The Hart Family Murder & The Dangerous Assumption that Adoption Is About “Rescuing”

29 Apr

Kids Playing(Image by Duane Story used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Last month Jennifer Hart drove her wife Sarah and six adoptive children in their SUV at 90 miles per hour over a cliff into the Pacific Ocean. When the story first broke, the public saw a wide array of photos posted by Jennifer on social media portraying a happy, hippie family at music festivals, farmer’s markets, and human rights demonstrations. Over the past four weeks, details have emerged suggesting the parents who proclaimed “Love is always beautiful” were as narcissistic as they were idealistic.

The Hart mothers were white and all of their children black, adopted from the foster care system. In 2010, one daughter showed bruises to her teachers and claimed Jennifer had spanked her over the edge of a bathtub and held her head under cold water. Sarah took the blame and was convicted of assault. A week later the parents switched to homeschooling all the children. They soon moved to Oregon where they were again investigated for physical abuse and food deprivation in 2013. While the social workers’ report concluded that abuse could not be proven, it noted that the children were at risk and found only one of the six children to be the correct size and height for his age. The Harts then moved to Washington State. Last month Child Protective Services attempted to contact the family three times after neighbors reported one son had finally asked them to after weeks of begging for food. Four days later, the family SUV was found at the bottom of the cliff. Two of the children’s bodies are missing, but all family members are presumed dead and investigators are classifying the crash as intentional.

The first thing that stuck out to me was just how many photos there were in which the black children of the white parents were paraded around like heaven on earth. “It’s important for abusers to manage their identity,” says professor of criminology Hannah Scott. “It was very important that they look good outside their family.” The second thing I noticed was the cult-like praise friends of the parents fired off to the media in the wake of the investigation: “These children came from scary, scary home situations [before their adoption]… I think Jen and Sarah should be idolized.” Mary Elizabeth Williams wisely inquired at Salon, did the children have any friends who could say the same thing about the Harts? Indeed, like so many children of abuse, witnesses now attest that the Hart kids were discouraged from having any relationships outside the family.

In her piece, Williams cites an article from the Coalition for Responsible Home Education warning that children who are adopted, disabled, and/or homeschooled are commonly found among abusive parents. Most homeschooled (or adopted or disabled) children in the United States are not abused, but a 2014 study of tortured children found three-quarters had been either homeschooled or never enrolled in any form of education. Laws regulating homeschooling vary widely from state to state. After the Harts fled Minnesota, they moved to Oregon and then Washington, where parents are required to register homeschooled children with their local school district, but the onus is on them to make contact. Homeschooled children in the U.S. are exempt from the regular health checkups schools provide that would detect starvation and other forms of abuse. Williams blames the holes in this system on America’s highly individualistic culture: “That same American culture of ‘Don’t you dare tread on my freeeeeeedom’ that gave us our gun obsession also feeds the lack of accountability in families that circumvent the intervention systems that schools can provide.”  

Children’s rights are more strictly protected here in Germany, where homeschooling and all forms of spanking are illegal. I don’t expect the U.S. to be able to ban homeschooling or all corporal punishment any time soon, but making it a felony to fail to register homeschooled children with local school authorities could be a step in the right direction. Hawaii has become the first state to introduce a bill requiring parents who seek to homeschool to undergo background checks. Alexandra Argyropoulos, who had notified authorities in Oregon of abuse in the Hart family, has been inspired to start a White House petition calling for a national child abuse database that would allow Child Protective Services to share information across state lines. All these steps of course face loud opposition.

Meanwhile many have pointed to the racism inherent in the Harts’ story. Rachelle Hampton writes at Slate, “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.” Biological relatives of three of the children have come forward to dispute Jennifer Hart’s claims on Facebook that they were rescued from a violent home. Whatever the facts, Hart’s narrative did exploit the widespread assumption that black American children are often better off in white middle class families like hers. Far more importantly, it also breaks the rule taught by many adoption advocates that the child’s backstory belongs to the child and is not for the adoptive parents to advertise to strangers like juicy gossip. Indeed, while the Hart family tragedy epitomizes many problems of race relations in the West, it also epitomizes many of the widespread prejudices adoptive children face.

The National Adoption Attitudes Survey in 2002 revealed the pervasive assumption that adoptive children must have adjustment problems while their adoptive parents must be particularly “unselfish.” Abusers like the Harts thrive on these assumptions. In the documentary Somewhere Between, a teenager expresses unease at being called “lucky” by strangers who know nothing about her except that she was adopted from China by white American parents. In her excellent piece “The Uses of Orphans,” adoptee Alison Kinney analyzes in depth “the casual, commonplace expectations of edification, gratitude, and cultural ambassadorship foisted upon orphans and adoptees.” She explains:

From the time I was 10, strangers wanted me to discuss my adoptive parents’ fertility, the cost of my adoption, the imagined poverty, sexual habits, and mortality of my birth mother, my genetic relationship to my sister, my wise advice to potential adopters, and my gratitude to parents and idle bystanders for my welcome in this country. They’ve used my “success,” for which they also claimed credit, to shame the supposed failures of the less fortunate…

…I’m far from the only former orphan whose life has been shaped by the expectation that I would serve as translator, apologist, cheerleader, and double-agent. One adoptive father called me an ungrateful bitch, because I supported birth mothers’ rights.

Some adoptive children have been abandoned by or removed from horrifically abusive birth families. Others have been lovingly placed in the care of adoption services by birth parents who have bravely admitted that they are not in a position to provide what every child deserves. To assume, however, that all adoptive children fall into the former category and would therefore automatically be better off with pretty much anyone so much as considering adoption is the old model. Prospective adoptive parents are routinely warned against it by many adoption experts who have seen what damage it can do. We should all be warned against it.

While we should all be grateful to our parents—provided they did not abuse us—no child on earth should be expected to be more grateful for receiving basic care and kindness. In her post “10 Questions to Ask Yourself to See If You Have A Savior Complex” at Adoption.com, activist Sarah M. Baker writes about the wrong and right ways to do it:

I have read about religious organizations encouraging people to adopt because it is their “duty” to help orphans. They place the people who do adopt these orphans on pedestals and boast about their good deeds. But, most adoptive parents I know chose adoption to fulfill their need to grow their family, to parent a child, to fill a void in their homes and hearts. While it is true that the children they adopt are in need of a forever family, these parents don’t overlook their child’s losses or take compliments from strangers lightly. They often remark back that they were the ones who were “saved” by adoption.

Baker highlights the ubiquity of the problem among religious communities, but it also exists among self-proclaimed progressives like the Harts. Many adoption agencies are acutely aware of the risk of attracting the narcissistic personalities most likely to think of themselves as heroes at the expense of the child’s well-being. One family told me their agency wants prospective adoptive parents to be brutally honest about which sorts of adoption scenarios might challenge them. They are particularly suspicious of anyone who says, “We can handle anything!” because saying yes and then finding out you can’t handle it is deeply unfair to the child. The Harts proved this point tragically well.

 

 

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