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Roxanna Asgarian's shattering book is classified as "true crime" but it's less about solving murders — South Dakota natives Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove their car, with their six drugged children in back, off a California cliff — than figuring out what led to them.

Reporting about the 2018 murders tended along these lines: What tragic events transformed loving mothers (who lived for a time in Alexandria, Minn.) into killers? Asgarian doesn't buy that narrative. She wants to know why the children, two sets of siblings from Texas, were there in the first place — especially after Sarah was investigated for abuse and convicted of assault.

Asgarian's insistence on telling the children's stories took her to their birth families — both of whom, it turned out, had issues (drugs, domestic violence) but wanted to keep their children. "We Were Once a Family" makes sure we know the names of the murdered kids — Abigail, Ciera, Devonte, Hannah, Jeremiah, Markis — and that they are at the center of this chronicle of racism, inadequate foster care and alleged judicial corruption. Even the title of Asgarian's urgent book brings that home, because "Family" refers not to the Harts but to the Texans the six kids were torn away from.

We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death and Child Removal in America

By: Roxanna Asgarian.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 297 pages, $28.