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Dallas journalist wins major book award for writing about the failures of Texas' foster system

"We Were Once a Family" tracks the persistent racism and failures of our foster care and adoption system which, in this case, led to the murder-suicide of two adult women and six children
"We Were Once a Family" tracks the persistent racism and failures of our foster care and adoption systems which, in this case, led to the murder-suicide of two adult white women and six Black children

"We Were Once a Family," Roxanna Asgarian's expose of Texas' adoption system, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for best work of non-fiction.

A North Texas journalist won this year's National Book Critics Circle Award for the best work of non-fiction. Author Roxanna Asgarian's book is, in part, an exposé of Texas' foster care system — both its severe inadequacies and racism. Her book is We Were Once A Family: A Story of Love, Death and Child Removal in America. 

In 2018, Asgarian was an independent journalist, based in Houston. She was contacted by the Portland newspaper, The Oregonian, to track down a local connection to a wrenching story: Two women, a white married couple named Jennifer and Sarah Hart, had driven themselves and their six foster children to their deaths off a California cliff.

It was a multiple murder-suicide. The six murdered teenagers — Markis, 19; Hannah, 16; Devonte, 15; Jeremiah, 14; Abigail, 14; and Ciera, 12 — came from two different Black Texas families. They had been with the Harts for 10 years.

Texas journalist Roxanna Asgarian has written for The Washington Post, Texas Monthly and the Texas Tribune
Roxanna Asgarian
Texas journalist Roxanna Asgarian has written for The Washington Post, Texas Monthly and the Texas Tribune

The Oregonian contacted Asgarian because they had found one birth family's name listed in a public document — they lived in Houston.

"So I went and knocked on their door," Asgarian said. "I was the only reporter there, and the family invited me in. And they explained a whole backstory about when the kids were removed from them. I could see that" — instead of a murder-suicide story — "it was a story about the child welfare system. And as the news unfolded, it became clear that most reporters weren't looking at that side of the story at all."

Six months later, Asgarian discovered the second family's name. When she contacted them, she found the state of Texas had taken their children — and never told them about their deaths. They learned that from her.

"When you lose your legal rights to your kids," Asgarian said, "there's no requirement that they let you know if anything happens to them."

Asgarian had previously reported on the Texas child welfare system because the state has been fighting a lawsuit, filed in 2011, challenging how Texas funds and runs that system, known as the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). The suit claims the system's so bad, it violates the children's rights to due process. Since 2015, the state's been operating it under District Judge Janis Jack's landmark 260-page ruling condemning the Texas foster care system as “broken."

The state legislature has funneled more money into DFPS, and Governor Greg Abbott has instructed state officials to follow her orders. But Texas has repeatedly been found in contempt of court, and the judge has levied sanctions against it. And the state has hired private attorneys to fight legal moves to put the system into receivership.

As a result of all this, as Asgarian said, there's a ton of legal records to go through. She spent five years reporting and writing the book: "There's a lot of plaintiffs who explained their specific abuse that they suffered while in foster care. So I knew about the horrible conditions for kids who live in foster care. And then through this story, I got to learn a lot more about how child removal works and the termination of parental rights."

"We Were Once a Family" had already been declared
"We Were Once a Family" had already been declared won of the best non-fiction books of 2023 by the Washington Post and Publisher's Weekly

We Were Once a Family argues that because the Harts were white parents and the children's families were Black, the Harts were continually given the benefit of the doubt when it came to complaints.

"It's the sort of racism that's basically baked in [to the child welfare system]," Asgarian said. "But I think a lot of the problems that we see in foster care today, we kind of assume those are accidental. Or they're just part of an unequal society. But this story showed that there's a lot of active, personal racism."

In the case of the Harts, complaints of abuse followed them across three states: Minnesota, Oregon and Washington. One doctor found that the six children were so malnourished they didn't even fit charts of normal growth size. It was after the state of Washington's Child Protective Services knocked on the Harts' door that the couple piled everyone into their SUV — and drove down the Pacific Highway to that California cliff.

"When you look at all the chances that officials had to step in and maybe change the course of what ended up happening, " Asgorian said, "it's pretty frustrating. And it's hard to conclude that they had the kids' best interests at heart."

Asgarian has written for the Texas Tribune, Texas Monthly and the Washington Post . We Were Once A Family is her first book.

Roxanna Asgarian is married to Paul DeBenedetto, KERA's managing editor of daily news.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.