We Were Once a Family opens with something alarming that a German tourist traveling the scenic Pacific Coast Highway spotted on the rocky shore on March 26, 2018: “a crumpled SUV flipped on its hood, with the vehicle’s undercarriage exposed.” The passengers were six Texas children whose adoptive mothers had blogged about “saving” foster kids, posted cute pictures on Facebook, then conspired to drive their brood off a cliff.
Texas investigative journalist Roxanna Asgarian reveals far more than details of that shocking crash—delving deep into the human and systemic failures that preceded the horrifying murder-suicide in a new nonfiction book that’s both riveting and deeply disturbing.
Asgarian, a reporter based in Houston when the children were killed in 2018, initially took hold of this tragedy as an assignment from the Portland Oregonian. Later, unraveling the complex tale became her mission, beginning with finding their Texas birth families and making sure that authorities involved in the tragedy were held accountable for the failures that doomed six kids: Markis, Hannah, Abigail, Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera.
From her first meeting with one birth family, Asgarian was bowled over by deep pain.
“It was a pain that had existed in their lives since they first lost the children a decade before and now it was double-edged: They were re-experiencing the trauma of the children’s removal, and they were coming to understand that the fantasies they’d told themselves about the lives the children were living were just that, fantasies. The reality was the children had not been okay,” she writes.
More than an exposé, Asgarian’s first book weaves a complex tale that brings those six lost Texas children’s families into sharp and intimate focus. A crisp, colorful, and authoritative writer, she reveals difficult-to-obtain details about how Texas officials deliberately exported two pairs of three siblings out-of-state—three mixed race and three Black—thereby permanently exiling them from a network of caring, if flawed, birth families.
Shockingly, both sets of children had relatives willing to step in to help the troubled birth moms. Three siblings had an aunt in Houston who went all the way to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in ultimately unsuccessful efforts to adopt them.
Asgarian’s book reveals much about our failed social system and something rare about the author herself. As she dug into the story, she took time to make sure mothers and other relatives got the opportunity to be informed in a caring way of these children’s deaths and to tell their own stories. This deeply told tale is brimming with compassion for the children and for their families, as well as hard-hitting and vitally important investigative insights and analysis of the system that failed them all.
The “we” in We Were Once a Family is inclusive. It includes the two adoptive mothers who had thought of themselves as saviors prior to becoming killers. But it focuses more on the heartbreaking tale of families left behind: birth mothers, a grieving brother, father, and grandparents who are finally informed of the lost children’s fate only after Asgarian herself gets involved.
The “we” is also all of us. Family separation happens each day in America, not just at the border. As Asgarian explains in the 297-page work, we are all part of the dysfunctional child protective and family court systems that often swiftly separate many American families forever. The author shows in impeccable detail and precise prose how our collective definition of a “fit” or “unfit” parent has created an uncaring and skewed process characterized by overworked social workers, unethical judges, and discrimination against poor parents and parents of color.
In Texas, the children’s birth mothers—one poor and Black, the other mentally ill and white, both victims of childhood trauma—were never unable to meet a long list of conditions imposed on them by child protective services officials or by the courts. Neither was ever accused of abuse, but both were accused of neglect, which as Asgarian writes, can too often be “confused with poverty.”
Instead, Texas officials fast-tracked adoptions to out-of-state white women who initially had no experience as parents and lived in a Minnesota community with almost no people of color.
In the aftermath, officials in four different states, Minnesota, Oregon, California, and Texas, all failed to follow up on reports that those photogenic adoptive moms abused, neglected, and failed to feed them long before all six were murdered.
Why? Part of the answer is, of course, class, and race.
Asgarian reveals how the white adoptive mothers got the benefit of the doubt over and over, though as a same-sex couple, they had certainly suffered from other forms of discrimination.
I’ll not reveal more of Asgarian’s astounding analysis of the failures of the foster care and the juvenile court system and why it often harms children and harshly punishes poor families, overwhelmingly families of color. Let’s just say this is an eye-opening investigation that at times screams for reforms.
The narrative is riveting, not preachy, but filled with twists and turns, shocking quotes, and surprises. In one section, Asgarian zeroes in on the cartoonish cronies and deep-seated judicial corruption that has long plagued Harris County. She produces an especially detailed (though familiar to Houstonians) sketch of Pat Shelton, a former juvenile judge whose decisions exiled three of the doomed children.
Shelton was infamous for making hasty rulings against parents of color and for handing out lucrative court appointments to cronies. Among other things, she writes: “Shelton liked to bring an atlas to the bench. … He’d drill Hispanic mothers on where they came from and then, flipping to the page in the atlas that showed their hometown or province say things like: “That looks like a great place. Why don’t you go back there?”
And yet Asgarian is fair even to Shelton, who told her in an interview that he did what he thought was right by exporting Texas kids out of state. Other Minnesota parents had provided good homes. How could he know how terribly this would turn out? In some ways, the infamous ex-Republican juvenile judge in Harris County doesn’t end up looking much worse than his do-nothing Democrat replacements who continue to mishandle a case involving the next generation of one of the same families.