a photo that became famous during the protests in 2014 over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

Sarah Hart, who died along with her wife Jennifer and at least three of their adopted kids in Wednesday's crash, was convicted in a 2011 case, The Oregonian newspaper reported. Citing Minnesota court records, the paper said her daughter, then 6, had gone to school with bruises on her stomach and back and told a teacher she was hit.

The criminal complaint, cited by KGW in Portland, OR, said Sarah Hart admitted to a detective the couple had spanked the daughter. The complaint said “the defendant admitted she let her anger get out of control.” She received a suspended jail sentence and probation in the case.

KOIN in Portland further reported that neighbors of Sarah and Jennifer Hart in Woodland, WA, said they called Child Protective Services on Friday and that officials visited the couple's home.

By Saturday, they’d left.

Officials acknowledged a case had been opened and that CPS had tried to reach the Harts three times recently, without success.

Dana and Bruce Dekalb told the station that one of the children came next door asking them to put food near the fence for him. Dana Dekalb said they believed “that they were withholding food from him.”

They also told the story of a time one of the couple’s girls came next door and asked them to “take her to Seattle because they weren’t treating her right.” Bruce Dekalb said the girl pleaded: “Don’t make me go back.”

Some friends reached by KOIN, however, spoke positively about the Harts. And a Portland photographer who spoke to The Oregonian, Zippy Lomax, said: “Jen and Sarah were the kinds of parents this world desperately needs. They loved their kids more than anything else.”

The Harts adopted three sets of siblings from two biological families. Markis Hart, 19, Jeremiah Hart, 14, and Abigail Hart, 14, died in the crash, according to authorities. They were still searching for Hannah Hart, 16, Devonte Hart, 15, and Sierra Hart, 12, but believed them dead as well.

Sheriff Tom Allmon of Mendocino County in California, where the crash occurred, said: “We have every indication to believe that all six children were in there. We know that an entire family vanished and perished during this tragedy.”

Allmon added “there were no skid marks, there were no brake marks” where the vehicle went over the cliff in a 100-foot drop. He specified that there was no evidence the crash was intentional, however.

Devonte Hart became nationally known a few years ago after taking a “Free Hugs” sign to one of the Ferguson protests in Portland. Then 12, he was photographed tearfully hugging a police officer.

The photographer who took the picture, Johnny Nguyen, said at the time: “When I came across Devonte, who was holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign and tears running down his face, I knew right then there was something special about him.”

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