The Problem of the Orphan Plot

The Problem of the Orphan Plot

The child welfare system has served as a convenient narrative device for novels, podcasts, and the like. A new book interrogates what we think we know about foster care.


In 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove themselves and their six adopted children off a cliff. The media blitz that followed focused on the question “How could these mothers do such a thing?” The Harts seemed unlikely murderers: They were white, gay, vegetarians, the caretakers of six Black kids; Jennifer made picture-perfect Facebook posts, parading her brood as an exemplar of love and tolerance; their adoption of two sibling groups, portrayed as horribly abused, gave the moms a moral air. In the aftermath, Glamour magazine released a podcast called Broken Harts, which examined the motivations and intentions of the perpetrators. In Facebook groups for discussion of the case, many users urged empathy for the relatable, “overwhelmed” killers.

In the decade before the crash, the Harts had been reported for abuse numerous times, investigated by Child Protective Services in three different states, and charged with domestic assault (Sarah pleaded guilty and served a year of probation)—yet there’s no evidence anyone ever considered removing the children. The tragedy made global headlines because the moms’ do-gooder public image clashed so dramatically with their gruesome actions. Yet this news coverage didn’t deviate far from stereotypes, rendering the birth parents invisible and the children’s lives before the Harts irrelevant. The questions of how and why the kids were adopted in the first place went not only unanswered by the media but unasked.

Whether prime-time news or literary fiction, depictions of child welfare tend to stay on the surface level, trafficking in tropes. As a former foster youth who’s written about my time in care, I understand why. We have a vast library of caricatures to draw from: the negligent mother, the pitiable orphan, the miscreant teen, the bootstrapping overcomer. Conveying the reality of the system requires not only presenting accurate information but undoing preconceptions. And the facts are hard to track down, because most court cases are sealed and, during adoption, birth certificates are often changed. (After the Hart murders, authorities spent nearly half a year looking for a relative to provide a DNA sample which they got only after Asgarian tracked down the birth family.) Even former wards of the state struggle to access their own information: It took me five years and many dead ends to find any documentation about my case, which in the end proved to be records from a single court hearing.

Despite the complexities of child removal, the topic makes easy and attractive fodder for writers, serving as a plot device in many of last year’s most-lauded novels. Tess Gunty’s National Book Award winner, The Rabbit Hutch, uses foster care as a symbol of regional decay. Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, which won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, superimposes David Copperfield onto modern Appalachia, featuring a protagonist who, like Gunty’s, is orphaned by opiates. Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers and Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts construct parental surveillance states that are less chilling than the reality. Each of these novels engages with the system differently, to different ends, featuring what appear to be radically variable amounts of research. None of the authors, it should be noted, claim lived experience with child welfare. The ample reviews and media coverage of these novels tended to gloss over or omit the real institutions they described.

Fiction can raise empathy and awareness—much like the podcasts urging understanding toward the Harts—but doing so requires engaging in larger conversations. As I read these novels, child welfare began to seem more like a thought experiment than a real issue that requires deep immersion to understand.

A child welfare plot can serve as a metaphor for almost anything: redemption from bad circumstances, societal decline, or the breakdown of once-sacred norms. These novels co-opt stories of foster care and family policing to describe everything from the languishing postindustrial Midwest to the dangers of the surveillance state and the “perils of ‘perfect’ upper-middle class parenting” (as described on the jacket copy of The School for Good Mothers). But none of these applications capture the stakes of the broken adoption system. Is the child welfare system merely a backdrop for other dramas, its failures sad but inevitable?

Despite the difficulty of reporting on child welfare, Roxanna Asgarian’s investigation of the Hart murder-suicide, We Were Once a Family, wades through the complexities of this system to render the reality legible to readers. Her nuanced journalism makes clear how much mainstream adoption stories rely on tropes. It also shows the damage of these stock tales: The belief that birth parents are “unfit” and that relatives are enablers led to the children’s cross-country adoption; the idea of the perfect white moms led caseworkers to praise the Harts rather than probe their story further. Even when Hannah, one of the Harts’ adopted children, jumped out of her second-story window and begged neighbors for help, the perception that adoptees are troubled and untrustworthy compelled the bystanders to believe Jennifer Hart instead of the 16-year-old girl, who was so malnourished that a neighbor assumed she was a decade younger. Every time these stereotypes are used in supposedly objective news coverage, in fiction, or in our daily lives, they’re further ingrained, making it harder to recognize what needs to happen to change broken institutions—and even, as individuals, to spot abuse when it’s right in front of our eyes.

