We Were Once a Family by Roxanna Asgarian

In the spring of 2018, Sarah and Jennifer Hart drove their SUV off a northern California cliff into the Pacific, killing themselves and their six adopted children.

The mass murder rocked the nation, sparking intensive coverage of the women who committed the heinous crime and gaps in the national child protection safety net that allowed them to escape intervention even as concerns bubbled up about the children’s well-being.

In her critically acclaimed book, “We Were Once a Family,” journalist Roxanna Asgarian takes an incisive look at another element of the case: how the children came to be separated from their birth families and kinship networks.

Asgarian’s reporting highlights the double standards that birth families and relatives face in the child welfare system, particularly families of color. While the Harts, who were white, middle-class women, were consistently given the benefit of the doubt — ultimately leading to red flags of abuse being ignored — the children’s parents and relative caregivers were not afforded the same grace.

All six of the children — two sets of three siblings — came from struggling Black families in Texas. Sherry Davis, the mother of the first three children to be adopted by the Harts, struggled with drug addiction. But her children had stable, loving caregivers in Sherry’s longtime partner, who was not the biological father, and his sister Priscilla, who fought to adopt them.

The mother of the other three children, Tammy, struggled with mental health issues but still desperately worked to care for her kids. But taking her daughter to the hospital after a fire ant attack triggered ongoing child protective involvement that ultimately resulted in her permanently losing custody of all three children.

While in the Harts’ care, the children were the subject of multiple CPS referrals when teachers noticed they were showing up to school bruised and hungry.

Their adoptive mothers moved the family across state lines multiple times after coming to the attention of child welfare authorities.

And being white and middle class, they were seen in a more favorable light when caseworkers did look in on them, as shown in the records Asgarian cites. The women further covered their tracks by curating a social media image of a close-knit and happy modern family.

Through the lens of this shocking and tragic case, “We Were Once a Family” dissects systemic bias in child welfare —arguably the system’s most chronic and concerning issue — and the hearts and families it irrevocably shatters.

Perhaps more importantly, it challenges pervasive assumptions about the people who lose children to foster care. It is an essential read for anyone who watched with horror as the Hart case unfolded years ago and all who are interested in better understanding the modern child welfare system. •

“We Were Once a Family”; ISBN: 9780374602291
Available at www.bookshop.org or www.amazon.com, $28 (hardcover) $14.99 (Kindle)

— Reviewed by Sara Tiano