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Book review: ‘We Were Once a Family’ by Roxanna Asgarian

Learn from the tragedy of Devonte Hart to be better informed about child abuse prevention and investigation


Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum, left, and Devonte Hart, 12, hug at a 2014 rally in Portland, Ore.

Johnny Huu Nguyen via AP, File

By Lisa Mailey

Ten years ago, this photo went viral. The boy – Devonte Hart, who is crying and hugging a Portland, Ore., police officer – told the officer he was sad about national events. Because both were at a protest related to the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., his explanation didn’t raise any additional concern. Four years later, Devonte Hart was in the news again, this time because he and his five siblings had been murdered by their adoptive mother, who intentionally drove the family’s SUV over a 100-foot cliff into the Pacific Ocean.

Why revisit this story now?

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. “We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America” probes risks and vulnerabilities in the systems designed to protect children. Roxanna Asgarian’s investigation into child welfare and the law won the 2023 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.

The Portland police officer who took time to talk to and hug a distraught child at a protest had no way of knowing that the boy’s life had already included a series of tragic events. From his abrupt removal from a loving but substance-addicted mother and an aunt who wanted to adopt him to a harsh life hundreds of miles away with a couple who posted smiling family photos on Facebook while denying him food and appropriate schooling, Devonte’s life story provides a window into the world of Child Protective Services and the state policies and programs that failed him.

Asgarian, who writes about law and the courts in Texas, where Devonte was born, spent five years researching his story to illustrate the ways that, while his story’s tragic ending was extreme, the events that led up to it are distressingly representative. She asks the reader to look at how our systems and policies have prioritized compliance and the needs of bureaucracy above the actual welfare of children and their parents.

This book is a gut-wrenching read, but it’s a valuable one for anyone who wants to be better informed about child abuse and support its prevention.

Lisa Mailey is the Sr. Director of Content Quality and Operations at Lexipol, responsible for the content quality of Lexipol’s policy, learning and wellness solutions, and for coordinating its content production operation. Before joining Lexipol in 2016, Lisa spent 20 years as a professional writer, operations manager, and educator. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and Education and a master’s degree in English and Publishing. She is also a certified Six Sigma Black Belt, and an IABC Gold Quill winner. Ask questions by emailing her at and connect with her on LinkedIn.