We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America (Hardcover)
A finalist for the 2023 National Book Critics Circle Award | the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
A Washington Post best nonfiction book of 2023 | Winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
“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
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.
About the Author
Roxanna Asgarian is a Texas-based independent journalist who writes about child welfare and the law. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, New York, and Texas Monthly, among other publications. She received the 2022 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for We Were Once a Family.
"A riveting indictment of the child welfare system . . . [A] bracing gut punch of a book, We Were Once a Family is a provocative mix of immersive narrative journalism, rigorous social policy analysis and proud advocacy . . . Asgarian was [. . .] far ahead of any other reporter . . . Affecting." —Robert Kolker, The Washington Post
"[A] moving and superbly reported book . . . Notably, it was Asgarian, not police investigators, who, after poring through records made public by a sheriff’s office in Washington State, was the first person to track down a birth relative of [three of the victims] . . . A grim truth that emerges from We Were Once a Family is that removing a child from his birth or adoptive home, however horrendous that home may be, and placing him into the foster-care system is itself a form of trauma . . . Patient, compassionate reporting." —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 . . . The fact of Asgarian’s involvement is, in a way, a further indictment of the system — one that severed the connections between children and their birth families so thoroughly that a journalist ended up taking it upon herself to bear such crucial responsibilities . . . Asgarian gives you plenty to think about." —Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
"We Were Once a Family wades through the complexities of [the foster care] system to render the reality legible to readers. [Asgarian's] nuanced journalism makes clear how much mainstream adoption stories rely on tropes. It also shows the damage of these stock tales . . . We Were Once a Family proves that factual depictions of the system can be riveting." —Emi Nietfeld, The Nation
"We Were Once a Family fills in [a] crucial gap by tracing how two Texas sibling groups . . . came to be removed from their families and adopted by the Harts, even though the children had family members who were willing and able to take care of them . . . By meticulously showing how social workers, legal officials, and other authorities repeatedly failed the families, We Were Once a Family powerfully uses this one story . . . to expose how what happened to these children is indicative of the classism and racism still baked into the institution." —Kristen Martin, The Atlantic
"Asgarian's tenacious and vulnerable reporting reveals the foundation of [the book's] intensely disturbing story—a broken child welfare system whose singular accomplishment has been the uniformity by which its bureaucracy has ruined lives across state lines . . . The book's transparency is our benefit and an informed invitation to step into the nature of family abuse . . . Asgarian's personalized fact finding provides essential context for understanding what happened . . . [and] compels us to listen and act." —Marcela Davison Avilés, NPR
"[We Were Once a Family] takes readers along Asgarian’s five-year journey of interviews and investigative reporting . . . With fiercely empathetic narrative journalism reminiscent of journalist Svetlana Alexievich, Asgarian herself only appears in moments in which the adoptees and biological families’ narratives are enhanced . . . [We Were Once a Family] is surely a book that should be included in curriculums for courses on social justice, social work and journalism." —Michelle Kicherer, San Francisco Chronicle
"The flood of stories that followed the murder-suicide largely revolved around the psychological motivations of the Hart women. But Texas-based reporter Roxanna Asgarian was interested in different questions . . . Asgarian went on to spend the next five years investigating the parts of the tragedy obscured by true-crime sensationalism . . . Her work refocuses the lens on the birth families who were painfully shut out of their children’s lives and deaths." —Bindu Bansinath, The Cut
"[Asgarian] has written a narrative so powerful, populated by people who are so vivid, that it can’t be ignored, much less forgotten . . . [We Were Once a Family] is a reconstruction of a harrowing journey with no happy ending, one that challenges conventional assumptions at every turn and exposes the racist and economic biases of family courts." —Mimi Swartz, Texas Monthly
"Roxanna Asgarian reveals far more than details of that shocking crash—delving deep into the human and systemic failures that preceded the horrifying murder-suicide in a new nonfiction book that’s both riveting and deeply disturbing . . . More than an exposé, Asgarian’s first book weaves a complex tale that brings those six lost Texas children’s families into sharp and intimate focus. A crisp, colorful, and authoritative writer, she reveals difficult-to-obtain details . . . This deeply told tale is brimming with compassion for the children and for their families, as well as hard-hitting and vitally important investigative insights and analysis of the system that failed them all." —Lise Olsen, Texas Observer
"Asgarian debuts with a comprehensive and searing look at systemic issues within the foster care and adoption systems . . . Emotional and frequently enraging, it adds up to a blistering indictment . . . Sensitive, impassioned, and eye-opening, this is a must-read." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A searching examination . . . Asgarian clearly shows how [a] dysfunctional system hinges on racist assumptions . . . Entirely convincing . . . A sobering call to action." —Kirkus Reviews
“Roxanna Asgarian’s stunning debut, We Were Once A Family, paints a stark picture of the systemic failures of our child welfare system. Asgarian shows the myriad ways in which the very institutions charged with our children's safety often exacerbate their predicaments—and sometimes, as with the Hart family, can end in unmitigated and unnecessary tragedy. This book is sobering, but also urgent, advocating for change with the strength of a howl in the wild.” —Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises
"Roxanna Asgarian could have written another sensational account of the six Black children murdered by the white couple who adopted them. Instead, We Were Once A Family is not only the most in-depth investigation of the tragedy, but also a devastating exposé of the unjust and inhumane child welfare system that caused it to happen. Asgarian shatters the dominant rosy adoption narrative popularized by the government and media by telling the forgotten experiences of foster children, adoptees, and birth families—all traumatized by the forcible separation from their loved ones. This riveting book will raise public awareness of the urgent need to end our disastrous approach to struggling families by radically reimagining child welfare policies and building community-based supports that truly keep children safe." —Dorothy Roberts, author of Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—And How Abolition Can Build A Safer World
"Roxanna Asgarian is one of our most important reporters working today, covering crime, the courts, and child welfare with boundless empathy, rigorous journalism, and unforgettable prose. We Were Once A Family shines a necessary light on all of the systemic forces that made a seemingly unthinkable family tragedy all too preventable—and thus, all the more infuriating. This book astonished me, in part because it shows why American society continues to let children down, over and over again." —Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita and Scoundrel
"After Jennifer and Sarah Hart plunged themselves and their six children over a cliff in California, something strange happened: the media focused almost entirely on these white mothers, leaving the stories of the Black children they adopted—and later murdered—untold. Through meticulous and empathetic investigative reporting that stretches from California to Texas and many places in between, Roxanna Asgarian has not just rectified that injustice —she has provided a systemic critique of the predatory, racist child welfare system that is every bit as urgent and undeniable as the movements for police abolition in 2020." —Ethan Brown, New York Times bestselling author of Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed The Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?
"Powerful and urgent, We Were Once A Family is a crucial investigation into the deeply flawed system of child 'protection' that forcibly separates families, punishes marginalized communities, perpetuates inequality, and causes generational harm. This book creates space for the personal stories of those who are so often silenced to be heard, especially the children who were taken from their families and communities, disappeared across state lines, disbelieved when they reported abuse, incarcerated in for-profit institutions, and ultimately killed by those paid to care for them. With an industry of fostering and adoption being pushed as an alternative to reproductive rights, light must be shed on the systemic abuse so many children face when taken from families who are so often themselves survivors of systemic violence and inequality. Through unflinching reporting, immersive prose and direct testimonies from the families whose children were taken, Asgarian's book is a call for justice and systemic change that must be heard." —Caelainn Hogan, author of Republic of Shame: How Ireland Punished “Fallen Women” and Their Children