On social media, they appeared as a happily blended adoptive family, but behind the cheerful photos of handmade signs offering free hugs at protests, there was a darker truth.
That truth culminated in a tragic murder-suicide that wiped out the family.
Broken Harts, a new documentary on Discovery+, tells the story of the Hart family, whose meticulously crafted online presence masked years of alleged abuse of their adopted children.
Jen Hart and her wife Sarah, both white, began their family by adopting six children of colour — first Markis, Hannah, and Abigail in 2006, then three years later Devonte, Jeremiah, and Sierra.
All six were from Harris County, Texas, and had been removed from their biological parents. The couple welcomed them all into their home in Alexandria, Minnesota.
Jen documented every aspect of family life in posts that, the documentary says, rather than putting the focus on the kids seemed more like a narcissistic depiction of the couple as heroes and their charges as in need of saving.
A particularly dramatic Facebook post states: “If not us — WHO?” The children were effectively used as props in theatrical online white saviourhood, it is alleged.
Niema Lightseed, a friend of Jen’s, says in the documentary: “In hindsight, it definitely looks like they were painting themselves as heroes and these children as very sad victims that needed to be rescued.”
The family shot into the national spotlight when a photograph went viral of then 12-year-old Devonte Hart tearfully embracing a police officer at a December 2014 Black Lives Matter protest.
Lauded as a depiction of healing and peace, the picture saw the family celebrated in the media. The carefully manufactured image of the Harts was as a socially conscious, racially harmonious “woke” American dream family.
That dream came to an abrupt end on 26 March 2018 when Jen drove the family SUV off an 80-foot cliff in Mendocino County, California.
All were killed. Jen and Sarah, both 38, were found in the vehicle with Markis, 19, Abigail and Jeremiah, both 14, and Sierra, 12. Sixteen-year-old Hannah’s body was washed ashore a few weeks later, and Devonte’s body has never been recovered.
On investigation following the crash, the family’s reality was a history of reports to Child Protective Services about suspected abuse and concern from neighbours, coworkers, and teachers in Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington.
In one incident in 2010, Sarah was convicted of misdemeanour domestic assault against Abigail, then six, and punished with a year of community service — though there is suspicion that it was Jen who was actually the real perpetrator.
The children were withdrawn from school and from then on taught at home away from prying eyes.
While followers online were treated to more pictures of the smiling children at music festivals and Bernie Sanders rallies, back at home food was withheld as punishment for supposed poor behaviour.
After moving to the town of Woodland in Washington State in 2017, the children, led by Devonte, begged the horrified neighbours for food and told them of the abuse they suffered.
The authorities were immediately alerted, but efforts to investigate by social services were thwarted by Jen and Sarah.
It was then in the early hours of that morning in late March that the family set off on their final road trip.
Broken Harts is now available on Discovery+