Roxanna Asgarian WE WERE ONCE A FAMILY: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America

You may recall the horrifying news that hit the airwaves on March 26, 2018 about a van that had driven off the 100 foot cliff on HWY 1 just south of Juan Creek between Rockport and Westport on the north coast of Mendocino County, CA. Bad as the initial reports were, as more was learned about what had actually happened and what led up to it, the horror only grew.

CA Highway Patrol

Texas based journalist, Roxanna Asgarian, began investigating the tragedy within a day. Her investigations since have resulted in her book, WE WERE ONCE A FAMILY: A STORY OF LOVE, DEATH, AND CHILD REMOVAL IN AMERICA, published in March, 2023 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

She writes it as the true crime story that it certainly is, but her primary goal was to uncover the untold stories of the birth families of the six Black children taken from their families, who did NOT want to give them up, and who were making efforts to keep them, when the deeply flawed child welfare system thrust them first into the foster care system, and then fast tracked them into out of state adoptions.

Roxanna Asgarian reports about courts and the law for the Texas Tribune. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Magazine and Texas Monthly, as well as other publications. She received the 2022 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for WE WERE ONCE A FAMILY: A STORY OF LOVE, DEATH, AND CHILD REMOVAL IN AMERICA. It goes well beyond the earlier, sensationalist reportage by the mainstream press and delves into the systems and history that allowed this murder/suicide to happen. We spoke with her via Skype on April 10, 2023.

Devonte Hart, seen in 2014 hugging a police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest. (Johnny Huu Nguyen/AP)

Tragic as this story of innocent children taken from their birth families by a Child Protection Service system which purports to protect children, it is but one aspect of our society that does NOT protect innocent children. 

Once again, another mass shooting at a school ended in the murder and traumatizing of children, this one at the Covenant School in Nashville, TN, which led to protests at the State Legislature, the expulsion of two young black representatives, their unanimous reinstatement to represent their districts, and more diverse voices calling out the politicians only too happy to maintain the status quo.

One mourns the loss of the Hart children, particularly Devonte Hart, whose famous “hug heard around the world” – showing Devonte’s tear streaked face at the age of 14 hugging a white police officer during a tense demonstration protesting the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He, with his “Free Hugs” sign, would have been 20 years old now. What might he have become, had his life not been cut short, his body never found?

The broadcast ended with Cheryl Wheeler’s song, “If It Were Up to Me,” which you can hear using this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op7agdIFOGY. It is sadly even more relevant than when she first recorded it in 1997.

Articles, videos, etc. pertinent to this episode:

Texas removed six Black children from their homes. Their adoptive parents drove them off a cliff. https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/14/texas-child-welfare-removal-hart-family-deaths/

Hart family inquest finds parents intentionally killed their 6 children on Mendocino Coast https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/04/06/hart-family-inquest-finds-parents-intentionally-killed-their-children/

We Were Once a Family’ explores flaws in foster, adoption systems and 6 children’s resulting deaths https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2023/04/11/we-were-once-family-book-adoption

Friends, neighbors paint uneven picture of the Harts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AS6eGzCC4bk

Mountain Shadow Association https://www.mountainshadowassociation.org/

The Doyle Family: Native American Children’s Toy Company & The Family Healing Center https://forthright.media/2019/12/28/the-doyle-family-native-american-childrens-toy-company-the-family-healing-center/

“Aren’t You Guys Tired of Covering This?”: Mom Interrupts Fox News Segment on Nashville School Shooting https://newrepublic.com/post/171414/mom-interrupts-fox-news-segment-nashville-school-shooting

Gregg Popovich Slams GOP With Intense Pregame Speech On Gun Violence https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gregg-popovich-tennessee-house-expelling-democrats_n_643398dae4b0b51a6ce1aa20

Child Gun Deaths Rose 50 Percent in Just 2 Years, Research Finds https://truthout.org/articles/child-gun-deaths-rose-50-percent-in-just-2-years-research-finds/?utm_source=Truthout&utm_campaign=d5a023de39-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_3_20_2023_13_41_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_bbb541a1db-d5a023de39-651106009&mc_cid=d5a023de39&mc_eid=f9703b4752

Just 2 Days After Shooting, Republicans Vote to Loosen Gun Law in North Carolina https://truthout.org/articles/just-2-days-after-shooting-republicans-vote-to-loosen-gun-law-in-north-carolina/

South Dakota Governor Says Her Two Year Old Grandchild Already Has Several Guns https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/apr/15/south-dakota-governor-kristi-noem-grandchild-guns-nra

We’re misunderstanding how child abuse happens — and that has deadly consequences for kids https://www.salon.com/2023/04/09/how-child-abuse-happens/

The Supreme Court will decide the future of the Indian Child Welfare Act https://www.npr.org/2022/11/08/1135190325/the-supreme-court-will-decide-the-future-of-the-indian-child-welfare-act

Supreme Court Held oral Argument on Case Challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act https://ncuih.org/2023/01/31/supreme-court-held-oral-argument-on-case-challenging-the-indian-child-welfare-act/

Montana ICWA bill heads to Senate floor amid controversyMontana ICWA bill heads to Senate floor amid controversy https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/mtleg/montana-icwa-bill-heads-to-senate-floor-amid-controversy/article_ae2099f9-8811-572c-aac7-d033669f82ec.html

Mona Chalabi’s datablog: Iraq war leukemia rates worse than after Hiroshima bombing https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2023/apr/02/iraq-war-hiroshima-bombing-leukemia-rates

The GOP Embraces the Kyle Rittenhouse Approach to Kindergarten https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2023/03/nashville-shooting-desantis-gop-book-bans.html