(SEATTLE) — A woman said Tuesday that she told Oregon child welfare officials in 2013 that Jennifer and Sarah Hart — who plunged off a California cliff with their children last month in an SUV — had been depriving the kids of food as punishment.
In a statement provided to The Associated Press, Alexandra Argyropoulos, a former friend of the Harts, said she “witnessed what I felt to be controlling emotional abuse and cruel punishment” toward the six children.
Argyropoulos said she was told after she made the report that Oregon officials had interviewed the children but it was apparent that each child had been coached by their mothers on what to say. She said she was told there was nothing more the Oregon Department of Human Services could do because there was not enough evidence to make a case.
“My heart is completely broken. The current system failed to protect these children from their abusers,” Argyropoulos said.
Authorities have said social services officials in Oregon contacted the West Linn Police Department about the family in 2013 while they were living in the area. Police referred media questions to the Oregon Department of Human Services, which cited privacy laws in refusing to say whether the agency was involved.
Authorities don’t know exactly when the wreck took place. A passing motorist discovered the vehicle on March 26, three days after social service authorities in Washington state opened an investigation apparently prompted by a neighbor’s complaint that the children were being deprived of food.
The Hart family’s two moms and three of the six adopted children were found dead; the three others are missing and presumed dead, possibly washed out to sea.
Authorities are investigating whether a surveillance video from Fort Bragg, California, shows one of the women a day before the SUV was found. California Highway Patrol investigators are working with the FBI to try to enhance the video.
Later Tuesday, the highway patrol said investigators believe the Hart family was in or around Newport, Oregon, at about 8:15 a.m. March 24 and that they continued traveling south until reaching the area of Fort Bragg, California that evening. The family stayed in that area until the next evening, the state patrol said, officials said.
The SUV carrying the family plummeted 100 feet (31 meters) from a highway near Mendocino, California.
On Sunday, authorities disclosed that data from the vehicle’s software suggested the crash was deliberate. They said the SUV had stopped at a pull-off area before speeding straight off the cliff.
Sarah Hart pleaded guilty in 2011 to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota over what she said was a spanking given to one of her children.
Argyropoulos said she was unaware of a 2011 domestic assault conviction against Sarah Hart. She said she had met the couple on Facebook, knew them for about eight months and that the family visited her in the Bay Area twice. The couple broke off contact with her after she voiced concerns to them about their treatment of the children, she said.
Two weeks ago, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, next-door neighbors of the Harts in Woodland, Washington, called state Child Protective Services because the couple’s 15-year-old son Devonte had been coming over to their house almost every day for a week, asking for food.
Dana DeKalb said Devonte told her his parents were “punishing them by withholding food.” The boy asked her to leave food in a box by the fence for him, she said.
Devonte, a black boy who is still missing, drew national attention after he was photographed in tears while hugging a white police officer during a 2014 protest.