Review: ‘A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy,’ starring Dana DeKalb, Christopher Worth, Zipporah Lomax, Nusheen Bakhtiar, Shonda Jones, Dontay Davis and Octavio Choi

April 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

“A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy.” Pictured from left to right: Ciera Hart, Jeremiah Hart, Abigail Hart, Devonte Hart, Hannah Hart and Markis Hart. (Photo courtesy of 1091 Media)

“A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy”

Directed by Rachel Morgan

Culture Representation: This true-crime documentary—about a white American lesbian couple who committed murder and suicide by driving themselves and their six black/racially mixed kids off of a cliff in 2018—interviews a diverse group of people, including friends of the couple; some of the children’s family members; and various people with knowledge about the tragedy.

Culture Clash: The lesbian couple—Jennifer and Sarah Hart—had a long history of allegedly abusing the children, but were able to fool people into letting them keep custody of the kids.

Culture Audience: “A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy” will appeal primarily to people interested in true-crime stories and real-life examples of the deep systemic flaws in America’s child-welfare system.

“A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy.” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Markis Hart, Sarah Hart and Jennifer Hart. Pictured in front row, from left to right: Ciera Hart, Jeremiah Hart, Abigail Hart, Devonte Hart and Hannah Hart. (Photo courtesy of 1091 Media)

The disturbing documentary “A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy” examines what led up to the tragedy of two mothers driving themselves and their six adopted children off of a cliff in Mendocino County, California, on March 28, 2018. Although the film (directed by Rachel Morgan) does not uncover anything new (the story has been extensively covered by the media), the documentary gives some insight into how people can be fooled by superficial images on social media.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who were both 38 at the time of their deaths, were a married lesbian couple who adopted six children whose biological parents no longer had rights to them. The children were two sets of biological siblings. Adopted first, in 2006, were racially mixed biological siblings Markis (born on July 1, 1998), Hannah (born on February 25, 2002) and Abigail (born on December 26, 2003), who had the same mother. In 2008, the Harts adopted their next set of biological siblings, who were all African American with the same biological mother: Devonte (born on October 24, 2002), Jeremiah (born on February 24, 2004) and Ciera (born on April 20, 2005), who sometimes had her named spelled as Sierra.

All of the children came from Texas. Tammy Scheurich—the biological mother of Markis, Hannah and Abigail—voluntarily relinquished her parental rights because she spent time in prison. Scheurich has a brief audio interview in the documentary, where she says: “When they took my children, I went into a deep depression.” She explained her decision to give up her kids: “I tried to make the most unselfish decision for the children.”

Sherry Hurd—the biological mother of Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera—is not interviewed, but several court records shown in the documentary indicate that she lost custody of the kids because of her drug addiction. The biological fathers of all six children were unable to take custody of the kids. Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera were living with an aunt named Priscilla Celestine (a sister of their biological father), who then lost custody of the three kids for reasons that are not stated in the documentary. (According to news reports and court records, it was because Celestine violated a court order not to let the kids be around their biological mother.) And that’s how the three kids ended up being adopted by Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who were living in Minnesota at the time.

Shonda Jones, a family attorney in Houston who was involved in the Celestine case, says in the documentary that the court’s decision to yank the children from the custody of their aunt was abrupt, unfair and cruel. She gets emotional when talking about how Celestine (who’s not interviewed in the documentary) wasn’t given a real chance to fight for custody of the kids.

Meanwhile, Hurd’s stepson Dontay Davis talks about how, because of his own legal problems, he wasn’t allowed to see his stepsiblings because he was told that he was a “bad influence” on them. Nathaniel Davis (who’s identified in the movie as a stepfather of Devonte, Jeremiah and Dontay) says in the documentary that once kids end up in the child-welfare system, “they’re lost.”

After adopting the kids, the Harts lived in Minnesota, then Oregon, and finally in Washington state, where they moved in 2017. They were investigated for child abuse by child-protective services in all three states, beginning in 2008, with reports saying that the children showed signs of being beaten and deliberately starved. In 2010, when the family lived in Minnesota, Sarah was also arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic assault and malicious punishment of a child. She pleaded guilty, was fined $385, and given a 90-day sentence, which was later stayed, and she was put on supervised probation for one year. Abigail later told people that Jennifer was the one who caused most of the abuse, but Sarah took the blame for it.

The documentary (whose total running time is just 57 minutes) gives almost most no information about the two women’s backgrounds, such as how they met and what their own family upbringings were like. The film also has no investigation into why Jennifer and Sarah Hart were able to adopt six children in such a short period of time when it’s hard enough for people to adopt one child. What the documentary also doesn’t mention is that after Sarah Hart’s arrest, the children were home-schooled, with Jennifer as the stay-at-home-mother, while Sarah was the one who worked outside of the home in low-income retail jobs.

