In March 2018, an SUV tumbled off a cliff in Mendocino County, California, killing a family of eight. The tragedy turned out to run deeper than the initial horror of the deaths, as investigators determined it was a murder-suicide involving a white couple and their six Black adopted children.
Soon after the story hit the headlines, Roxanna Asgarian ’11, who was then a Houston-based freelance reporter covering the child welfare beat, set about digging into the events that led up to the crash. The result is her extraordinary new book, “We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death and Child Removal in America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is out this month.
Asgarian also started a new job last September as a law and courts reporter at the Texas Tribune, and now lives in Dallas with her husband Paul DeBenedetto ‘11—managing editor of daily news at KERA —and their six-year-old son Rocco.
Here, she talks to Salma about the fascinating backstory behind her book, discusses the lesser-known challenges of her beat, and looks back at the days of hanging out at J-School-adjacent bars with DeBenedetto and fellow CUNY students.
Please note: Asgarian will be visiting campus for an in-person book event on May 2 at 5 p.m. Stay tuned for details.
Let’s jump right into your book, “We Were Once a Family.” It’s devastating and powerful and everyone should read it. Roxanna, can you give a brief overview of what you’d like people to know about it?
The book is about a headline-making tragedy involving two white adoptive moms and their six Black adoptive children. The moms drove the kids off the cliff and killed everyone. The book is an examination of that story, and it focuses on the birth family of the kids and the system and all the points where the system failed to help them and contributed to the tragedy.
When did you first realize that your investigation into the Hart family murder-suicide and the story behind it could be a book?
I got a breaking news assignment a week or two after the crash happened. It was another CUNY [Newmark] alum, Shane Dixon Kavanaugh ’10. He knew I was freelancing and he got a tip on the birth family of some of the kids; they were from two separate sibling groups. I knew right away that there was a story beyond the breaking news.
I published one long story about each of the birth families, and one story in The Washington Post that was about an older sibling [Dontay] of three of the kids, who was passed up for adoption and spent the rest of his childhood in foster care. After that, I didn’t feel done with it. I felt that it was one story rather than three separate stories, and I think at that point I realized it was a book.
This is my first book, so I’ve been learning everything about each step as I go through it. I Googled “How do you do a nonfiction book proposal?” and I started putting something together. A major piece of it is the chapter summaries that say what the arc of your book would be. I found my agent, Mackenzie Brady Watson, by using word of mouth with other reporters. She helped me make the proposal into what I thought the book would be. I got the book deal two weeks before lockdown in 2020.
You write so vividly and beautifully, and you’re a relentless reporter. Which came first? Wanting to be a writer or wanting to be a journalist?
I’ve always wanted to write books. When I was really little I used to write these stories and at the time I thought I would be a novelist. It wasn’t until college that I realized journalism was what I wanted to do, because I really like talking to people. I felt like journalism is a way where I can use both the writing skill set and also the communication piece and to write with a purpose. There are definitely amazing works of fiction that are talking about big stuff, but I thought I could use my skill set to tell other people’s stories that needed to be told.
Is the child welfare beat particularly difficult to report on?
There aren’t a lot of people focused on the child welfare system as a beat. There are a lot of barriers to getting information, and a lot of it is confidential. I thought, these kids really need a light shown on what is going on there. As I learned more about it, I was developing an expertise. It worked for me for my freelance life. I started to get assignments, and family members [of kids impacted by the system] would reach out to me to dig into their stories.
At The Texas Tribune, all the reporters who have an interest in that beat sit in on those meetings and brainstorm with me, and my hope is to increase the flow of that information overall. I don’t know if I can make that the focus of my career.
I did the first story on the child welfare system when I was pregnant, and it hit me so hard. I think that’s why I held onto it. There is so much injustice and the kids don’t have relationships, and even the ancillary relationships that they can rely on are taken away from them– their favorite teacher and their aunt and uncle. Having a kid and seeing all it entails really close up, it made me feel like it was really important to tell those stories.
How did you earn the trust of the Davis family, the biological family of some of the kids who were murdered?
I think the first thing was, I was the only person who showed up in the beginning, the first person who talked to them. I think they were still pretty much in shock when we had our initial meeting. There were people who reached out to them throughout the process, and there were several documentaries that were made. They [the family] would come to me and say, “Who is this person?” They felt very sidelined in the process because no official person ever told them what happened. They had lost their kids more than a decade before, and no one had ever asked them, “How did that affect you?”
With Dontay, it was really hard to earn his trust because his experience in foster care deeply traumatized him and made him feel like he couldn’t trust anyone but his dad Nathaniel. He got separated from his siblings, and no one kept him in the loop about why he couldn’t see them. When he found out they were murdered it affected him really deeply. I think it affected his ability to have trusting relationships with people. I hung out with Dontay for a year before we ever sat down for an interview. I was freelancing, so I could do that. I had never had the experience where I worked so hard to earn the trust of somebody.
