Roxanna Agarian’s new book dissects the systems and assumptions that take children from families.
Media accounts of particularly violent and heinous crimes, such as school shootings and sniper attacks, often focus on the motivation of the perpetrators. So it was on March 26, 2018, when white adoptive parents Jennifer and Sarah Hart, with Jennifer at the wheel, drove an SUV carrying their six Black and bi-racial children off a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway, plunging all 8 to their deaths in the rocks and ocean below. As it became clear over a period of days that the plunge was intentional, speculation about the motivation of the moms took center stage.
Roxanna Asgarian’s new book about the crime, We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America, asks different questions. Meticulously tracing the lives of the six children – two sibling groups of three children each – from their births in Texas to their deaths that day in California, Asgarian’s account exposes the intertwined inequities of the mis-named child welfare system. Asgarian’s work is investigative journalism at its best, built on numerous in-depth interviews, including those that could only occur after she earned the trust of the children’s families of origin.
The story Asgarian recounts is an antidote to the mistaken perception that the state only removes children abused by their parents, and then only places them in homes where their lives are immeasurably improved. None of these children were abused, yet Texas caseworkers and judges consistently devalued and punished their family members. And Texas consistently raked in the federal financial incentives that come with increasing adoptions, including using the questionable, soon-to-be-defunct private Minnesota agency that approved the Harts as adoptive parents.
After the adoptions, caseworkers in Minnesota and Oregon repeatedly gave Jennifer and Sarah the benefit of the doubt, after multiple calls reporting that the children, all dramatically underweight, were begging neighbors for food and help. Even Sarah’s misdemeanor conviction for assaulting 7-year-old Abigail did not result in state supervision of the family.
The book provides enough detail for the reader to generate a long list of misguided judgments, laws, and procedures that led to the children’s catastrophic end. It is worth highlighting those that most tragically illustrate how the children became lost to their families.
Sherry Davis, mother of Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera, watched her own mother die from a gunshot fired by a drunk boyfriend. She was 12. She and her siblings moved around a lot, and at 15 she began using crack cocaine. She had repeated bouts of sobriety followed by relapse.
When drug testing of Sherry brought CPS attention to the family, Sherry’s husband, Nathaniel, who used neither drugs nor alcohol, got legal custody of the children. That arrangement formalized the care he was already providing. When Sherry tested positive again after her youngest child was born, CPS took all the children. At that point their employed and church-going aunt Priscilla stepped up to keep them in the family. They lived with her for almost six months.
Then CPS removed the children from Priscilla because, on a day when Priscilla needed to be at work early, she allowed Sherry to spend the night to care for the children in the morning. Priscilla knew this was a violation of the conditions for the children’s placement with her. But she received almost no financial assistance for the children from the state, in spite of the fact that she had to move to a larger apartment as well as feed and clothe them, and she always needed child care while she worked. None of her usual child care options were available.
Sherry did not harm the children while she was with them, yet, when the caseworker showed up unexpectedly, she removed the children that day. Priscilla fought to adopt the children, all the way to the state appeals court. One of the judges who dismissed her said simply that if she wanted to adopt the children she should not have let Sherry see them.
There is the big picture evil of erasing children from their families, communities and schools, but in each case there are the specifics of where the system fails. Removing the Davis children from Priscilla was one of them. The agency and the court punished Priscilla for breaking a rule. They did not see the value to the children of remaining under the umbrella of their strong, resilient and loving family. They did not trust Priscilla’s judgment.
That punitive approach is not grounded in a holistic assessment of children’s best interests. Routinely, agencies destroy families via checklists, keeping children from their families because of a failure to complete a requirement for reunification or adhere to a long list of conditions, even when the requirements and conditions are financially or logistically unrealistic and not necessary to the children’s well-being. The lack of a community-based program that could have sent a (well-paid) child-care worker to Priscilla’s home for the day was the turning point in the chain of events that ended at that California cliff.
As for Nathaniel, Asgarian amply describes Nathaniel’s role in the children’s lives. Sherry — who did not regularly live with him — recognized she could not be a consistent, reliable parent, and, as many parents do under those circumstances, she made a suitable arrangement for their care by another family member: Nathaniel. At first the state supported this placement, but it later removed the children, as if Sherry’s continued drug use was a reflection on Nathaniel.
