I know I wasn’t the only one who could sense that something was “off” about the picture of Devonte Hart hugging a White police officer in the midst of the protests over the decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Mike Brown. Not only was it painfully clear that the image was going to be used as some kumbayah, “See, racism isn’t so bad” moment, there was something perhaps spiritually unsettling about the image.
I never felt warm fuzzies looking at it. Instead, I wondered what was the source of Devonte’s tears? I wondered what type of Black parents would place that child in that position, a position that sent a message that wasn’t helpful or realistic during a time of real turmoil?
It seemed off.
Sadly, Devonte will likely never be able to answer the questions many of us had about that photo.
According to the Associated Press, Devonte’s two moms and the five other children they adopted along with him are believed to be dead after the family SUV was found over a cliff.
The Harts, who recently moved to Southwest Washington, raised animals and grew vegetables on their own land. Devonte Hart, his siblings and parents were known for traveling to various festivals and events donning signs that read “free hugs.”
There’s speculation that the family might have been on one of these road trips when the car drove off the cliff of a California highway.
Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino County said of the incident, “We know that an entire family vanished and perished during this tragedy.” Allman also asked for help from anyone who might have information about the family’s plans before their vehicle was found this past Monday.
Friends of Jennifer and Sarah Hart, Devonte’s parents, said the two women promoted social justice and exposed their “remarkable” children to art, music and nature.
But neighbors said they saw signs that there was trouble within the family. The couple’s next-door neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, called Child Protective Services on the Hart family after Devonte came to their door on more than one occasion, asking for food.
Dana DeKalb told the AP, his parents “weren’t feeding them.” And were “punishing them by withholding food.” She says Devonte came over every day for a week and asked her to leave food in a box by the fence for him.
The visits prompted the DeKalb couple to call authorities who eventually visited the house and opened an investigation. Child Protective Services tried to make contact with the family three times but were unable to reach them.
Before the food incident, the DeKalbs said that three months before, one of the daughters in the family rang their doorbell at 1:30 a.m.
Bruce DeKalb said, She “was at our door in a blanket saying we needed to protect her. She said that they were abusing her.”
There is legal documentation to support the claims. In 2011, Sarah Hart pled guilty to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota. Her plea allowed for the dismissal of the charge of malicious punishment of a child.
Others, who have known the Harts for years, say that the reports and the DeKalbs testimony don’t align with what he knows of the couple. One friend told the Associated Press, “They are beautiful examples of opening arms to strangers, helping youth, supporting racial equality. They brought so much joy to the world. They represented a legacy of love.”
Another former neighbor said that the Hart children, who were homeschooled, stayed indoors most of the time, didn’t eat sugar, grew their own vegetables and went on camping trips.
He said, “There was enough positive there to kind of counteract the feeling that something maybe wasn’t quite right.”
Authorities say the location of the incident is confusing because there were no skid marks or brake marks where the vehicle went over.