The shocking, deeply reported story of a murder-suicide that claimed the lives of six children―and a searing indictment of the American foster care system.
On March 26, 2018, rescue workers discovered a crumpled SUV and the bodies of two women and several children at the bottom of a cliff beside the Pacific Coast Highway. Investigators soon concluded that the crash was a murder-suicide, but there was more to the story: Jennifer and Sarah Hart, it turned out, were a white married couple who had adopted the six Black children from two different Texas families in 2006 and 2008. Behind the family’s loving façade, however, was a pattern of abuse and neglect that went ignored as the couple withdrew the children from school and moved across the country. It soon became apparent that the State of Texas knew very little about the two individuals to whom it had given custody of six children―with fateful consequences.
In the manner of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family and other classic works of investigative journalism, Roxanna Asgarian’s We Were Once a Family is a revelation of vulnerable lives; it is also a shattering exposé of the foster care and adoption systems that produced this tragedy. As a journalist in Houston, Asgarian became the first reporter to put the children’s birth families at the center of the story. We follow the author as she runs up against the intransigence of a state agency that removes tens of thousands of kids from homes each year in the name of child welfare, while often failing to consider alternatives. Her reporting uncovers persistent racial biases and corruption as children of color are separated from birth parents without proper cause. The result is a riveting narrative and a deeply reported indictment of a system that continues to fail America’s most vulnerable children while upending the lives of their families.
We Were Once a Family is a stunning debut book about the Hart family, who made headlines across the country in 2018 when their SUV was driven off a cliff killing the two moms and six adopted children inside. Journalist Roxanna Asgardian reveals the foundation of this disturbing, tragic story and how the criminalization of poverty made it all possible.
We Were Once a Family is so much more than a true crime book. Roxanna Asgarian provides a very in depth look at the stories behind the headlines. And when I say in depth, I mean back to the children’s birth parents’ childhoods and intergenerational trauma. Instead of focusing on Jennifer and Sarah Hart’s actions and their evil deeds, Asgarian focuses on the victims. She makes it clear from the first pages that where news stories failed to acknowledge the children’s birth families and the impact of child removal, they are the focus of this book. In doing so, Asgarian sheds light on the children’s journey to the Harts, shares the stories of their birth families, and indicts the child welfare system that failed them.
We Were Once a Family is an immersive narrative founded in journalism and expanded into a rigorous policy analysis and call for change. Within its pages, Asgarian offers essential context of the child welfare system in Texas as well as the families’ struggles and circumstances, including the biased family court system. She explores the the laws and policies that made each failure of these children possible along with systemic racism that enabled it.
Told intimately, Asgarian makes it clear from the beginning that she is not a passive observer in this story. She became involved with the story and the lives affected by it. However, Asgarian notes throughout the narrative where she was involved and how she impacted the story. I appreciate the full transparency she offers as well as her writing, which invites readers to fully step into the story.
I cannot offer enough praise for the way Asgarian narrates this story, full of the complex family relationships and personal decisions, with empathy as well as social and cultural awareness. Contrary to popular narratives about families involved with state-surveilled care, she does not automatically blame the birth mothers and families for the removal of their children. After reading her fiercely empathetic portrayal, I was surprised to learn in the epilogue that Asgarian is a white woman. I think that speaks to the profound compassion and understanding with which she approached the people and subject matter.
There were so many times I felt gut wrenched and anger while reading We Were Once a Family. It is an inherently emotional journey compounded by exceptional storytelling. But Asgarian does not simply leave this story with readers to digest and forget about. Instead, she compels us to listen and act.
We Were Once a Family will undoubtedly be one of my favorite books of the year. It is a phenomenal and impactful piece of nonfiction that left a searing impression. I strongly encourage you to read it, whether you known nothing about the child welfare system or are intimately involved with it. I especially urge anyone that holds preconceived notions and/or assumptions about birth and adoptive families to pick this book up. We Were Once a Family is a book I will be relentlessly recommending to everyone.
We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, & Child Removal in America
Nonfiction: Journalism; Social Science
March 14, 2023
Note: I received an audio galley of this book from the publisher, Macmillan Audio. Regardless, I always provide a fair and honest review.