Also not mentioned in the movie: Both women were college-educated and majored in elementary education. It’s a sad fact that they went to college to become teachers for children, considering all the abuse that they were accused of inflicting on their own kids. As for how Jennifer and Sarah Hart were getting money to raise six kids, it came mostly from the state of Texas. That’s an important fact that should have been mentioned in the film because it shows that the Harts were raising their family mostly through government funds from a state that clearly did not keep track of or was not notified about the child-abuse allegations.

The relatives of Jennifer and Sarah Hart are not interviewed in the documentary, but several of their friends are. They all claim that they only saw a happy family and were shocked to hear about the murder-suicide tragedy. The documentary doesn’t really explain how long these friends of the Harts knew the family, but what’s clear is that all the friends were deceived into thinking that the Harts had a loving home. It’s also why they initially couldn’t believe that the car crash was a murder-suicide.

Christopher Worth, one of the family friends, described the children this way: “They were all one big hug. No pretense, no dishonesty” and that they were “completely full of effervescent, intoxicating love.” However, he admits that Jennifer (or Jen, as her friends called her) “didn’t really anticipate what she signed up for” in adopting six kids, and she sometimes seemed overwhelmed.

Other family friends who give their perspectives include Nusheen Bakhtiar, Zipporah Lomax, Riannah Weaver, Dan Corey and sisters Amanda and Jennifer Price, who all say the same thing: They saw no signs of abuse. There’s also an interview with Sharyn Babitt, who’s described as an “online gaming friend” of Jennifer Hart, who spent at least one or two hours a day playing online games. And there’s an interview with Brittini New, who used to work with Sarah at a Kohl’s store where Sarah was a manager. According to New, Sarah was very quiet and almost never talked about her kids when Sarah was at work.

Based on these interviews, a picture emerges of Jennifer and Sarah Hart being very different behind closed doors in their home, compared to the way they presented themselves to the rest of the world. They isolated their family until it was time for them to go to public events, such as music festivals and rallies, where they would pose for staged family photos and videos. It’s implied, but not explicitly stated, that the people who call themselves “family friends” of the Harts knew them mostly from these social events, not from frequently visiting the Hart family home.

Jennifer was the more dominant, abusive mother, while Sarah was the more passive, quieter person in the relationship. Based on what the children told some people, Sarah is described as someone who initially tried to stop Jennifer from abusing the kids, but then eventually Sarah tolerated the abuse. And although the family friends interviewed in this film say that they didn’t know about any abuse allegations against the Harts, some of them were aware that Jennifer expressed feelings of anger and depression about being a mother. However, the family friends assumed that they were normal, temporary feelings that all parents feel sometimes when they’re frustrated with their kids.

To the outside world, Jennifer and Sarah Hart were politically progressive liberals who would bring their kids to Black Lives Matter rallies and other events for social-justice issues. The Harts also liked to go to music festivals—many of the friends interviewed in the film are definitely neo-hippie/musician types. And the Harts posted numerous photos and videos on social media (the documentary includes many of these images), that showed that they had a seemingly loving and happy family. Unfortunately, these images were all part of an elaborate façade.

Dana DeKalb, who was the Harts’ closest neighbor in Woodland, Washington, gives the most compelling interview in the documentary. She describes how Devonte would come over to her home, sometimes multiple times a day, and ask her to give him food. Over time, he began to ask for more food and became more specific about what he wanted, but he begged her not to tell his mothers that he was getting food from her.

Eventually, DeKalb called child-protective services, which had a pending investigation against the Harts at the time of the murder-suicide. Some people speculate in the documentary that the Harts killed themselves and their children because the ongoing CPS investigation in Washington state would have uncovered information that would have led to the Harts being fully exposed as child abusers and they would have lost custody of the kids.

Even more harrowing than Devonte begging for food was an incident involving oldest daughter Hannah. DeKalb said that the first time she knew something was wrong in the Hart household was when late one night, she was awoken by a very distressed Hannah at her door. The child burst into the home and pleaded for help, by asking DeKalb to hide her from Jennifer and Sarah, whom Hannah described as “abusive and racist.” DeKalb says that she was in shock while Hannah hid in a room and while she could hear Jennifer, Sarah and the other kids outside looking for her.

Eventually, the Hart family members found Hannah hiding in the house, and Jennifer made the child leave with the family. In the documentary, DeKalb also reads an apology note that she received the next day. The note was written and signed by Hannah, but it sounds like it was dictated by an adult. In the note, Hannah says that she was sorry for the disturbance, but she was emotionally upset because of her siblings and also sad that the family had recently lost their two cats.

