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Book Review: ‘We Were Once a Family,’ by Roxanna Asgarian

Jul 10, 2023


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In “We Were Once a Family,” Roxanna Asgarian investigates the case of a couple who drove off a cliff with their six adopted children in the family’s S.U.V.

By Jennifer Szalai

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WE WERE ONCE A FAMILY: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America, by Roxanna Asgarian

Even before all the facts trickled out, the little that was known was already terrible. On March 26, 2018, the wreckage of an S.U.V. was spotted at the bottom of a cliff along the Pacific Coast Highway. The bodies of two adult women were in the front seats; outside the car were the bodies of three children. The remains of two more children would eventually be discovered nearby, and another child was presumed dead. (His body was never found.)

A family of eight had plunged off a cliff — it had to be an awful accident. But there were no skid marks. The driver had accelerated. Autopsies on the children’s bodies found enormous doses of generic Benadryl. It turned out that the women had been investigated for child abuse in three different states. Investigators concluded that Jennifer and Sarah Hart, a white married couple who had adopted six Black children during the decade before, had committed murder-suicide.

A flurry of articles ensued, wondering about the women’s histories, their motivations, their states of mind. How could it be that a liberal couple who gushed effusively on social media about love and joy and social justice were in fact “family annihilators”? Seemingly lost in the fixation on the adoptive mothers was a commensurate curiosity about the adopted children: Markis, 19; Hannah, 16; Devonte, 15; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 14; and Ciera, 12.(In 2014, a photo of a tearful Devonte hugging a white police officer at a protest had gone viral.)

So the journalist Roxanna Asgarian set out to learn more about where the children came from for her debut book. The result is “We Were Once a Family,” a harrowing account of what she discovered, along with a powerful critique of a foster care system “that directed the course of their short lives, a system that remained unaccountable for their deaths.”

The Harts moved from Minnesota to Oregon to Washington State, but the children were born to two families in Texas, where Asgarian is based. She describes a child welfare system that, once triggered, can take on a life of its own. Before a caseworker sent them to foster care, Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera had been living with their aunt Priscilla. Their mother had a cocaine problem, and was advised by a lawyer to terminate her parental rights to make it easier for Priscilla to adopt the siblings.

But termination ensnared the family in a bureaucratic trap. From then on, Asgarian writes, “the children would be free for adoption not just by Priscilla, but by any interested party.” Priscilla was still filing petitions to get the children back in her care when the state placed them on the Texas Adoption Resource Exchange.

Asgarian, who writes about the courts and the law for The Texas Tribune, shows how Texas has distinguished itself in regard to adoptions. Not only has it pulled in a disproportionately large share of federal money intended to reward states for finding homes for prospective adoptees; Texas has also had a hand in producing those adoptees, terminating birth parents’ rights “at a rate that far outstripped the rest of the nation.” At first glance, this might seem to be a matter of simply removing vulnerable children from abusive homes, but Asgarian cites data indicating otherwise: 75 percent of child welfare cases involve not abuse but neglect, which, she says, can “often be caused by or confused with poverty.” (In 2021, the Texas Legislature passed a reform in the state’s family code that made it harder to remove children for neglect alone.)

In the case of the Harts’ children, their birth families were treated punitively, with extreme suspicion, while the Harts were repeatedly given the benefit of the doubt — even when the children were clearly in danger. They would show up to school hungry and bruised, going through the trash looking for food. Teachers reported six incidents to Minnesota’s social service agency in 2010 and 2011; after Sarah pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence in 2011, the Harts pulled the children from school and began to home-school them, deepening their isolation. And when caseworkers did show up, the couple would speak confidently about their parenting skills and benevolence.

“We Were Once a Family” is a wrenching book. It’s disorienting to read the sunny assessments by Child Protective Services, like the one depicting the Harts’ home as a “stable and loving environment,” where the children were “bonding with the adoptive parents” and “continuing to thrive.” Jennifer’s preening social-media posts now seem not just delusional but abominable. “If not us, who?” she wrote in one post. “We had boatloads of love, compassion, intelligence, and the natural instincts to navigate these wild and uncharted waters.” In the days before the murder-suicide, the couple had learned they were being investigated by child welfare officials. Perhaps the women’s malignant grandiosity fueled their plan: They could not fathom these Black children living without them, their white saviors.

The story of the Harts is extreme, but Asgarian suggests that it wasn’t entirely unrepresentative. After the murder-suicide, nobody notified the children’s birth families; an advocate for foster-care reform tells Asgarian that this basic lack of respect has become routine. “We’ve lost key concepts like humanity, dignity,” he says. “We’re prioritizing compliance and the needs of bureaucracy.” Instead of “the child welfare system,” the legal scholar and sociologist Dorothy Roberts prefers the term “the family policing system” and has argued for its abolition: “It can’t be fixed at all, is my conclusion.”

Asgarian spent nearly five years reporting this book, finding people to interview and digging through official records. She confesses there were times when she didn’t adhere to the traditional journalistic boundaries and “developed relationships with the birth families that were much deeper than those I make in the regular course of my journalism work.” She tracked down the birth mother of some of the children, who had previously been unknown to officials. She even reached out to Jennifer Hart’s father and acted as an intermediary, urging him to ensure that the birth families could get some of their children’s remains.

The fact of Asgarian’s involvement is, in a way, a further indictment of the system — one that severed the connections between children and their birth families so thoroughly that a journalist ended up taking it upon herself to bear such crucial responsibilities. She knows that abolishing foster care as it’s currently practiced might sound not only undesirable but almost inconceivable to many people — myself among them, at least before the book unsettled some of my assumptions. Even if you’re still skeptical of her proposed solutions, Asgarian gives you plenty to think about.

We need to overcome “the urge to judge and blame parents” that has perpetuated a system designed mainly “to punish them for their failures,” she writes. “In a society that resorts to individual punishment as a response to many of its systemic ills, this concept is deeply embedded into our psyches, and it is hard to let go.”

WE WERE ONCE A FAMILY: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America | By Roxanna Asgarian | 297 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $28

Jennifer Szalai is the nonfiction book critic for The Times. More about Jennifer Szalai


WE WERE ONCE A FAMILY: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in AmericaWE WERE ONCE A FAMILY: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America