He allowed me to see his foster care record. I could read in detail all of the stuff that happened to him in his childhood. He was a very closed-off person, and we had some upfront conversations about, What am I getting out of this? What’s the point in him sharing his story? All of that is really understandable with what he experienced. What I told him is, his experience is really important and valid and people need to understand it. We had a lot of conversations over a long period of time. I’m still in touch with him. His dad Nathaniel died a few months ago. His dad was the rock of the family and was also my point person in the reporting, and [he] would call to check on me.
You mention in the introduction and epilogue that you had a difficult childhood. Do you think that was one reason you were able to connect with Dontay other members of the Davis kids’ birth families and to earn their trust?
I think in ways it made the process a lot harder. I felt it was touching some personal trauma, which is why I needed a break from reporting on the kids. I don’t think I ever brought that up with my sources because it wasn’t about me. But I do think that’s why I had such a strong reaction to the reporting, and it’s partly why it ended up being this whole book rather than a story here and a story there and let it go. Because something about the experience of kids who don’t have power in our society and they’re incredibly vulnerable to decisions that are made— in the case of the kids in the book, without their consultation or consent–I think that hit me pretty hard. I have parents who love me and all of that, and I have class privilege and I’m white. So there are a lot of reasons why my childhood was a personal experience and things I had to work through, rather than anything that put me on a track to be in one of those systems.
Was it a tough decision to insert yourself as a character of sorts in the book?
That was the hardest part, narratively speaking, That was the biggest challenge in writing the book. It’s frowned upon, and it’s frowned upon for good reason. Because it’s like, Why am I reading about you when you are not what the book is about? But there are parts of the narrative where I played a very specific role. Where I found the birth family and told them what happened and no one had told them for six months. If I was to take myself out of there it would be dishonest.
There were other places where I felt if I were in it, I would be able to convey some things that were my impressions and that I wouldn’t feel comfortable conveying in an omniscient narrative voice. That was something I worked on with my editor– how much to be in there?
What kind of impact are you hoping the book will have on the child welfare system in Texas and around the U.S., and on the adoption and foster care process?
First and foremost, I hope it changes the narrative around this case and this story, which up until this point has really sidelined the birth families and sidelined the kids themselves. My hope is that the book helps to cement a broader narrative around the story, and to urge the people who have engaged with it more on a true-crime level to think about the systems in place and how they affect kids around the country.
The second goal, and the long-term goal, is to promote more robust reporting on the child welfare system around the country–[reporting] that is not just focusing on the most egregious and terrible stories, as in the breaking news stories, and then going away and never writing about it again until the next terrible thing happens to the kid. The reporting on the legal criminal system has improved a lot over the past few years. I hope this contributes to a similar wider net of reporting around the child welfare system.
My hope is to instill a more critical view of a system that a lot of people think is benign, if not actively helpful. We envision what the child welfare system is and the parents who are involved in it. We have a lot of stereotypes that don’t really bear out in reality. I think there are a lot of institutional barriers to getting info about the child welfare system generally, because most cases are confidential. So Texas would not share the case files of the children who were murdered, not just with the public but with the other law enforcement services who are investigating the case. Texas would not give up even basic info.
There’s a lot of ways in which the privacy of the kids is used to avoid accountability. The thing that broke it all open in this case is that people who have gone through the foster care system can request their own file. Dontay did that. I helped him to do that. The other major challenge is that if you went through the system yourself and requested your own records, it can take six months or more to send them. There are a lot of kids who are currently in the system who want to talk and can’t. They are very isolated, geographically and from any sort of apparatus. A lot of those places are rife with abuse. I think there are really good reporters doing really good work on the child welfare system, and it’s really challenging to do the work you need to tell the story. My hope is to always be a sounding board to other reporters.
Which aspects of your J-School experience made the biggest impression on you?
I loved my time at the J-School. Daryl Khan helped me a lot right when I graduated by giving me some of my early assignments in juvenile justice which ended up being my entry into that beat. David Lewis was my Craft 1 and 2 prof. He was a mentor of mine. Tom Robbins too, and also Tim Harper. When we come to New York we try to get all of them together to hang out.
CUNY was such an instrumental part of this [book process]. Shane gave me the story to start with. And with Dontay the older brother, that story went to The Washington Post. Simone Sebastian ‘10 was the editor and she was a champion of the story. It helped me to get the book deal.
You’re married to fellow alum Paul DeBenedetto. How’d you two meet?
We’re both class of 2011. We met in J-School and have been together ever since. We met at orientation before school started, technically. We weren’t in each other’s classes until the third semester, and we were both in the Urban program. We did a lot of those happy hours. We went to Blue Ruin, which was pretty close by. And that place where they give you free hot dogs? I think it’s called Rudy’s.