When partners Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove their family SUV off a cliff in Mendocino County, CA in 2018, killing themselves and all six of their adoptive children, journalist Roxanna Asgarian was several states away reporting on the child welfare system in Texas. Despite her distance and lack of involvement with the active investigation into the case, Asgarian’s journalistic perspective on foster care laws in the United States proved to be far more insightful in terms of naming the system-wide issues of racism and negligence she argues are at fault.
While We Were Once a Family provides retrospective coverage of the specifics of the tragic Hart family murders, it functions dually as a treatise on the culpability of the child welfare system in America as a whole.
For Asgarian, the book is a high-stakes criminal investigation into a flawed legal system. The criminality of the child removal practices that allowed the Hart children to be forcibly removed from their birth families in the first place — and then shuffled silently into the care of their violently abusive adoptive ones —- victimizes thousands of other children as well.
Asgarian’s analysis is rooted in a victim-centric set of priorities. That said, she pushes the boundaries of victim categorization, bringing the adopted children’s birth parents into focus as victims of the crime as well, when previously they had been so aggressively erased. In a heartbreaking display of the power of trust built between sources and journalists over time, Asgarian provides a thorough birth family history for each of the children, effectively flipping the script on what mainstream media covered in 2018.
“In the coverage of the crash, mainstream media continued in its long-standing tradition of reporting on foster care and adoption almost exclusively through the lens of adoptive parents, while largely leaving out the experiences of adoptees and birth families. We like our adoption stories to be happy endings; many people took note of the Hart case because it contradicted what they thought they knew about adoption. But since there’s a scarcity of in-depth reporting about the child welfare system, people zeroed in on the women’s motivations and intentions, instead of on the biased decision-making and dehumanizing practices that created the conditions that allowed the Harts’ abuse to flourish.”
— Roxanna Asgarian, author of We Were Once a Family
Throughout the interviews Asgarian conducts, the trauma for the Hart children’s birth families reveals itself to be three-fold. They are victims who lost their children first to the state, then to their murderers, before finally being confronted with the upsetting realization that their children were not in fact cared for in all the ways promised when they were taken away.
Asgarian argues that the questions being asked about the Hart family murders at the time of the crime were entirely misplaced: Why the prioritized focus on the adopted parents’ motives rather than birth parent’s suffering? Why such in-depth coverage of the Hart parents’ backgrounds rather than the Hart children’s? And most importantly, why was the abuse of the children under Jennifer and Sarah Hart’s care allowed to continue on for so long?
Though standard avenues for justice through court proceedings are not possible in this scenario, as the murderers were themselves killed while committing the crime, Asgarian has another set of wrongs she would like to amend — the fact that the children’s former lives were diminished or erased, and the role of their birth families sidelined. Her research, which ties together the harmful threads of a chaotic and disparate child welfare system, rights at least this set of wrongs.
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