A Washington Post best nonfiction book of 2023
“A riveting indictment of the child welfare system . . . [A] bracing gut punch of a book.” —Robert Kolker, The Washington Post
“[A] moving and superbly reported book.” —Jessica Winter, The New Yorker
“A harrowing account . . . [and] a powerful critique of [the] foster care system . . . We Were Once a Family is a wrenching book.” —Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice | One of Publishers Weekly's best nonfiction books of 2023 | Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
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 multiple children at the bottom of a cliff along 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 six Black children from two different Texas families in 2006 and 2008. Behind the family’s loving facade was an alleged pattern of abuse and neglect that had been ignored as the couple withdrew the children from school and moved west. It soon became apparent that the State of Texas knew all too little about the two individuals to whom it had given custody of six children.
Immersive journalism of the highest order, Roxanna Asgarian’s We Were Once a Family is a revelation of precarious lives; it is also a shattering exposé of the foster care and adoption systems that produced this tragedy. As a journalist in Houston, Asgarian sought out the children’s birth families and put them at the center of the story. We follow the lives of the Harts’ adopted children and their birth parents, and the machinations of the state agency that sent the children far away. Asgarian’s reporting uncovers persistent racial biases and corruption as young people 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.
Journalist Asgarian debuts with a comprehensive and searing look at systemic issues within the foster care and adoption systems through the eyes of two Texas families whose Black and biracial children were removed from their homes, adopted, abused, and killed in a deliberate murder-suicide car crash by their white adoptive mothers in 2018. Over and over, Asgarian finds that wherever the children's birth relatives "encountered resistance in the system," the adoptive parents were given the benefit of the doubt, despite evidence of long-term abuse. Instead of focusing—as most contemporaneous news reports did—on the "dark psychological problems" of the adoptive married couple, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, Asgarian centers the birth families, interviewing the birth mothers whose parental rights were terminated and extended family members who had been seeking custody of the children, and describing the lingering trauma of the children's surviving family, including the siblings who weren't adopted. Emotional and frequently enraging, it adds up to a blistering indictment of a system where, in the words of one reform advocate, "we've lost key concepts like humanity, dignity. We're prioritizing compliance and the needs of bureaucracy." Throughout, Asgarian makes clear that the endemic failures that led to this shocking tragedy continue to affect countless families caught up in the child welfare system. Sensitive, impassioned, and eye-opening, this is a must-read.
Sad, yet eye-opening look into the child welfare system
Birds build nests long before they lay eggs. The way humans start and grow families must evolve. If having a child doesn’t have enough significance in a person’s life to make the child top priority, it is unsurprising the child fails to inspire in the courts and child welfare system what it could not inspire in the parents. It is terrifying that children can be taken from bad situations with their parents and placed in even worse with others.
But what is truly interesting is that Texas, a Bible Belt state that has been vocally and vehemently anti-LGBTQ+ allowed an openly lesbian couple to adopt children in those days.