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We Were Once a Family

Winner of the 2023 National Book Critics Circle for Nonfiction and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

A Washington Post best nonfiction book of 2023 | Winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction

“A riveting indictment of the child welfare system . . . [A] bracing gut punch of a book.” ―Robert Kolker, The Washington Post

“[A] moving and superbly reported book.” ―Jessica Winter, The New Yorker

“A harrowing account . . . [and] a powerful critique of [the] foster care system . . . We Were Once a Family is a wrenching book.” ―Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice | One of Publishers Weekly's best nonfiction books of 2023

The shocking, deeply reported story of a murder-suicide that claimed the lives of six children―and a searing indictment of the American foster care system.

On March 26, 2018, rescue workers discovered a crumpled SUV and the bodies of two women and multiple children at the bottom of a cliff along the Pacific Coast Highway. Investigators soon concluded that the crash was a murder-suicide, but there was more to the story: Jennifer and Sarah Hart, it turned out, were a white married couple who had adopted six Black children from two different Texas families in 2006 and 2008. Behind the family’s loving facade was an alleged pattern of abuse and neglect that had been ignored as the couple withdrew the children from school and moved west. It soon became apparent that the State of Texas knew all too little about the two individuals to whom it had given custody of six children.

Immersive journalism of the highest order, Roxanna Asgarian’s We Were Once a Family is a revelation of precarious lives; it is also a shattering exposé of the foster care and adoption systems that produced this tragedy. As a journalist in Houston, Asgarian sought out the children’s birth families and put them at the center of the story. We follow the lives of the Harts’ adopted children and their birth parents, and the machinations of the state agency that sent the children far away. Asgarian’s reporting uncovers persistent racial biases and corruption as young people of color are separated from birth parents without proper cause. The result is a riveting narrative and a deeply reported indictment of a system that continues to fail America’s most vulnerable children while upending the lives of their families.

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