The Devonte Hart Case Highlights a Profound Racial Disparity in the Treatment of Child Abuse

This June 2014 photo shows Devonte Hart with his family at the annual celebration of "The Goonies" movie in Astoria, Ore.
Devonte Hart with his siblings and adoptive mothers in 2014. Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian via AP

In the photo that made him famous, Devonte Hart is crying. More accurately, he is weeping, tears streaming down his face as he embraces Portland, Oregon, police officer Bret Barnum during a protest in that city. Taken over three months after Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and the day after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson in November of 2014, “the hug shared around the world” quickly went viral.* As CNN described it at the time, it was “the picture we needed to see after the past week’s turmoil”—the turmoil being the boiling frustration and anger at yet another reminder that black lives did not, in fact, matter. The photo of Hart and Barnum was both contrary to and in direct conversation with the violence and anguish of photos that had emerged from Ferguson in the weeks preceding it. Now, almost four years later, with Hart missing and widely presumed dead, he is once again a flashpoint for a larger debate on the ways in which institutional racism operates in America.

Devonte Hart’s adoptive parents and three of his siblings were found dead almost a week ago when their SUV plunged 100 feet off of a California highway. Hart, and two of his sisters, have not yet been found, but police “have every indication to believe that all six children were in there.” At first, investigators insisted that there was no reason to assume that the crash was intentional, despite the fact that there were no skid or brake marks at the turnout on the Pacific Coast Highway where the car went over. More recently, the incident has taken on a sinister tone, as a history of familial abuse has begun to come to light. According to KOMO News, child protective services had attempted to contact the Harts at least three times in the weeks leading up to the crash, after their neighbors reported the children’s adoptive white mothers, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, for potential child abuse. In the past year not only had one of Devonte’s sisters, Hannah, arrived at the neighbors’ front door with her front two teeth missing and a request for the DeKalbs to save her but, according to the Press Democrat, Devonte had taken to begging the neighbors for food.

Sarah Hart had already pleaded guilty to domestic assault in 2011, when a teacher discovered bruises across their then-6-year-old daughter’s stomach and back. For admitting to letting “her anger get out of control,” Hart was given a 90-day suspended jail sentence and a year of probation. The family was then allowed to move from Minnesota to Oregon with their six children, all black, and given no oversight. Before eventually relocating to rural Washington state, they started home-schooling their children without filing the proper notices to state agencies. According to a former neighbor, the six kids rarely went outside, even in nice weather. At least three of them had been identified as “potential victims of alleged abuse or neglect” by CPS. And now, the entire family is dead in a tragedy that officials are saying “may have been” intentional.

Even in the unlikely case that it wasn’t, the Hart’s story is a tragic case study in racial disparity. The ways in which Sarah and Jennifer managed to continually evade the notice (or action) of officials is a luxury that is by and large only provided to white parents. All three of the states that the family lived in received reports of child welfare concerns, and yet apparently the children were never removed from the Harts’ care. The disparity in ramifications for suspected—and confirmed—child abuse is particularly striking when compared with the jail time black mothers receive for something like leaving their kids at a food court while they were doing an interview less than 30 feet away. Or for testing positive for marijuana after giving birth. Or for only being able to afford an apartment where your landlord won’t fix a rat problem.

The criminalization of poor black and brown mothers’ parenting practices is a well-documented phenomenon dubbed “Jane Crow.” According to the Los Angeles Times, black children enter the foster care system at a rate five times higher than their white counterparts “and linger there, without being returned to their parents or being adopted, two months longer than white children.” All six of the Hart children were adopted out of Texas foster care; because Texas adoption records are closed, it’s unknown why they were removed from their birth families in the first place. One can only hope it was for something at least as bad as domestic assault. Details from the Hart family case will continue to emerge as the investigation progresses, but there is one thing that seems crystal clear at this point: Time and time again, these children reached out for help to the institutions and adults that were supposed to protect them. And each time, they were failed.

Correction, April 3, 2018: This post originally mischaracterized the date that the viral photo of Devonte Hart and Bret Barnum was taken.