On the shelf
We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and the Expulsion of Children in America
By Roxana Asgarian
FSG: 320 pages, $28
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Nearly five years ago, Jennifer and Sarah Hart murdered their six adopted children: Ciera, 12; Abigail and Jeremías, both 14 years old; Devonte, 15; Anne, 16; and Markis, 19; drugging them with Benadryl and then intentionally driving them off a cliff on California’s Pacific Coast Highway. The Harts were white, their children black or biracial. Devonte’s body has never been found.
The title of Roxanna Asgarian’s new book on the case, “once we were a family”, is not referring to the Harts. It refers, directly and emphatically, to the birth families of these two groups of children who were taken from their homes and communities by Child Protective Services in Texas, fostered by the Harts, and expedited into adoption despite the fact that members of the family were willing and able to do it. take the children home.
Shortly after the accident, the revelations poured in. The Harts had been accused of child abuse many times, and Sarah received a suspended prison sentence in 2011. Teachers had filed numerous complaints about the children’s welfare. The Harts had taken them out of school. How did the system respond? Giving the Harts three more children.
“Unlike many who have researched the Hart story, I was not drawn to the psychological motivations of Jennifer and Sarah,” Asgarian writes. “What motivated me the most was seeing and sharing the parts of history that had been made invisible: the real and complicated families that these children came from. The children themselves.”
“We Were Once a Family” is a deeply disturbing account of how the failure of the child welfare system led directly to the murder of six children of color. By telling his stories, Asgarian gives a voice to the families whose children were stolen from them in the most devastating way imaginable. The author spoke to The Times about her five-year journey with the book. The interview from her home in Dallas has been edited for length and clarity.
When you heard about the murders, did you know right away that it was a story about system failures?
My jaw dropped at the enormity of the loss, so it took me a bit of time to process. One of the follow up stories I read said that three of the children came from Harris County and that was where I was living at the time. As soon as I started reporting, I knew it was a child welfare story.
When did you realize that you would tell the story of the biological families instead of the Harts?
There have been several documentaries about the Hart family, and a lot of information about them came out after the accident. It felt like families were almost struck off the record. I was there with them, and seeing their lives and their pain, and not seeing them in these stories, really made me angry.
No one called Tammy, the biological mother of a set of siblings, to tell her what happened. Tammy went to the police to give a DNA sample and they put out a press release before telling her that she was a match, a failure of basic humanity. Families felt like an afterthought. Is everyone so interested in what happened to these kids, but not their families?
And all you read in the media was that the children allegedly came from abusive backgrounds.
Yeah, and that was very much Jen’s Facebook story. All you read was that Sherry, the biological mother of the other set of siblings, was addicted to cocaine. Seventy-five percent of child welfare cases are related to neglect, not abuse. Abandonment is living in conditions of poverty. Mom had to go to work. Children have to stay home alone. The power went out because we couldn’t pay the bills. These are No parenting issues. These are problems of our society. There’s something so primal about someone telling you, “You can’t be a parent.”
I liked that you brought the story of indigenous adoption and transracial adoption in this country.
The separation of families is actually one of the UN definitions of genocide. It’s so deeply hurtful. I tried to bring a lot of native experience with the child welfare system. It makes the intergenerational effects very clear. We know that racism is real, and yet we keep asking: How could this happen? With this history there is no way to avoid the difference in treatment.
When two family members were working hard to adopt these children permanently, their cases were dismissed. Meanwhile, the Harts are on a fast track, ignoring their abuse.
We talk a lot about how overburdened the child welfare system is, but we don’t talk about how much of that time is being used to investigate families who have done nothing wrong. There is this idea that host families are great, they are selfless. There is so much scrutiny around black parents trying to be parents. You let these people adopt six children from two family groups, which is an extreme amount of work. Giving people that responsibility without doing due diligence and follow through is horrible.
What was the most emotionally challenging part of writing this book?
I plan to write about Ye (Dontay’s son, the only sibling of Ciera, Jeremiah, and Devonte who wasn’t adopted). How he got into the foster system, that was the hardest part. Ye is about nine months older than my son, and we used to strap him into my son’s car seat to visit Dontay in prison. I went to all the hearings. Just seeing it up close was really…
Hard for you personally?
I’ve been taking a break from thinking about it since I finished writing it. I’ve been thinking about the effect this book has had on me. And you develop relationships.
Is there anything the Biden administration can do to prevent these things from happening? Or to make it more difficult for these cases to fall into oblivion?
As Dorothy Roberts writes in his book “Torn Apart,” you eventually get to abolitionism because this system can’t be fixed. It needs to be completely torn down and rebuilt. The punitive aspect of the system is the fundamental nature of this system, and it is not good for children. If they can’t do better at home, they do better with their family members. We give kinship families less money than foster families. we don’t give parents money!
The child tax credit is huge. That makes a real, tangible difference. CPS only bothers children in poverty. We could increase legal protections for parents who are involved in the child welfare system. There are issues with the quality of representation and when parents are appointed as attorneys. The system is downstream of all the failure to support people with housing, health care, medicine, mental health care – this is the general area. There are many things that we can do outside of the child welfare system that would have a great effect.
What do you want birth parents to know about their rights?
Before an investigation, Google your state and the rights you have as a parent. It varies from state to state. There are legal help lines you can call. I want all parents to know: no one is a perfect parent. There are so many ways to feel guilty as a parent. If you are involved with CPS, it does not dictate anything about you as a parent. It is not a fair system. People have been psychologically broken by this. Families have been destroyed. Not well.
I could spend a lot of time asking you questions like, “How did this happen?” or “Why did we let this happen?” In my book notes there are many questions like this, primal screams, exclamation points.
There is an unknown aspect to this. It is normal and human to wonder how someone could do this. But you can’t answer that psychological question because you’re not them. Where we put our focus says a lot about us. The tragedy is about the children. They should be the focus.
Ferri is the owner of Womb House Books and the author, most recently, of “Silent Cities San Francisco.”