For those who followed her Facebook, Jennifer Hart may have seemed like an overly curated mommy blogger. She and her wife, Sarah, were the adoptive white mothers to six Black and biracial children — 12-year-old Ciera, 14-year-olds Abigail and Jeremiah, 15-year-old Devonte, 16-year-old Hannah, and 19-year-old Markis — with whom they climbed dunes, held hands, and attended “transformational festivals” full of music and dance. But behind the scenes, concerned friends and neighbors across state lines had reported the Harts to CPS several times for suspected child abuse and alleged that the Harts had whipped their children and withheld food; Sarah was even convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault against a then 6-year-old Abigail in 2011. Still, the children remained in the Harts’ care. In March 2018, Washington state’s social services had just started investigating the women when Jennifer drove Sarah and the children off a cliff along the California coastline, killing all eight of them.
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. She took on a breaking-news assignment about the case, and was the first person to track down the kids’ birth families, whom no one had bothered to notify of their children’s deaths. Asgarian went on to spend the next five years investigating the parts of the tragedy obscured by true-crime sensationalism, from the broken child-welfare system to the children and their birth mothers and families, who were dealing with the pain of losing their kids twice over — first to the state and later to the women the state entrusted to care for them.
Her book We Were Once a Family, out now, is the culmination of Asgarian’s investigation, and examines the system that allowed a tragedy of this scale to happen. “I see this book as an exploration of grief, at least at the personal level,” Asgarian told the Cut. Her work refocuses the lens on the birth families who were painfully shut out of their children’s lives and deaths. “I kept seeing these families be invisibilized from the narrative,” Asgarian said. “My hope is that the book helps enshrine their stories.”
When news of the Hart family murder-suicides first broke in 2018, much of the major coverage, as you note, revolved around what may have led Jennifer and Sarah Hart to kill themselves and their adopted children. By contrast, We Were Once a Family focuses on “the parts of the story that had been made invisible”: the children and their birth families. Tell me more about why you decided to frame the book through that lens.
When I first started working on the story I had done a few pieces about the child-welfare system in Texas. I got involved because of a breaking-news assignment, which was to find the birth family of three of the kids and talk to them. So I was already thinking about the families. But when I started interviewing them, I thought a lot about previous stories I’d done about how messed up the foster system was in Texas. What the families were saying and their immense grief made me feel like this was such an important part of the story.
What was your writing process like? You struck such a careful balance between the stories of the children and their birth families with context about the welfare system, and without veering into the true-crime sensationalism that still surrounds the Harts.
The hardest thing for me was writing the part about Jennifer and Sarah. When I got to that part, I realized I’d been avoiding it. I’m really sensitive, so I don’t personally enjoy most true crime. I’m interested in investigative reporting — that’s what I do — but I’m sensitive to sensationalism. I don’t like dwelling there. Talking to Jennifer’s dad and having those experiences with him — everyone is a human being, and they’re all experiencing grief in these ways. It’s hard to know psychologically what’s going on with people; that’s a hard thing to report. There was that aspect, and I also wanted Dontay’s story to have a lot of space.
Dontay is the older brother of Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera. He spent most of his life in foster care because he wasn’t adopted by the Harts. I felt like his story is one of those that gets so overlooked. There were so many tragic elements to it, so I used his story as the bones of the book and filled in the various threads. It was challenging; there were several timelines and families. It took a lot of my effort to figure out how to weave it all together.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while reconstructing the children’s pasts?
The hardest part of the work was the emotional intensity: sitting with this for that long. I relied a lot on Dontay’s foster-care case file, which was around 4,000 pages. Most kids don’t have a record of their childhood, and that’s something foster kids do have because it’s needed and necessary. But it’s also very clinical. There was a lot there that helped me understand what the experience might have been like for Dontay. These families are all in poverty, and this trauma of losing their kids deeply impacted them. Dontay has a son, and while I was reporting the story, he got removed by CPS, and there was a long court case that I followed. That was the most challenging piece of the reporting. It unfolded slowly; it was so painful. Dontay [and his son’s mother] didn’t know whether or not they were going to get their rights terminated; it lasted so long. His son is about nine months older than my own son, and I knew him. I hung out with him. It was difficult because I was in the records and reconstructing Dontay’s childhood, and I was watching it unfold in front of me, too. That was extremely intense. We know about intergenerational trauma, but just watching it unfold was difficult.