Asgarian does not mention it in the book, and lawyers involved with this family missed it, but I believe after reading it that Nathaniel, whom the children considered their father, had a claim to legal parentage that would have altered the trajectory of the case.
Nathaniel was with Sherry, the mother of the children, when they were born (possibly in a common-law marriage, which is recognized in Texas; they later married). They bore his last name, and he raised and cared for them as his own children. The three older children received Social Security disability benefits as Nathaniel’s children. In the neglect proceeding, his lack of biological connection to the children apparently trumped all of that, in spite of numerous provisions in Texas law that gave him an argument for legal parentage and custody. Had he been recognized as a parent, he could have received his own lawyer and the state would have had to terminate his parental rights before the children could be adopted. Nathaniel never wavered in his desire to raise the children, but no one in the Texas system saw him as the father he was.
Tammy Scheurich’s children, Markis, Hannah, and Abigail, came to the attention of CPS after 18-month-old Hannah was bitten by ants at her older brother’s birthday party, and one bite became infected with the Staphylococcus bacteria MRSA and required medical care. The doctor notified CPS. It opened an investigation and imposed a parenting plan, which Tammy fulfilled.
Subsequently, Hannah developed pneumonia from a respiratory infection. Tammy delayed getting her to the emergency room because she did not trust the local hospital and did not have a ride to Texas Children’s Hospital, an hour away in Houston. She called for an ambulance, but she was told that her two other children would not be permitted to ride with her, and she had no child care for them.
Viewing her caseworker as a source of support, Tammy called her for a ride. Once at the hospital, Tammy was charged with medical neglect and all her children were removed. Even more shocking, the county then indicted her for the crime of child endangerment, and when she could not pay the assessed fees, she was jailed for six months.
The decision to report Tammy in the first place, and the state removal of her children, must be viewed through the lens of recent research showing that hospitals over-report injured Black children to CPS, as well as Texas research from this exact period of time showing disproportionate removal of Black children when holding constant for poverty.
After the six children were removed from their families, Texas quickly filed termination of parental rights proceedings, as it does in many removal cases —an overzealous application of the misguided and much criticized Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), now the subject of active repeal efforts. It is the way those termination proceedings unfolded that sealed the fate of the children.
Both Sherry and Tammy agreed to terminate their rights without requiring the state to meet its heavy burden of proof in court, but only because each parent believed they knew who would adopt the children. The Davis children were to be adopted by Priscilla. Tammy’s children were to be adopted by their foster parents, with whom Tammy had a good relationship and who wanted Tammy to stay in contact with her children.
But because the adoptions did not take place at the same moment as the consensual terminations, the mothers lost complete control over the destiny of their children. It is a tragic and cautionary tale: parents who agree to terminate their rights so that a specific person can adopt their children need legal counsel who will make sure that the adoption occurs simultaneously with the termination. That may not be Texas policy, but it should be.
A classic “white savior” narrative
Neither We Were Once a Family nor other press coverage paid significant attention to the fact that the adoptive parents were a lesbian couple. As a decades-long advocate for the rights of LGBT parents, I hail that as a positive development, as nothing about their sexual orientation explains their monstrous choices. But there is a cautionary tale of another sort at play in the story Asgarian tells.
Jennifer portrayed to neighbors, friends, caseworkers and Facebook followers a classic “white savior” narrative of abused and unloved children whom she and Sarah rescued. Asgarian refers to a “halo of goodness” projected onto the adoptive mothers. Some advocacy on behalf of adoption by same-sex couples veers close to that territory, arguing that the vast number of children in the foster system demands that no group of people be systematically excluded from adoption. At one point, the Hart family might have looked like a poster family for this argument.
Asgarian’s investigation reveals a different truth. Parents who struggle with poverty and their own history of trauma need supportive services and financial assistance. Jennifer and Sarah received $2,400 a month from the state of Texas for the six children, plus $900 each for Devonte and Jeremiah, Social Security benefits to which the boys were entitled as Nathaniel’s children.
Even if these adoptive parents had not starved, abused and murdered their children, it would still be wise to recognize how far that money could have gone to provide for the children within their families, without subjecting them to the harm inevitably caused by removal.
All supporters of adoption, including those who advocate for same-sex couples, should adjust the frame through which they do their work. The problem with the foster system is too many children removed from their families, not too few adoptive parents.