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Friday, April 28, 2023

They felt they didn't count

It's not the kind of story you will find in a college  alumni magazine.  But it has its origins on the Northern State University campus.  It is a story that gained nationwide attention.  Two women meet at NSU, marry, adopt six children, and kill the entire family in a deliberate car crash.

Jennifer Hart, from Huron, SD, and Sarah Gengler, Big Stone City, SD, met in 1999 after both had transferred to Northern State University from other colleges, Jennifer from Augustana University and Sarah from the University of Minnesota. They both majored in elementary education. Sarah graduated in 2002 with a concentration in special education; Jennifer never completed her degree.   They were lovers and developed a husband-and-wife relationship. They lived together in South Dakota as college roommates, then moved to Alexandria, MN, and decided they would reveal their relationship.  Initially, they got jobs working at a Herberger's department store, where Sarah became a manager.   Jennifer became a stay-at-home mom.  In available accounts, there is no indication that Sarah ever used her teaching degree.

The problem with this story is that some details are widely circulated but unsourced.  It is hard to know what is fact and what is speculation at times and to know where the information came from.  There is a multitude of podcasts inspired by this story in which people pose in front of cameras and prattle on and on as if they have special knowledge about the incident, but add little verifiable, clarifying information.  

Jennifer and Sarah at some point during their time in Alexandria decided to foster and adopt children.  Their first was a 15-year-old girl who, as the story gets told, gets dropped off at a therapist's office by the couple and is then informed that they will not return to pick her up.  Instead, she is taken to another foster home where her belongings had already been delivered.  She never saw Jennifer and Sarah again.  Another problem with this story is why a therapist would be party to a scheme like this.  Some unidentified sources said that the couple had complained that the girl was suicidal and they did not want her to be around to influence younger children they planned to foster.  One source claimed the young woman had been contacted and affirmed this happened to her, but people with knowledge about working with adolescents insist that a valid therapist would never be involved in such a cruel episode.   It occurred shortly before the first group of three young children came to the couple's household.

The couple received their first set of three siblings in March of 2006 and they were formally adopted by the women in September of that year.  The children, who were given the Hart last name were Markis, 8 at the time, born in 1998; Hannah Jean, 4, born in 2002; and Abigail, 3, born in 2003.  In June of 2008, they received the second set of siblngs, Devonte Jordan, 6 at the time, born in 2002;  Jeremiah, 4 at the time, born in 2004; and Ciera Maija, 3 at the time, born in 2005.  They were officially adopted in February 2009.  All of the children were black.

Nine years later, on March 26, 2018, they were all killed when Jennifer along with Sarah loaded them all up in the family SUV and drove it off a 100-foot cliff onto a rocky ocean beach in California.

The incident raises questions about how people who are care-givers become the agents of death, particularly the intentional, violent death of children.  Murder.  Some people say the potential is inherent in some personalities.  Others say it is acquired through life experiences.  Some motives for murder are understandable.  Sort of.  Others are questionable and puzzling.  This suicide-murder event was committed in the context of America being the world leader in mass shootings and shooting deaths in general.  In this case, the instrument of death was the automobile. As in all instances of mass murder, the insistent question is, what motivated it?

Many analysts and commentators on the Hart suicide-murders say it arose from mental health issues.  They gloss over the basis for the bad mental health, what were its recognizable symptoms, and what can be done about it if it is recognized.  And some others contend that the murders are a matter of defects of character, of evil.

The question is, what puts people in a state of mind that allows or induces them to kill children?  It is certainly significant that nearly all mass murderers kill themselves.  The reasons for killing others are usually left unaddressed, but it is doubtful if reason is a relevant element in such cases.  We assume that despair leads to suicide, and the person who commits suicide may think that the killing of children is a means of sparing them from such despair. Or in their rage, they simply want to express it by killing children.

Hearing of the Hart suicide and murders is the occasion for despair in itself.  The events are failures of society.  They cannot be dismissed as the rare actions of an individual possessed by a psychopathology. Jennifer and Sarah Hart seemed to have inclinations and ambitions that were positive, but other issues were at work, too.   They did comment on occasion about encountering disapproval of their lesbian lifestyle, but they seemed to have many supportive friends, too.

As an educator, I, as do my teaching colleagues, like to tell stories about people who have met adversity and triumphed.  Our job is to present information that secures and enhances life.  However, we cannot ignore those who are defeated by the vagaries of human society.  While our society has developed tolerance and understanding of people with differences from the conventional, it retains pockets of cruel bigotry and intolerance.  It is the ill will that comes out of those pockets that sends people over the edge.  

In the Harry Bosch detective stories by Michael Conelly,  in his pursuit of justice, the detective often says, everybody counts, or nobody counts.  That is a definition of what equality means.  Tragedies of self-destruction like those committed by Sarah  and Jennifer Hart are triggered when people are made to feel they don't count.  As a society we are are responsible for making people think they don't count.  The tragedy is ours to own. 

                                        The Hart family killed in a deliberate car crash March 26, 2018.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States