In 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove their six adopted children off a cliff, killing everyone in the vehicle. The tragedy was turned into a media sensation as people constantly asked, “How could this have happened?” The Hart family had seemed like the perfect family, with the mothers frequently posting about their “tribe” on social media. But as author Roxanna Asgarian explains on Slate’s podcast The Waves and in her new book, We Were Once a Family, the Hart family was always far from perfect, and the holes in the foster care system failed the children with deadly results.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Daisy Rosario: I think one of the things that you’ll quickly see if you look up this story at all is that an inquest found that the women planned to drive off the cliff. We have things that they were Googling, there’s clearly no attempt to brake, there’s no skid marks, things like that. But if you remember any of this coverage at all, I mean it very much seemed to be bending over backwards to try to go, “Well, how could these two perfect women have done this thing?” It was as if everyone writing that coverage and some of the people taking it in really felt this need to go, “No, we must preserve everything that we thought of it before as truth.” Even though the reality of the crime would hopefully make people look at the posts that the women put up about the kids and things like that in a new light. And I know it did for some people.
Roxanna Asgarian: For sure. But I do think there was sort of a digging in a little bit. I think that narrative was also put forward by the cops in the inquest itself. They very specifically were like, “They must have been so overwhelmed with unnamed pressures.” I think people have a tendency to relate to the people who are most like them in the story, and that was clearly what was happening in some of this coverage. It’s like if you’re going to tuck in to listen to some really terrible thing that really happened to children and in hearing all of that and engaging with all of that, you’re going to be thinking, “Wow, well, it must have been really tough for these moms.” That’s something that I think we, as readers and viewers, need to sort of confront in ourselves.
Well, it made me think of a couple of different things that I just see all the time, one fairly recently. There was a murder-suicide, where the husband, I believe it was in Utah, and then the family wrote a really glowing obituary for this man. And granted, what those people do is up to them, but I think for good reason it got a lot of attention online of people going, “Why are you glorifying this person?” It didn’t mention the murder. And then again, everything’s relative. We look at that, we see it’s terrible. And then you have this, where it’s like, well, these women murdered kids, but there’s again the bending over backwards to try to understand them. Or I think of when I was younger and I believe her name was … Andrea Yates, the woman who drowned her five children. I mean nothing but vitriol, absolutely nothing but vitriol. Just demanding for that woman to be hurt and to pay for it. But again, relative, right? It was her own five white children. Somehow with this combination, the empathy is going toward the perpetrators.
Well, and in moments of what you just brought up with mothers who kill their children in a postpartum psychosis, we do actually tend to do it the other way where we’re like, “Throw the book at this lady.” So, it is really interesting to see it play out in light of the posts, people were simultaneously looking at her posts that were talking about, “My Black children experienced racism,” and kind of going into really private details. “The first night we had Marcus,” and the behavior that she described of him in his first night in this new place in a different state away from his family. He’s old enough to know that he’s leaving his family forever, but probably not old enough to realize what’s actually going on. To put that kind of stuff out there and we all sort of say, “Oh, it must be really tough to parent kids.”
It’s like, sure, but that was a choice. That was two separate adoptions. And in the midst of the second adoption, they’re getting in trouble for physically harming their kids. At a certain point why do we need to defend that? What’s so important about defending those women’s good intentions?
I kept reading about it because, again, I have this connection to foster care in my life that made me kind of look at it differently. But I would imagine that the vast majority of people listening to this right now became aware of this case because of some kind of “true crime coverage” that was more looking at it as this salacious story. I really appreciate that you are not just reporting and doing this work to help recenter not just the families, I would say, not just the birth families even, but really the children themselves. But also because of how much true crime becoming this very popular genre seems to have helped with this story only being told a certain way.
For sure. And I think because the specifics were so heinous, it fit what the true-crime mold is looking for. Writing about the child welfare system is really hard because there’s a lot of trauma, and it felt like a lot of what happens behind the scenes in the child welfare system is just that, it’s private. Cases are private, and so we hear about it through this very kind of distorted lens, and it usually happens when kids die, a harrowing abuse situation. And that’s frustrating because it basically serves to make the child welfare professionals more risk-averse. And the vast, vast majority of cases in the child welfare system involve neglect and not abuse, first of all. And also, there’s just so many ways that the families that interact with CPS are devalued. So, it just felt like the perfect opportunity to take a story that everyone was already interested in and just go a little deeper with it to kind of hopefully—so that people come with a takeaway of, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize this is really how the system worked.”
A few people have written that we’re seeing this increase in this kind of slightly different take on true crime, where it’s breaking down the systems and getting to the heart of how something worked. I’m wondering what it was like for you as a reporter, not only trying to actually build trust and gain the trust of the sources that you would get to know in the process of reporting this story and ultimately writing this book, but also having to do that as that other narrative is the more popular mainstream narrative out there. I mean, what was that experience like?
It was frustrating. I won’t lie. I think it kind of helped motivate me, I would say, because the material is so heavy and writing a book makes you go really, really deep. A lot deeper than what ends up on the page, and that was really challenging emotionally. So, I felt a little animated by the anger or frustration that I felt towards the system and also towards the sort of narrative that was taking precedence at that time, just sort of keeping focus that at some point down the road there would be an account out there that tells this larger story.