How did you cultivate relationships with the birth families and get everyone comfortable enough to speak with you?
It took a long time. Part of the reticence was the pain everyone was experiencing, and part of it was just that they were like, “Who are you?” I got that; it’s totally understandable. Dontay expressed a desire to do a story with me and he was hard to pin down for a long time, so I ended up just hanging out with him for a year and building up trust. During that period I was reading through his file and coming to understand the full scope of the drama and tragedy he had faced as a child. I could see there was a lot of pain and that his ability to trust was affected by that. I continued to show up, and we got to a point where he was like, “What’s in it for me, why would I do this?” That was a huge breakthrough in our relationship. I could be earnest about how important I felt his story and his family’s story was; how it wasn’t being told. That needed to be rectified. At one point, I was like, “We can shelve this. We don’t have to do this if you’re not ready. But we need to either sit down and have an interview if you are ready, or we can put it away for now.” And he was like, “Okay, I’m ready.” It took a year.
After that, I did a story for the Washington Post about Dontay. I remember showing up at the next court hearing for his son and bringing copies of the paper. Dontay was surprised I was there because he thought he was never going to see me again. I was like, “Of course I’m here.” But he doesn’t trust. Part of this process was understanding how these things in childhood permanently affect your ability to trust people.
We Were Once a Family explores the dual grief the birth families experienced after this tragedy: first, CPS separating them from their children to begin with, and then losing their children to murder. Personally and professionally, what was it like navigating that grief alongside them?
I started trauma therapy. This book touches so much on family and developmental trauma, things I think a lot of people have primal responses to. There’s so much about this tragedy that is almost incomprehensible for someone who’s never gone through foster care. There’s also a lot on kids feeling like they’re not getting their needs met and how that shapes you. I had to do a lot of work on the trauma side of it for myself, just to get my own shit out of the way; it brought up a lot. It was extremely important to the work itself to manage my own responses to what I was witnessing. The people I wrote about are continuing to live their lives and are experiencing new crises, and I was closely in touch with everyone for a long time. It helped me understand the experience of living with poverty and housing instability and intimate partner violence.
Professionally, it felt intuitive to be around and available to everyone. Personally, I’ve just really needed to work on my mental health these past few years. Therapy was so helpful and I’m still doing it.
In the book, you touch upon the personal boundaries journalists keep with their sources. But you were also part of the story here. Some of the children’s remains were in possession of the Hart women’s families, and you helped secure and deliver them to their birth families. What was that like?
It was very heavy. As a journalist, there’s a whole thicket of ethical questions that you wade through, particularly in a project like this; there’s rules to a source-journalist relationship. But those rules don’t really make sense when you’re hanging out with someone for five years. I was trying to do things ethically as a journalist, but also as a good person. In the case of both Dontay and Tammy — who is the birth mom of Markis, Hannah, and Abigail — therapy really isn’t accessible, not just because of being in poverty but because growing up, therapy was a forced thing you had to do, especially in foster care, and there was no trust there. It became associated with CPS. Tammy was never in CPS, but she was in mental-health institutions as an adolescent, and that shaped her experience in many ways. But they do want to talk, and I felt like I could be there hearing them.
That was helpful, but the remains were one concrete thing I knew I could do that probably couldn’t have happened without me because the birth families didn’t have access to Jennifer’s parents. It struck me how everybody was so disconnected: the birth families were disconnected from each other. The Hart women’s families were also disconnected from each other. Grief and guilt and blame was interplaying. Jen’s dad felt a lot of guilt and shame and [sharing the remains] helped him, and the birth families could have this thing they really wanted, which was to be a part of their children’s deaths — at least in a way that they weren’t able to be part of their lives anymore.
What do news stories continue to get wrong about adoption and foster-care narratives?
We fundamentally tend not to relate to or think about the birth families, birth mothers, or the kids themselves. We still tend to think through the eyes of an adoptive parent or foster parent, most likely because people automatically relate to the people most like them. Particularly with the experience of birth mothers, this story showcased how people just forget that being a mom is something that’s so intense and powerful and life-changing and identity changing. The idea that you could just lose your kid and lose your identity as a mother, or as their mother — I feel like most parents would understand how impossible that is. Yet we repeatedly, in the stories that we write, diminish and invisibilize these moms.