Erin Gretzinger is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Dallas-based freelance journalist Roxanna Asgarian began reporting on the U.S. foster care system in 2016. With work published in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Slate and Texas Tribune, Asgarian has specialized in reporting on the child welfare system.
Her reporting led her to the harrowing story of the 2018 Hart family murder-suicide, where two mothers drove themselves and their six adopted children off a cliff in California. While the story became national news, Hart strove to uncover a side of the story that remained largely unknown: Who were the six children’s birth families?
Five years later, she published her book “We Were Once a Family,” a narrative, true-crime story about how the children and families’ lives were shaped by the child welfare system. Asgarian’s extensive reporting exposes how the system’s flaws led to the children’s adoption by a couple that would abuse them and ultimately take their lives.
Asgarian spoke with us about the ethical challenges of reporting this story and the big-picture issues with reporting on the U.S. child welfare system. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
What are some common problems with the way journalists cover the U.S. foster care system?
I think some of the issues in reporting on child welfare have to do with the fact that it’s not really a beat. A lot of reporters jump in on a lawsuit hearing. It is usually how they start covering it, and then they jump out and they go do something else. Then another person comes in and writes a story on the hearing, and maybe dabbles a little bit or gets interested for a couple of stories, but I think what ultimately ends up happening there is that we are getting sort of basic level stuff. No one is going deeper into the structures.
For example, often when we’re talking about these residential treatment centers, which are super harmful, we’ll be talking about one specific place, right? And that’s good, and that place closes down. But six months later, there’s another place there with just a different name. So some of these problems are really deeply systemic, but the way we’re covering them is not getting to that deeper level to be able to make that kind of difference.
I think the child welfare system, it also benefits from being this totally confidential system. First and foremost, it doesn’t answer to anyone really. It answers to the state legislatures, which have a lot of other things going on, too. But we’ve seen problems and we’ve known about problems for a really long time. But the harm keeps happening. In my earliest story, I was focused on the kids in foster care, so I came to realize early on that foster care is a really dangerous place for kids to be. We have all these misconceptions and stigma around who’s involved in the child welfare system that I think actually clouds our understanding of what the system is, and how it operates.
That’s why I kind of made it my beat. The real stories are layers and layers under the surface. They’re hard to get to. In order to find the people at the center of it, you have to do a lot of work, and I think that very few outlets have the resources for that. And those investigative resources end up going to myriad other big issues, but at the heart of it, there’s kids. To me, that feels so urgent, because these kids are growing up in these conditions and that affects them for the rest of their lives. Then they in turn affect other people. I feel like once I have this lens, you see it everywhere.
In “We Were Once A Family,” you painstakingly researched the cases, interviewed family members and showed up to be a part of this story in real time. Can you talk about that experience, and the biggest ethical and reporting dilemmas you came across in that kind of reporting?
I’m glad to be able to talk about this because this book took five years, and that level of reporting on specific people really develops deep relationships. There’s just no way for the very basic rules that you learn about reporting to transfer into these kinds of situations where you just know people so much better. You’re also seeing new crises happen in real time. So I feel like I had to really think a lot about the ethics of what I was doing.
It came up a lot, starting from like, ‘Do I do this book, and am I the right person to do this book?’ I kind of struggled with that. I don’t have lived experience in the foster care system, and I’m a white lady. What I didn’t want to do is what I was seeing happen with the story in the mainstream media, which was that it was very sensationalized. I felt like a lot of the very key components were missing, including the systemic stuff that was just getting ignored. Ultimately, that was leading to people not really understanding how this was a systems story or a child welfare story. They were only thinking of it as a terrible crime.
So I realized that the access that I had – by being the first person to talk to the birth families and earning their trust – put me in a really unique position. I didn’t see anyone else doing this, which is another problem. So there’s places where I’m in the book, and I think those places were very much ethical dilemmas. For example, finding and telling the birth family about what happened: I didn’t think of that in the moment as an ethical dilemma, because they deserved to know, and it had been six months and no one told them (that their children were killed). But I also felt bad to be the one to tell them. Certain things like that – where it was so clear how they were being treated was so unfair – I didn’t want to add to that by being extractive and just coming in, getting what I needed, and jumping out again.
I realized that some of these ethical questions were more about being who I could look at in the mirror as a good person, rather than what the reporter’s handbook says that you should do. The way that I handled that in the book was just being transparent about that. There are times when I read books like this, and the reporters are not in there, and I have a lot of questions as a reporter like, ‘How did you get this? Were you there?’ Sometimes that can do a disservice because when you spend this much time with people, you’re in there, you’re a person. I don’t feel bad about the way that I acted. I tried to do what I thought was right, but I have heard various things about that being unusual or unorthodox.
