Book Club: December 2023 by Hana Zittel

Book Club
By Hana Zittel
Published Issue 120, December 2023

We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America by Roxanna Asgarian (2023)

In early 2018, a disturbing and confounding headline shocked people across the country. A horrifying road accident had claimed the lives of two adult women and their six children. Those six were revealed to be the adopted Black children of the couple in the accident, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, and it appeared through an evaluation of the scene that it was not an accident at all, but a purposeful murder-suicide, where the driver accelerated the family off a cliff on the California coastline.

Despite speculation, doubt, and an abundance of unanswerable questions surrounding this now famous atrocity, journalist Roxanna Asgarian seeks to shed light on the dysfunctional systems and human lives behind this crime through her in-depth investigation. She delves into the history of child removal in the United States and its disproportionate impact on BIPOC communities, interspersed with the background details that led to this tragic event.

The children placed into the Hart family were removed from their birth families despite willing relatives and community to care for them. The birthparents of these children reported being misled or tricked into relinquishing their rights to guardianship, with the undertone or outright claim from trusted sources that giving up parental rights would ensure the children could stay close and be cared for by a family member. In reality, the courts and Child Protective Services (CPS) proved to favor the speedy adoption to the white Hart family, despite continual, documented reports of abuse and child maltreatment in their household.

This tragedy is marred with bad actors in a broken system that monetarily rewarded speedy child removal and placement in adoptive families — families who were also financially compensated monthly for each adopted child. Asgarian highlights the severity of this issue in Texas, the birthplace of the adoptees in the Hart family. When the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) began in 1997, states were given funding based on the number of adoptions they completed. It was found that Texas had “pulled in 15 percent of the national incentives pool” despite being “home to only about 9 percent of the nation’s population” and was found to be spending funds at CPS “for non-adoption-related expenses.” With this rise it was also discovered that Texas “terminated parents’ rights at a rate that far outstipped the rest of the nation.”

Asgarian’s investigations lead her to lean deeply into the lives of the birthmothers and families of the children murdered by the Harts, exploring the profound pain and complexity of family policing, interracial adoption and the child welfare system. Analyzing these systems lead back to a root argument, one cited in the book from the director of the upEND Movement — a movement which seeks to end the child welfare system — Alan Dettlaff: “We remove kids for neglect and place them in strangers’ homes, and give the stranger a monthly stipend to take care of the child. What if we just gave that one thousand dollars a month to the mother who needed it?” Asgarian’s careful reporting in We Were Once a Family illuminates this destructive system providing an urgent call to make change.

Pig by Sam Sax (2023)

beheading tulips, snout routing out heaven.

better to have only existed for a time in the imagination—

to never have to die.

Centered on the pig and its multifaceted meanings, Sam Sax’s latest collection is an experimental, queer, and sharp collection marked with moments of lightning wit and poignant criticism. Throughout the book, Sax plays with various structural forms crafting poems as spirals or accompanied by the blank spaces and illustration of a hangman game, each section beginning with a tiny butcher’s cut chart of the pig.

In Poem Written Inside of a Leather Pig Mask, Sax explores a queer expression of the pig form writing, “right now this is the queerest thing / i can imagine: the animal yearning / within the animal within the animal / child who dreams of growing / into a swan only to wake in terror / at a mouth filled with feathers. / i’ve never been lonelier than i am / right now, inside this pig mask / made out of a cow, watching / these men break into each other / again & again, two men / who will never die.”

Sax’s inventive nature on the centered theme creates a completely absorbing collection where each poem leads to unexpected takes on the word and varied uses of “pig.” Sax is the author of two previous poetry collections, Madness and the 2017 James Laughlin Award winning Bury It. The strength of storytelling and fierce imagery in this third collection are sure to garner additional praise making Pig a clear standout in the works released in 2023. 

Hana Zittel is a librarian at the Denver Public Library in addition to being a librarian at the Denver Zine Librarian. She grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and pretty much just likes being outside with her pup when she has some free time, and reading, that might have been assumed though.

Check out Hana’s November Book Club in case you missed it, or head to our Explore section to see more of her past reviews.

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  1. Pingback: Book Club: January 2024 by Hana Zittel - BIRDY MAGAZINE

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