Facebook, Instagram, and likeminded social-media platforms are perfect vehicles for deception, affording users the ability to present idealized versions of themselves and their lives for mass consumption. They let people show what they want to show, be who they want to be, and represent what they want to represent, and such was the case with Jen and Sarah Hart. A white lesbian couple, Jen and Sarah became viral sensations in December 2014 when one of their six adopted Black children, Devonte, was photographed tearfully embracing a police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest while wearing a sign that read “Free Hugs.” Like so many of the family pictures they promoted online, it was an image crafted to express peace, sorrow, healing, and reconciliation, and it quickly turned the Harts into national celebrities.
Unfortunately, their time in the spotlight wouldn’t last. On March 26, 2018, Jen, Sarah and three of their children were found dead inside their SUV at the bottom of an 80-foot cliff at the end of a dirt-road turnout in Mendocino County, California.
Written and directed by Gregory Palmer, Broken Harts (premiering May 18 on Discovery+) is a documentary about the dangerous illusions that run rampant on social media, where posts that appear to be natural and offhand are, on the contrary, often calculatingly manufactured to forward particular ideas about their creators and subjects. When it comes to Jen and Sarah Hart, their Facebook pages were rife with cheery pics and videos of their charges, whom they adopted in two stages: first Markis, Abigail and Hannah, and then Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra. Shot and framed for maximum eye-catching sharing potential, they depicted what appeared to be a model blended family unit, with loving parents holding hands, laughing, frolicking, playing, and protesting with their photogenically beaming brood.
The Harts made themselves out to be the embodiment of the socially conscious 21st century American dream in which sexual preference and racial harmony were the norm, and joy and togetherness were incessant. As anyone who’s spent time on social media knows, however, individuals who indulge in this sort of performative online behavior are often full of you-know-what; they’re narcissists whose hunger for acceptance and affirmation (if not outright adulation) is priority No. 1. Thus, while many were taken aback at news about the Hart family’s demise in this crash-and-burn fashion, it was hardly a shock to learn, in the days and weeks after the calamity, that it wasn’t an accident, but instead was the culmination of a brewing domestic crisis.
Employing a non-fiction format that doesn’t partake in unnecessary detours (or, save for one instance, dramatic-recreation melodrama), Broken Harts charts the investigation into the Hart clan’s fatal crash and the events that might have caused it. What it discovers, via news stories and talking-head chats with police investigators, journalists, and other related parties, is a story of neglect and abuse perpetrated by parental figures who hid their cruelty behind a cheery façade of likable Facebook updates. Director Palmer’s film reveals that far from a textbook example of adoption done right, the Harts were actually a cautionary tale about child protective services and criminal justice system failures, since sleuthing into their past uncovered a litany of red flags that should have led to the immediate—and potentially permanent—removal of Jen and Sarah’s kids from the household.
Between November 2010 and January 2011, six allegations of abuse were made to child protective services about Jen and Sarah, and on April 7, 2011, Sarah pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault (for bruises found on Hannah’s stomach) and was given one year of probation and community service. Nonetheless, despite these warning signs, Jen and Sarah maintained custody of their kids, thanks to Jen’s persuasiveness, the kids’ refusal to rat out their tormentors, and a public persona defined by a euphoric kumbaya spirit, be it at a Bernie Sanders rally or a Black Lives Matter protest. That Markis, Abigail, and Hannah were removed from their biological family and sent into foster care because of one misstep on the part of their aunt, and yet weren’t taken from Jen and Sarah after clear evidence of physical assault, speaks volumes about the racial double-standard at play in this tale. And it further underscores how Jen and Sarah were able to make a name for themselves—and shield themselves from criticism or punishment—by turning themselves into ostensible paragons of white-savior virtue.
Broken Harts’ opening 911 call elucidates the catalyst that eventually brought things to a homicidal head: an incident in which Hannah arrived at neighbors Dana and Bruce DeKalb’s house in the middle of the night, begging for protection from Jen and Sarah. Though that episode was swept under the rug, Devonte soon began regularly appearing at the DeKalbs’ home asking for food and explaining how Jen and Sarah were starving the kids for days on end. When the DeKalbs called child protective services about these accusations, Jen and Sarah fled their residence in Woodland, Washington, with their sextet in tow. To its detriment, the film has no insights into the origins of the duo’s abusiveness; psychological speculation is handled by one interviewee. Nor does it have details about the final route the Harts took, except that it ended in a fiery wreck in Mendocino County, and along the way Jen and Sarah drugged the children—and themselves—with Benadryl, presumably so they’d be asleep when their lives came to an end.
Formally speaking, Broken Harts is as safe as they come, mixing standard interview clips with archival photos, social media posts, and copious drone footage. That banal approach hardly energizes the proceedings, but it does let Palmer cleanly and concisely revisit this nightmare while digging into its inherent racial and socioeconomic dynamics. It also allows him to maintain focus on Jen’s pictures of her family, full of cheerfully grinning faces that now seem to be silently screaming out in pain and terror. With those unforgettably fraudulent images, the film casts a caustic eye at a system that failed those it was designed to protect, and the modern online paradigm that enables predators to get away with monstrousness.