In We Were Once a Family (FSG, Mar.), journalist Asgarian reveals how flaws in the child welfare system contributed to the 2018 murder-suicide of six children by their adoptive parents.
This case was immediately national news, and yet none of the reporting has focused on the birth families until now. Why?
There is no real good beat coverage of the child welfare system, either in local papers or in national papers. Because the foster care system is really bureaucratic and confusing to report on and everything is confidential, you have to really worm your way in to be able to get what you need to tell a story, which takes a lot of time.
You make clear that what happened to these kids is surely an outlier—but how much of an outlier is it?
There are so many things about this case that needed a public reckoning and public recognition because it was so egregious, but so much of what happened is extremely common. Parents lose their rights to their kids over minor stuff and bureaucracy, and I think there is a race bias and a poverty bias as well. The tragedy of the murder itself was so heinous that it rightly made people go “whoa” and want to know about it. To do the kids justice is to explain the full story of how they ended up there.
You play a significant role in the story’s narrative, at one point serving as a go-between for the birth families and the adoptive families. Did this affect your usual approach as a reporter?
It really changed my life and my relationship with my work in general. I really struggled in parts of this process with what was the right thing to do, what was the ethical thing to do as a journalist and what was the ethical thing to do as a human being. I developed relationships with these people, and they had very intense, critical needs, and I was witnessing that.
What would it take to create a child welfare system that might have protected these kids?
A child tax credit for sure. Any sort of expansion of our social safety net that is not punitive. If you don’t make people feel awful for needing help, then they change for the better. The child welfare system gives parents very limited rights, and there’s very little scrutiny of the system. If you don’t have any outside scrutiny—reporters coming in and asking questions—you get this sort of very chummy relationship between judges and attorneys in which a lot of things fly that should be challenged. This tragedy, there’s no way to make it okay. These kids aren’t alive anymore, and this grief and this trauma is just living with their surviving relatives, and there’s nothing about that that’s okay. At the very least, we can pay attention to the things that we might learn and do differently.