It was commonly known by the 1980s, if not long before, that the Harris County juvenile courts were a bastion of good ol’ boy corruption. The system was dominated by middle-aged, prosperous white male judges whose familiarity with the poor, especially poor people of color, was, to say the least, limited. Countless cases were tragedies in miniature, underscored, in one courtroom I visited in the 2000s, by the crush of grinning stuffed animals parked behind the judge’s bench—decor that was supposed to cheer but stood in marked contrast to the collapsing families and foster-care nightmares before him. Court appointments often went to lawyers who were a judge’s poker buddies and political donors (often the same people), and helpless children tossed and tumbled through the system like fallen leaves on a blustery day.
The reputation of Child Protective Services, full of overworked and overwhelmed staffers, was no better. The catastrophic tales of damaged and even dead children came and went, and despite multiple investigations by the Houston Chronicle, little has changed. A stranger visiting from another country, or another planet, would assume that someone had decided way back that the people looking for redress in these particular courtrooms were not worth saving.
Only the most stonehearted could harbor that sentiment after reading Roxanna Asgarian’s new book, We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Asgarian, a former reporter for Houstonia magazine and the Texas Tribune, has written a narrative so powerful, populated by people who are so vivid, that it can’t be ignored, much less forgotten. Parts of the story may be familiar: in 2018, Jennifer Hart and her wife, Sarah, made national news when they committed suicide and murdered their six adopted children by driving their SUV over a cliff in Mendocino County, California.
While subsequent accounts mostly focused on the married couple—what could have gone wrong with such wonderful, generous people?—Asgarian chose to go another way, tracing the histories of the Black children who were removed from their supposedly dangerous homes and placed in the hands of a supposedly safe and loving white couple in Minnesota. It was far less commonly known that the children, culled from two different families, were from Houston and nearby Colorado County. All were victims of the so-called child welfare system.
Asgarian’s book is a reconstruction of a harrowing journey with no happy ending, one that challenges conventional assumptions at every turn and exposes the racist and economic biases of family courts that too often favor removing children from poverty-riven homes with little thought or investigation. “By diminishing the children’s former lives and sidelining their birth families, the media risks reinforcing the same racist structures and actions that allowed the adoptive parents to hang on to the children after numerous allegations of abuse, the very structures and actions that contributed mightily to these children’s deaths,” Asgarian explains.
To push back against those narratives, Asgarian takes us inside Houston’s Fourth Ward neighborhood, where poverty and violence do, in fact, afflict nearly every aspect of her protagonists’ lives, and where struggling parents are routinely punished by agencies that are supposed to help them. Asgarian doesn’t shy away from the flaws and failings of her often destitute subjects; she does, however, put them in a context that explains how and why they ended up where they were, and how difficult it would have been to escape their situations.
The book opens just after Patricia Celestine, a hospital receptionist, has taken in Dontay, ten; Devonte, four; Jeremiah, two; and one-year-old Ciera. Celestine’s brother, Clarence, was the father of two of the children; the children’s mother, Sherry Davis, had a cocaine problem that had caused her to lose custody of all four of them. Asgarian documents the challenges that faced the economically strapped and overwhelmed Celestine. To accommodate the children, she had to move to a bigger, more expensive apartment because her previous apartment didn’t pass a CPS home inspection. She had to buy more food and furniture on her small salary to accommodate four more people in her care.
The state offered her little help with any of this. As Asgarian points out, at the time, in 2006, foster parents got more money from Child Protective Services than did actual relatives who elected to take care of children who were not their own. The former got a monthly payment on a sliding scale, while the latter got only a onetime $1,000 payment for the first child, $495 for each sibling, and $500 a year for “approved expenses.” That’s not exactly a recipe for helping a family stay together, much less thrive.
Unsurprisingly, one of Celestine’s biggest problems, as someone with a full-time job, was childcare. Usually her daughter stepped in, but when she couldn’t, Celestine sometimes depended on Sherry’s partner, Nathaniel Davis. He wasn’t the biological father of any of the children, but he had come to love them as his own, and he dreamed that he would get custody of them at some point. At other times, when Celestine had no other options but to leave the children alone, she allowed Sherry to watch them—a violation of the court orders Sherry and Celestine had agreed to. Eventually the inevitable happened: a CPS worker stopped by unannounced while Sherry was there, didn’t like what she saw, and contacted her supervisor. The kids were removed—and set on the path to that lonely, deadly road in northern California.
Asgarian knows how to weave a story, taking readers on the frustrating, inexplicable, and frightening journey experienced by children who wound up in the care of two troubled white women in a community thousands of miles from Houston, with a completely different climate and culture. This required extensive travel across the U.S., as Asgarian followed the path of the Harts and their adoptees and dug into family court investigations in multiple locales. As a white woman striving to reach across social and economic barriers, she devoted years to gaining the trust of the people she wrote about, and as sometimes happens with long, intimate narratives, she became a part of the story, as when she had to tell some family members the details of the children’s lives and deaths.
We Were Once a Family is particularly strong when Asgarian chronicles the life of Dontay, the oldest child, who spent his childhood fearing visits from CPS. (“Every time I see you, you take me away,” he told one caseworker.) Dontay, deemed troubled by the courts, was sent to foster care when the other Davis children were placed with the Harts; he was never told by the authorities where his siblings were or how they had died. A lesser writer might succumb to outrage; it’s to Asgarian’s credit that she tells the story straightforwardly, letting the accumulation of details spur the reader’s own anger.
Most importantly, Asgarian again and again raises the question of Why: Why were the children removed when there were friends and relatives eager to care for them? Why were two white women who had raised suspicions with their first foster child allowed to take them instead? Why did three separate child welfare systems around the country miss warning signs that the kids were in danger? And, finally, why is it easier to punish the poor with insurmountable regulations and capricious rulings, so that everyone, especially their children, ends up worse than before?