You have to give Roxanna Asgarian credit for laying all her cards on the table. The author of We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America tells readers at the outset that "as a journalist, I was most interested in looking at who has power and who does not." In some ways, this places Asgarian in a long tradition of muckraking reporters looking out for the little guy. But then she adds that "journalists are often taught … to get out of the way of the story. This ethic has its merits, but it has costs as well." Asgarian has weighed the options and decided that she is not a "passive observer of injustice."
In fairness, it is hard to be anything but outraged writing about the story of the six Hart children—Ciera (aged 12), Abigail (14), Jeremiah (14), Devonte (15), Hannah (16), and Markis (19)—who in the spring of 2018 were drugged and then driven off a cliff along the Pacific Coast Highway by their adoptive mothers. Asgarian is right that much of the reporting since then has focused on the "true crime" aspect of things—what would possess this white lesbian couple to adopt six black children, neglect them, abuse them, and then commit this horrific murder-suicide? A popular podcast called Broken Harts delved into the women's backgrounds and their social media posts to try to understand.
Asgarian, on the other hand, went to try to find the birth parents for the children to understand why Child Protective Services removed them from their families in the first place and how they came to be placed for adoption. In some ways, the story is not atypical. The tragic tale of Sherry Davis's life started early when her father murdered her mother in front of her and her sister. She was pregnant three years later, at age 15. She left her two children with a friend, and an abusive boyfriend kidnapped her. Those two boys were put into foster care. Then she had another child with a man who broke multiple bones in the child when he was three months old. CPS took that child away too.
Sherry went on to have three more boys and a girl—Dontay, Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera. The children were fathered by different men who were not involved in their lives. Sherry continued using cocaine and CPS continued to monitor her situation. There was one stable influence in their lives, an older man, Nathaniel, whom Sherry lived with sometimes but who was not the father of any of the children. The children were eventually sent to live with an aunt, Priscilla. But Priscilla had a full-time job and would sometimes call Sherry to babysit for the kids. When CPS found out, the kids were removed from Priscilla's custody.
Some of the information Asgarian reports can be verified, but most of it cannot. When she writes that Sherry never used drugs around her children, that is Sherry's claim. Even after the deaths of the children, it is surprisingly hard to get any information from child welfare agencies or courts on these cases because records could reveal confidential information about the family. And as harsh as it might seem to remove children from Priscilla, who, by Asgarian's account, seemed responsible, the truth is that this is a common challenge with placing children in homes of relatives. If the situation was serious enough to separate them from their parents, what good does it do the children if the parents are allowed unfettered access to them?
Nevertheless, the caseworkers and agencies are rarely offered a perfect situation. Generally, the courts overwhelmingly favor placing children with relatives, but once Sherry voluntarily terminated her parental rights, the children became freed for adoption. Asgarian documents corrupt behavior on the part of the court that denied Priscilla custody. The old-boy network she describes in the local family court is not unique. The bizarre racist rantings of the judge are. And so is the judge's determination to push through cases quickly. Anyone who has witnessed or experienced family court will tell you that the one certainty is endless delays.
The other set of siblings—Markis, Hannah, and Abigail—were also placed into foster care. Their mother, Tammy Scheurich, was the victim of sexual abuse (possibly by her father) at a young age. She was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and acted out by having sex with older men she met on a "party line." She had three children with three different men by the time she was 18, whom she cared for sometimes with the help of her parents and grandparents. At one point, a doctor accused her of medical neglect because her child had ant bites, and then on another occasion she didn't take her daughter to a hospital despite a severe respiratory infection and the doctor's instructions to get her medical attention right away.
It is impossible to know whether Tammy's side of things is true: She didn't want to take her kids to a local hospital because she didn't trust the hospital; she couldn't get to the hospital an hour away because she didn't have a car; and she couldn't take an ambulance because it wouldn't transport the other kids and she had no one to leave them with.