In many ways, the circumstances of the Harts’ adoptions exemplify how the child welfare system works—and how it’s misunderstood. Neither of the two birth mothers who lost their kids were ever accused of abuse. Like approximately 75 percent of parents investigated by Child Protective Services, the mother of Markis, Abigail, and Hannah was accused of neglect, not abuse. (She had missed a doctor’s appointment.) The other birth mom tested positive for cocaine while giving birth. Rather than offer help for the birth mothers’ substance abuse and mental health issues, the authorities seized both sets of children. Yet like most wards of the state, Devonte, Jeremiah, Ciera, and their older brother, Dontay Davis, had adults who loved them and wanted to raise them. They wound up elsewhere: While federal guidelines dictate placing kids with relatives and community members whenever possible, only 30 percent of foster youth are in such kinship placements. Instead, the children were adopted by the Harts, who lived nearly 1,300 miles away.

In the wake of their adoption, Jennifer Hart described her kids as “drug babies” whose shadowy past implied violence and deprivation; a friend later told CPS, she “views the children as animals before they came to her.” These clichés cast the birth families in a negative light that made the Harts look especially altruistic. The kids’ new life, filled with meditation, music festivals, and “free hugs” signs, appeared so idyllic that there was no need to question how they got there. But despite the halos the Hart mothers donned, warning signs quickly arose.

Two years after the Harts adopted their first set of siblings, 6-year-old Hannah told her teacher that Jennifer had beaten her with a belt. The police questioned the Harts, but then dropped the case. Less than six months previously, the Harts had welcomed Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera—despite the fact that their aunt was litigating to adopt them, a fight that would continue for two more years. Once the children got on an airplane to their new home in Minnesota, the state of Texas never again checked in on them, except to send the Harts monthly checks that added up to six figures over the years and at times made up half of their income. The birth families were barred from making contact. None of the adoptees would hear from their loved ones again.

Rather than fixate on the personalities and perversions of the Hart mothers, as so much of the news cycle did, Asgarian asks: How did a system that purportedly protects children send these six kids to their deaths? Although there’s growing awareness that Black and brown parents are harshly surveilled and that poverty is often classified as neglect and then punished, how exactly this happens requires more detail to understand.

One of the most compelling features of Asgarian’s book is the way she chronicles the story of Dontay, the older surviving brother of three of the Harts’ victims. Dontay was removed from his birth family at the same time but wasn’t adopted; his experience provides unique insight into overlooked failures. Like thousands of kids bounced between homes, Dontay was tagged as having behavioral issues and, at 10, was sent to a residential treatment center. These institutions are often no better than holding cells for hard-to-adopt children, described by Asgarian as“more like jails than loving homes.” In 2019, 26,000 foster youth were sent to similar placements, yet they are rarely mentioned.

I myself spent nine months in a punitive program before entering foster care. For years, I believed I’d been placed there because I was troublemaking and bad, not recognizing the connection to child welfare until I discovered Asgarian’s exposé on the overuse of these placements. Stories about injustice don’t simply function to bring awareness to outsiders—they help people who have been impacted make sense of their own experience. Despite our lack of visibility, we are not a small contingent: Nearly 400,000 youth spend time in foster care each year, including a disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous youth; in California, half of Black families are investigated by CPS.

Like any good investigative journalist, Asgarian follows the money. Even though federal and state laws prescribe that children should live with relatives whenever possible, she reveals the ways that unequal financial-support payments often make that impossible. She also takes a broader view, diving into the Harris County family court and the practices of the Texas judge who oversaw the Davis siblings’ case—practices that suggest widespread corruption. Even on the broadest level, funds shape outcomes: Federal legislation provides incentives to states that perform a lot of adoptions. Texas has raked in a disproportionate amount of money—most of which was spent on surveilling more families.

We rarely hear about the impact of these policies and laws because they’re challenging to understand and often boring. But Asgarian shows that these procedural details are not merely details: They shape—and sometimes end—the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The termination of parental rights of the Davis siblings’ birth mom was hastened by the Adoption and Safe Families Act, a little-known law that impacts every American foster care case. When the children’s aunt tried to adopt them, she was denied on the grounds that they’d lived with her for five and a half months instead of the required six. These details are complicated and arbitrary and cumbersome—but so is the child welfare system. To pretend otherwise is to fundamentally misrepresent it.

While a popular novel or podcast can be a powerful tool to engage an audience and raise awareness, it’s worth asking: What kind of awareness is being raised? Is it repeating the stories we already know, which are constantly reinforced by the media, or is it pushing us to challenge our preconceptions? We Were Once a Family proves that factual depictions of the system can be riveting and that these stories deserve their own focus, rather than serving as a backdrop or fodder for an intellectual exercise.

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