We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America
- By Roxanna Asgarian
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- April 21, 2023
A horribly broken system claims six more victims.
Perhaps you remember that viral photograph of a Black teen, Devonte Hart, hugging a white cop at a 2014 demonstration against the police murder of Michael Brown. Like a Rorschach blot, people interpreted the photo in different ways. After hearing Devonte’s backstory, as told by his white adoptive mothers through social media, many saw an example of the power of transracial adoption to cure society’s ills.
People who have experienced trauma saw something different.
In 2018, Devonte and the Harts were back in the news, with a story that was as chilling as the picture was heartwarming. The family vehicle was found smashed at the bottom of a Pacific Coast Highway cliff. The bodies of Jennifer, her wife, Sarah, and four of their adopted children were recovered, along with the partial remains of another child. Devonte’s body has never been found. An investigation revealed that Jennifer had intentionally driven the car off the cliff.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, journalists began to uncover disturbing facts about the family, including allegations of abuse. One of those journalists was Roxanna Asgarian. Writing for various outlets, she looked past the sensational story of a murder-suicide to an urgent question: Why were two white women driving a carful of children of color who were not theirs biologically?
The story Asgarian reports in We Were Once a Family is a damning indictment of the systemic problems besetting not just the national child-welfare system but American society as a whole.
In 2006, Jennifer Hart and Sarah Gengler adopted three mixed-race siblings, Markis, Hannah, and Abigail, from Texas. According to a Facebook post quoted in the book, the women were both 25 years old. Three years later, they adopted a set of Black siblings, Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera Davis, also from Texas.
These adoptions should never have happened for reasons that are meticulously recorded by Asgarian. While the adoption of the three Davis children was in process, the Harts were being investigated for a bruise found on Hannah, who said she’d been hit by a belt. The Harts suggested she fell down some stairs and redirected the authorities’ concerns by claiming “that Hannah ‘has been going through food issues, where she’ll steal other people’s food at school or eat out of garbage cans or off the floor.’”
Even more compelling, an aunt of the Davis children, Priscilla Celestine, had petitioned to adopt them. With the understanding that Priscilla would soon become their guardian, their mother agreed to relinquish them to the state. But due to the way the Texas family-court system functions — and the racism of the presiding judge — they were instead adopted out to a very young, unmarried (Jennifer and Sarah married shortly after adopting the Davis children), white couple living at that time in Minnesota. Writes Asgarian, “Their new mothers were two blond women, both raised in small-town South Dakota; they could pass for sisters.”
In adopting the children, the Harts also received a stipend as large as $1,900 a month from the state of Texas. If Priscilla, as a kinship placement, had adopted them, she wouldn’t have been eligible for such payments. The author summarizes the many reasons why the children’s adoption by the Harts defied logic:
“Where the Davis family had encountered resistance in the system, the Harts were met with the benefit of the doubt. Priscilla’s appeal was treated as a rejected one long before the judges made their ruling, but the Harts were fast-tracked through the process despite reports of abuse. Priscilla was denied standing to ask for an adoption because the children lived with her for only five and a half months, not the required six. But the Harts received glowing reports that pushed their adoption along at four months, despite the call Hannah’s teacher made about her safety.”
When people expressed concern about the women’s harsh discipline methods, the Harts were quick to point out that the children had come from extremely abusive households awash in drugs and guns, making them challenging to raise. They claimed that the kids had a plethora of mental-health and behavioral issues. Over time, Jennifer began to take her complaints public, finding that it grew her social-media following. The more she depicted her kids as severely problematic and herself as a white savior, the more approbation she received.
In this important study of a microcosm of the American child-welfare system, Asgarian deftly incorporates social and cultural history, statistics, and opinions from social workers and adoption specialists into the detailed case histories of the six children and their biological families. Through the story of Dontay, an older Davis siblings who spent his youth as a ward of the state, the reader receives an intimate tour of the many ways he was failed and the devastating repercussions his institutionalized youth had on his ability to function as an adult.
We Were Once a Family is a heartbreaking and infuriating portrait of a broken system that favors family separation and punishment over social services and compassion. It’s also a galvanizing call for reform of the racist and classist policies that encourage the breakup of poor families in order to place children with more “desirable” ones. These challenges are manifold and go to the very root of the ills that beset our nation, but as Dontay’s story makes clear, neglecting the most vulnerable only deepens the cracks in an already fractured society.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, a book reviewer, and a columnist for the Independent.