However, the incident with Hannah was so disturbing that DeKalb’s father, Steve Frkovich, called 911 (part of the phone call is played in the film) to report suspected child abuse in the Hart home. DeKalb tears up with emotion when she remembers that Devonte later confessed to her that what Hannah said that night was true, but Devonte implored DeKalb not to tell anyone that he told her that.

The documentary shows that DeKalb, more than the “family friends” of the Harts, comes across as the most aware that the kids needed help. And this observant and concerned neighbor also wasn’t blinded by superficial images that Jennifer and Sarah Hart put on social media. Although the film has plenty of the staged “happy family” photos and videos, there’s one heartbreaking photo that clearly shows a shirtless Devonte and Jeremiah looking emaciated with strange marks on their bodies. It’s not stated in the documentary if this photo was ever posted on social media, but it would have been enough evidence to put the kids in protective custody if their abuse had been properly investigated.

Devonte, who’s described as the “star” of the family because he was the most charismatic and sensitive of the six kids, briefly experienced fame in 2014, because of a photo of him that went viral. The photo shows Devonte, with tears streaming down his face, hugging Sergeant Bret Barman of the Portland Police Department in Oregon during a rally protesting the Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting of Michael Brown.

Because the photo became a viral sensation, the Harts experienced overnight fame, but got extreme reactions (admiration and hate) as a result. Some of the family friends in the documentary try to place some of the blame on social media for the murder-suicide tragedy, by claiming that the negative attention caused Jennifer to go into a downward spiral. But it’s a weak argument, because there were clearly major problems in the family long before they became semi-famous through social media.

Speaking of haters on social media, DeKalb said that some of the Harts’ family friends (whom she does not name) targeted her for hate on social media when they found out that her family had reported the suspected abuse of the Hart kids. DeKalb says that she was accused of being racist and homophobic by these friends of the Harts. Jennifer and Sarah Hart reportedly used these type of bigotry accusations to their advantage, in order to deflect scrutiny when people questioned their parenting skills. It might explain why they never lost custody of the kids, despite growing accusations that the Harts were abusive to the children.

Octavio Choi, a child psychiatrist who didn’t know the Harts, is interviewed in the documentary, and he warns people not to use “perfectly curated” images on social media as a way to judge how people really are, because those images are often not reality or they don’t tell the whole story. The documentary’s coverage of the police investigation in the car crash relies heavily on archival footage of a press conference given by California Highway Patrol investigator Jake Slates. After the investigation, the case was officially ruled a murder-suicide.

“A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy,” although it has several interviews and is an absorbing documentary, doesn’t really uncover anything new or insightful into how the system failed these children. There’s no mention if the filmmakers tried to contact any of the social workers who were involved in investigating the abuse claims. And there’s absolutely no explanation for why Jennifer and Sarah were able to continue to get a lot of government funding from Texas to raise these adopted kids when they weren’t even living in Texas anymore and apparently weren’t accountable to the child-welfare system in Texas. (It would be different if the children were in foster care and still wards of the state.)

There are also issues about interracial adoptions and gay-parent adoptions that aren’t fully explored in the movie. If Jennifer and Sarah Hart were black, would they have gotten away with what they did for so long? If the kids were white, would they have been treated better by the system? And in an adoption system where politically conservative states such as Texas make it difficult for same-sex couples to adopt one child, how did Jennifer and Sarah Hart end up with six adopted children from Texas?

These are questions that will never have one definitive answer, but the documentary doesn’t show any attempt to give much background information on the adoption process for these children. Did Jennifer, the more abusive parent, have a history of abuse or mental illness before she became a parent? What was the screening process for Jennifer and Sarah Hart to adopt six kids in such a short period of time? It doesn’t seem to be enough for the film just to say that the biological mothers lost parental rights to these kids.

There could have been an extra 15 or 20 minutes covering this important aspect in explaining how these kids ended up being adopted by Jennifer and Sarah Hart. The documentary also should have covered who in the child-welfare system was responsible for monitoring the kids’ well-being, considering the children’s troubled background, the numerous abuse allegations, and the fact that Jennifer and Sarah Hart were using Texas government funds to raise the children.

However, a lesson to be learned from this tragedy is that people should not be fooled by what’s presented on social media. And the most important message is that if abuse is witnessed, or if people say they are being abused, then it needs to be reported, even if there is pressure to stay silent.

1091 Media released “A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy” on digital on April 17, 2020. A portion of this movie’s proceeds will be donated to Teens Voice USA and Honor the Earth, which are two causes that were supported by the Hart kids.

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