In the preface, you note that journalists are “taught to stay stoic, to depersonalize situations.” Yet you head the opposite direction in your book. Can you expand on why you felt it was important to make this distinction in your reporting, especially given the challenges of reporting on the U.S. foster care system?
I think that this stoicism can be sort of tied into objectivity. But the way that I think of journalism – the way I think journalism should be – is that it’s speaking truth to power. And so we always have to be looking at who has the power in the situation. To me, that’s a much truer compass than being objective because no one’s objective. And the objectivity that they want you to have is more just like a status quo perspective. I got into journalism to try to change things, to contribute to change. So for me, it was super clear that the people without power in this situation were the ones that no one was talking to, and everyone was ignoring, and the only things you were hearing about them was that they had a crack addiction.
The first meeting I had with the Davis family [the family of some of the children], I just knew right away like, ‘This is f****d.’ It just struck me very quickly that this power dynamic was not okay. Just at the very basic level, someone should give them a call when their kids are murdered. That’s really not a lot to ask. When I found the other birth family [who had not been contacted], it just cemented that for me because it was so clear at that point that the state needed her for their investigation. So the state wasn’t even doing their basic jobs. So there were a lot of ways that I ended up becoming involved in the story that I see as more failures of the system because there was no process for them to even communicate with the people who had the remains, for instance. I feel like being guided by the idea that I’m writing about powerful systems that are enabling violence, that have no accountability for that violence, that was my goal and my guiding ethical principle.
I’ve seen people address that part of the work in different ways, and everyone can have their own opinion, but to me, it’s very clearly journalism, because I was doing the act of journalism the whole time. I’m not lobbying at the legislature. I’m writing about these people and trying to explain something for people to understand it and that’s what journalism is. But I appreciate you asking that question because I do feel like there’s sort of an inherent critique I’ve noticed since the book has come out, but it’s happened without actually giving me something to respond to.
You wrote that the weight of this story took a toll on your emotional wellbeing. How did you manage your own mental health while continuing to report on such an important story?
I told myself when I was working on this that I was going to answer this question whenever I’m asked, because I think it’s a hard question to answer in a professional way. The truth is, I struggled with it. Especially by the time it was over, I felt so depleted. Burnt out is not the right word. I was emotionally shattered. I think part of it was I worked for myself, as I was an independent reporter during this time. So there was financial pressure because you have to keep working on other stuff, and a lot of the other stuff was about the child welfare system. Every single thing was super heavy.
So definitely therapy. That’s a major one. I started doing trauma therapy, which was more helpful to me than talk therapy. Although I think talk therapy is very helpful, too. It’s just that what I was experiencing was like a trauma overload. And I have my own personal history that sort of made this story important to me, but that also made it a lot harder to do the reporting without touching on that bruise.
Obviously therapy when you’re going through it, but second would be breaks from the beat. Towards the end, I started feeling really burnt out on the book because of all of the trauma. I think I allowed myself to take that break, and that was really healthy for me. You can get in crisis mode because you see these stories and you don’t see other people working on them, but the other aspect is, I really like helping other reporters learn about how to report on the child welfare system. I feel like ultimately the goal is that I can’t do every story, nor would I really want to, to be honest. I have a kid. I’m a mom. It’s hard.
So I think it’s a combination of trying to pay it forward, so that other people can pick up the beat with depth. And then allowing yourself to use your brain in other ways.
From your experience reporting for this book, what gaps exist in coverage of the U.S. foster care system? Where do journalists need to do better?
I’ve been working on the book for five years. And in those five years, I’ve seen a very marked increase in really good reporting about the child welfare system. I hopefully contributed to that, but also it’s really good to see big investigative reporters choosing this as a beat and getting assigned this as a beat because I know that that is a question all the way up to the top levels. You need to have the top editors see it as a priority.
I think we are starting to see more in-depth investigations on the system itself, and really good breaking news reporting too. Reporting that is not just taking everything at face value but really questioning removals. We didn’t see a lot of that not that long ago. That’s pretty new. So I’m feeling really good about it.
When the book came out, I was pleasantly surprised by how much people seem to really be getting it. It was really heartening to get a lot of positive feedback on the book, because it seems like people are ready to engage with that conversation in a deeper way than I thought was possible. It’s clearly true because I was initially watching the story be reported as I was doing this reporting, and there was very, very little right out there. There really were very few systems-level analysis of what was going on. And so I think that we are actually moving in the right direction. I just think ultimately that outlets, especially national outlets, need to have this beat. It’s hard to argue against it when it touches on so many other huge issues and these big breaking stories. It’s not an easy system to report on, and therefore we miss a ton of stuff when we don’t have the tools to figure out how to get that information.
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