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Natalie’s Pick of the Week: WE WERE ONCE A FAMILY : A STORY OF LOVE, DEATH, AND CHILD REMOVAL IN AMERICA

There were other books I considered for this post. At first I considered TRAVELERS TO UNIMAGINABLE LANDS: STORIES OF DEMENTIA, THE CAREGIVER, AND THE HUMAN BRAIN / Dasha Kiper ; foreword by Norman Doidge, which was an excellent read for caregivers of dementia patients. I would recommend this book for anyone who’s life has been touched by dementia.

I also considered THE PERFECTIONIST’S GUIDE TO LOSING CONTROL : A PATH TO PEACE AND POWER / Katherine Morgan Schafler. Schafler encourages perfectionists to embrace their perfectionism as a superpower and helps identify ways to channel your particular type of perfectionism for your greater good. While I would absolutely recommend for anyone struggling with perfectionism, there just wasn’t enough there for an entire blog post.

However, when I picked up WE WERE ONCE A FAMILY : A STORY OF LOVE, DEATH, AND CHILD REMOVAL IN AMERICA / Roxanna Asgarian, I knew I had to write about the book. Roxanna Asgarian, is the law and courts reporter for the Texas Tribune, and We were once a family is a deeply reported story of a murder-suicide that claimed the lives of six children. It’s also a searing indictment of the American foster care system.

On March 26, 2018 Jennifer Hart and her wife, Sarah Hart, murdered their six adopted children: Ciera (aged 12), Abigail (14), Jeremiah (14), Devonte (15), Hannah (16), and Markis (19) when Jennifer intentionally drove the family’s SUV off a cliff in Mendocino County, California. Jennifer was in the driver’s seat and Sarah was in the front passenger seat.

The story captured the nation’s attention almost immediately, including an 8-part podcast released by Glamour called Broken Harts released December 20181, just 8 months after the tragedy. While everyone was talking about the Harts and their adopted children, no one was looking at the bigger picture. While media outlets reported heavily about Jennifer and Sarah’s background, no one questioned the children’s background before they were adopoted. As Asgarian says, these children had families and a life before they were adopted out of foster care.

We were once a family goes deeper than just the specifics of the tragic Hart family murders. Asgarian investigates the flawed system that resulted in the children’s removal from their families, as well as the criminality of child removal practices that allowed the Hart children to be forcibly removed from their birth families and shuffled into the care of violently abusive adoptive mothers.

According to the American Bar Association, Black children are investigated by the child welfare system and forcibly separated from their parents at rates far greater than their white peers. Over 50 percent of Black children in the U.S. will experience a child welfare investigation before their eighteenth birthday (nearly double the rate of white children). Nearly 10 percent of Black children will be removed from their parents and placed into foster care (double the rate of white children). One in 41 Black children will have their relationship with their birth parent or parents legally terminated (more than double the rate of the general population).

Just this past week a Black couple driving from Georgia to Chicago with their five children (ages 7 through 4-months) to attend a family funeral had their road trip abruptly cut short in Coffee County, Tennessee after a traffic stop left them separated from their children.3 These poor children are being traumatized by the system, separated from their parents, and at time, from each other. And for what? Their protection? Would the children have been removed from this couple if they were white? Would they have even been pulled over in the first place?

Something needs to change. The systems we have in place do not work. They don’t work for the families who get caught up in the system, and they certainly don’t seem to help children. Being separated from your home, especially as a child, can be very traumatic. There is substantial evidence that children are actually more likely to be abused while in foster care than in the general population. Children in foster care are also at increased risk for mental health disorders, are more likely to be overprescribed psychotropic medication, and are at increased risk for exposure to sex trafficking.2

The trauma doesn’t stop for kids who age out of the system. Children who have been in foster care are at increased risk for criminal justice involvement, less educational achievement, higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and higher risk of future homelessness.2

While it is a difficult subject and an awful tragedy, Roxanna Asgarian’s We were once a family, is important. For the first time, the children’s former lives have been unerased. Asgarian brings the birth families from the sideline to the center of the story. Her research ties together the harmful threads of a chaotic and disparate child welfare system, and acknowledges the other victims of this senseless tragedy: the birth families. She also shines a light on the brief lives of Ciera, Abigail, Jeremiah, Devonte, Hannah and Markus; and the involvement of a system that directed the course of lives, a system that remains unaccountable for their deaths.

  • The hug shared around the world
  • Markis, Hannah, Devonte, Jeremiah, the man, Sierra and Abigail with an unidentified man at the 2013 Minnesota festival celebrating the Earth
  • Sierra, Jeremiah, Abigail, Devonte, Hannah and Markis Hart
  • Sherry Davis and Clarence Celestine
  1. Glamour. (2018, December 4). Check out ‘broken harts’-a new true-crime podcast from Glamour and Howstuffworks. Glamour. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.glamour.com/story/broken-harts-episode-1-fear
  2. White, S. A., & Persson, S. (2012, October 13). Racial Discrimination in Child Welfare Is a Human Rights Violation—Let’s Talk About It That Way Public acknowledgement of the discriminatory harms perpetrated by the child welfare system is long overdue. Americanbar.org. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/childrens-rights/articles/2022/fall2022-racial-discrimination-in-child-welfare-is-a-human-rights-violation/
  3. Reid, R. (2023, March 27). Black couple loses custody of their children after traffic stop on family road trip. MSN. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/crime/black-couple-loses-custody-of-their-children-after-traffic-stop-on-family-road-trip/ar-AA1992kO

Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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