Roxanna Asgarian’s We Were Once a Family: A Story of Death, Love, and Child Removal in America (Macmillian 2023) is a searing indictment of the foster care system in the United States. Asgarian’s text begins with the shocking murder suicide of Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart, and their six adopted children. In 2018, Jennifer Hart drove the family car over a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway, killing everyone in the car. Two of the children’s bodies have never been found. However, if you are looking for salacious details on this high-profile case, you won’t find them here. We Were Once a Family tells the story of the Hart’s six adopted children, the birth families they came from, and the abysmal systemic failures that led to six children being abused and killed by their foster parents.
Asgarian is critical of the media coverage of the case because of the way it has focused on the Hart’s and what drove them to kill their adopted children. This is a mistake, she claims, because you cannot truly understand this story without understanding how the children ended up placed with the Harts. As a result, Asgarian takes a deep dive into the children’s histories, going so far as to track history of the birth parents’ parents and thereby elucidating how the abuse of this family by the foster care system goes back generations.
Asgarian also goes to great lengths to explain the biases and racism that are baked into the system—a disproportionate number of black children are placed in the system, she explains, and the reasons for this largely have to do with the way the system treats black families. The Harts were white, and their adopted children were black. Even though many of the children had extended family members fighting in the courts for their right to adopt the children, the children were placed with the Harts, a couple who had had previous CPS investigations opened against them and had been convicted of domestic abuse. The reason for this is bias and racism, Asgarian explains. People within the system who allowed these adoptions to go through made assumptions about the suitability of the Harts based upon race. They assumed that black children would be better taken care of in the hands of white parents.
Asgarian vigorously goes after the system and its many problems, but she just as vigorously tells the story of the murdered children and their birth families. It is evident that she got to know these families; she even went so far as to secure the ashes of the children for the birth families from the families of Jennifer and Sarah, acting as a mediator. Her advocacy for the birth families really had no limits, and as a result we as readers get a narrative of these families that is honest, detailed, and compassionate. Displaying the ways that the foster care system effects birth families is not a perspective that is often focused on, but it is only through this perspective that you can see the extent of the damage the system has done and continues to do. In this way, this book is essential reading not only to learn about this case, but to really understand the problems with the foster care system and its desperate need for reform. We Were Once a Family ultimately suggests that the “why” doesn’t matter in this case as much as the “how,” and flawlessly executes that “how” with careful detail and grace.
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About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime has been published in Crime Fiction Studies.