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Devonte Hart: A Viral Photo, A Tragic Ending

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devonte Hart smiling watching a game

In 2018, a van carrying six children and two parents went off a cliff in California. Not too long after, reports that Devonte Hart was one of the children in that van started circulating.

But who was Devonte Hart and what happened on that tragic day?

Devonte Hart Goes Viral

In 2014, protests against Ferguson grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson in the Killing of Mike Brown were raging nationwide. On Tuesday November 25, 2014, a demonstration in Portland was taking place when a 12 year old boy caught the attention of Police Sgt. Bret Barnum.

The boy, Devonte Hart, was holding a sign that read “Free Hugs” with tears in his eyes. The officer motioned him over and “the two started talking about the demonstration, school, art and life”, according to Then, the Sgt. Barnum asked if he can also get “one of those”, pointing to the ‘Free Hugs’ sign. The embrace that followed was captured by photographer Johnny Nguyen.

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The photograph started getting shared on Facebook and quickly reached 150,000 shares.

In their own Facebook post (a post that’s now gone), the parents of Devonte Hart, Sarah and Jennifer Hart, shared the story of the now famous boy:

“We hit the streets (Nov. 25) with the intention of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (ALL) people that they matter in this world. … I noticed Devonte was struggling. Tears. He wouldn’t speak. He was inconsolable. My son has a heart of a gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police and people that don’t understand the complexity of racism that is prevalent in our society. …

It was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother. He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. Tears rushing from his eyes and soaking his sweater, he gazed upon them not knowing how they would react. After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. … There were generic questions about his favorite subject and what he liked to do in the summer, but the one that mattered hit straight to the heart. He asked Devonte why he was crying. His response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic (to Devonte), “Yes. *sigh* I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” The officer then asked if he could have one of his hugs.”

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Devonte Hart Gets Adopted

When he was five years old, Devonte was adopted by Sarah and Jennifer Hart. The parents had reported that he was neglected with vocabulary that was underdeveloped for his age. Along with Devonte, the Harts had six children they adopted.

Originally from South Dakota, both women attended North State University and majored in elementary education. Sarah and Jennifer moved to Minnesota, Oregon, and then to Washington. They went to Connecticut to get married in 2009.

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In 2006, they began adopting their children. All children were African American and adopted from Texas, including Devonte Jordan (Devonte Hart). Three of the siblings, Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera were biological siblings also and were taken away from their mother due to substance abuse. The children were originally given to an aunt under the condition that they were to have no contact with their mother. But after a social worker reported that the mother was babysitting the children, they were taken away and given up for adoption.

Jennifer Hart took to social media to share the family’s every move. They appeared very happy and content. But the truth was not so bring.

Allegations of Child Abuse in the Hart Household

Allegations of child abuse in the Hart household began in 2008 when the family was in Minnesota. One of the children was seen with a bruise on her had and told her teacher Jennifer hit her with a belt. The children were then taken out of the public school system for a year, and another incident was reported in 2010.

All the children claimed they were constantly being spanked and food was being withheld from them. Jennifer Hart plead guilty for the assault and was sentenced to community service for a year.

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In 2003, another investigation into the Harts was launched by Oregon authorities when the family moved there. Each child was interviewed separately along with family friends. The family friends reported that the children seemed underfed and some were small for their age. They also mentioned that the Harts were unusually tough on their kids, and the kids were terrified of Jennifer especially.

The investigation did not result in anything conclusive.

However, when the family moved to Washington in 2017, the children began reaching out to neighbors. Two children especially, Hannah Hart and Devonte Hart, were going over to their neighbors claiming their mothers were racist and withholding food from them. Devonte constantly begged for food and asked neighbors not to mention this to Jennifer. The neighbors, however, reported the incidents to the Child Protective Services.

The Ultimate Tragedy

On Monday, March 26, 2018, the Hart family was traveling South along the Pacific Coast, continuing their journey from Oregon. All 8 family members, Jennifer and Sarah Hart and their six children, were in the van. Then the ultimate tragedy struck.

The van carrying the whole family plunged off a 100-foot cliff on Highway 1 in Mendocino County, California. Jennifer Hart driving.

Initially, it appeared that the van had accidentally went off the cliff. The bodies of the two mothers along with 3 of the kids were found immediately.

The bodies of another two children were located near the van. However, the body of Devonte Hart was not found.

Few weeks into the investigations, authorities were starting to no longer refer to the incident as an accident, but as murder-suicide.

The two adults in the front seat had seat belts while the children did not. The authorities also believe the car had stopped initially on the cliff before it drove off the cliff.

The body of Devonte Hart was never found, but authorities believe he was in the van with the family. A year after the tragic incident, a death certificate for Devonte was signed.