I spoke yesterday afternoon for the first time with Elizabeth Vargas, anchor of “20/20,” the ABC news program that tonight at 9 p.m. will air its version of events surrounding the adoption and rehoming of two young girls by state Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) and his wife, Marsha.
Judging from my conversation with Vargas, and a story appearing yesterday on the website of ABC News, the facts presented by the “20/20” special will be substantially similar to the reporting I did about the Harris rehoming last spring. ABC has secured on-camera interviews with most of the people involved in the story, including foster parents Cheryl and Craig Hart; Chelsey Goldsborough, the Harrises’ babysitter; the couple who has now adopted the two girls; and the Harrises themselves.
However, ABC has also convinced another major player in the story to step forward: Jan Wallis, the former Department of Human Services adoption specialist who was assigned to the children’s case before the Harris adoption. Wallis has since left the agency.
Vargas told me that she also spent a full day with the two young girls themselves, whom we called “Annie” and “Mary” in our story, and their new adoptive parents. The children will appear on camera, but with their identities disguised. Vargas said the adoptive family wanted the girls to appear on camera as a rebuttal to Justin Harris’ claims that they were dangerously violent.
“They’re so full of life,” Vargas said. “They were putting on princess costumes and wanted to sing songs for me and show me their rooms and show me their drawings … They’re very outgoing … they’re girly girls, definitely. … In all the time we were with them we saw no sign of any of this destructive, violent behavior that the Harrises allege. … I think that’s why [the adoptive family] wanted to speak — [to show] that these girls are not monsters, and they don’t like that people are calling them monsters. They’re lovely, wonderful, amazing girls. Now, it was not a cakewalk for [the adoptive family] the first year. They had issues with the girls, too. But whatever they did to handle it – which basically sounds like common-sense TLC and a lot of patience — worked.”
I asked Vargas about the photo Harris tweeted this spring, showing himself and Marsha with the anchor, the three of them smiling. That gave the impression the Harrises believed “20/20” would vindicate their version of events.
“Listen, I can’t speak for what Justin Harris believed,” she told me. “When I posed for that picture with him … he did not tell me he planned to tweet that picture. That is not something we were particularly pleased with, but that happens. I don’t know his motives. He would have to speak to that.
“I did tell him this in my interview: That in all of my career of doing stories, many of them very controversial – and we went in and we spent days and days reading and watching all the commentary in response, largely, to your stories, your reporting — I told him, ‘I’ve never in my career seen a story where 100 percent of the comments that I have read thus far are negative. About you, Justin Harris.’ It was extraordinary, the backlash.
“I think he trusted us that we would do a fair job, and I think we have,” Vargas continued. “We have given him the chance to answer a lot of tough questions … we did a second interview with him to give him another chance to answer questions that came up and issues that came up. I think they make a compelling argument for, you know, walk in our shoes before you judge. Because no matter what you think about this case, we are all outside that house hearing about it afterward. They were inside that house dealing with what they describe as a horrific situation. Nobody can say that that situation never happened — we can talk to the Harts, who say we didn’t have that experience with the girls, and we can talk to [the adoptive family] who say we didn’t have that experience with the girls … but we can’t say what did or did not go on inside that house, because we weren’t there. You weren’t there. None of us were there. So we gave them the chance to explain what was going on, and then we gave them the chance to answer a lot of tough, pointed questions about how they handled what was going on and why on Earth nobody else seemed to see these problems.”
The Harris story will take up the full hour of programming tonight, Vargas said. ABC has been working on it for almost half a year. “I’ve made three different trips to Arkansas and my producers have made many more, exhaustively interviewing every single person involved in this case … We wanted to do this right. This was an enormous story in the state of Arkansas, but also nationally. A lot of people had never heard of this concept of rehoming and didn’t know that it was legal in 43 states, and I think people were shocked to hear about it.”
“With an hour of prime time television, we were able to dig very deep in this story and give everybody a chance to give their side … I think everybody trusted that we were going to do a thorough and fair investigation, and we hope that’s what they believe after the hour airs.”