But Asgarian reports this all as gospel truth. Because the biological parents are the people who do not have "power" in her formulation. It is absolutely true, of course, that these parents are victims—of poverty, of addiction, of abuse by their own family members, of a bureaucracy that is ill-equipped to fix any of this. "Mothers caught up in the child welfare system are usually already struggling, whether it be due to domestic violence or substance abuse or mental illness. When the state steps in and takes children from already struggling parents, that can feel like a death blow to their self-image." No doubt, but the question is whether we should leave children in dangerous situations to boost a parent's self-image.
Like so many advocates for abolishing the child welfare system or ending foster care, Asgarian suggests that most of these problems could simply be solved by giving parents more financial assistance. She argues that most of these child maltreatment cases involve "neglect," not abuse, and are therefore less dangerous. But most of the child maltreatment fatalities in this country each year are due to neglect, not abuse.
In reality, though, the people without any power are the children. The Hart children had no power to limit the damage from their biological families. It's possible that they could have found safety and stability in Texas with relatives in the case of the Davis siblings or with another foster family in the case of Tammy's children.
But they also had no power once they were adopted. There were plenty of red flags that Jennifer and Sarah Hart were not what they seemed to be. They had a teenaged foster child whom they summarily kicked out of their home with no notice. They had been reported by teachers for abusing the children before the adoption was finalized. In fact, they had been investigated for abuse in three different states, and Sarah was actually convicted for assaulting Abigail. They were two 25-year-old women with almost no parenting experience suddenly taking six children with varying degrees of trauma into their home at once. The state of Texas was sending them thousands of dollars in adoption subsidies for the care of these children, but no one was checking up on them.
Asgarian argues that caseworkers and others who could have done something treated the Harts differently because they were white women saving black children. Generally, this is the accusation launched against white conservative Christians who foster and adopt—everyone knows about the "white savior mentality." But the fact that these were progressive lesbians who spent their spare time going to concerts in the woods and posting on social media about their oppression and their environmental activism also probably sent signals to the nice liberal caseworkers who could pat themselves on the back over this placement.
Though Asgarian wants to make this a story about how the children never should have been removed from their homes and placed with the Harts, the truth is that the child welfare system fails to detect the abuse and neglect of children in birth homes and in foster and adoptive homes. But the former is significantly more common. More outrageously, it allows children to remain in homes where they have already been abused and neglected. There is not enough contact between states. A parent can kill a child in one state and then give birth in a neighboring state and no one will be alerted to this history.
Unfortunately, Asgarian has turned to a group of activists like Alan Dettlaff of the University of Houston and Dorothy Roberts at the University of Pennsylvania to give her context for this story. And she swallows their take whole: The system is racist; it discriminates against poor people; we are removing kids from their homes unnecessarily.
The statistics don't back up this story. Black children are three times as likely to die from maltreatment as white children, so it's not surprising that black families are investigated and their children removed at higher rates. Poor people are disproportionately caught up in the child welfare system, but most cases of neglect involve substance abuse, mental illness, or other problems besides poverty.
Even the statistics that Asgarian cites don't back up her case. She complains that black children in Texas "waited longer to be adopted" than their white counterparts. Which is why it's clear that the case of the Harts was such an aberration. In fact, black children do wait much longer to be adopted—not because of systemic racism, or at least not the way she means it—but because caseworkers and family court staffs want to give black birth parents as many chances as possible and are often staunchly opposed to transracial adoption.
Asgarian concludes that the solution to child welfare problems lies in "a release of the urge to judge and blame parents and of wanting to punish them for their failures." This kind of line will resonate with readers who are tired of being judged for letting their kids eat too much candy or walk to the park by themselves. But the truth is that we absolutely need to judge parents who are using cocaine and trying to supervise young children or who do not heed the advice of doctors to get their children who are having trouble breathing to a hospital or who allow their children to be physically and sexually abused by the men in their lives. And framing these judgments as a way of punishing parents instead of as a way of keeping children safe will only ensure that the powerless stay that way.
We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America
by Roxanna Asgarian
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $28
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, is the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.