The Arkansas Supreme Court today dismissed a lawsuit against the state brought by Justin Harris, the former Republican state representative from West Fork best known for a tragically botched adoption of two young girls that came to light in 2015. The justices said the complaint was barred by sovereign immunity.
Harris and his wife, Marsha, who was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, adopted two sisters from the state foster care system in 2013. According to those who knew the family, the Harrises soon came to believe the girls — then ages 3 and 5 — were demonically possessed and would confine them to their rooms for long periods.
The Harrises eventually gave both children away to another family, unbeknownst to the state. One was sexually abused by the father in that household, Eric C. Francis, who is now serving a 40-year sentence for the crime. (The sisters were later adopted by another family.)
The Arkansas Times published a series of stories in March 2015 revealing details of the failed adoption. Soon thereafter, it appears DHS opened a child maltreatment investigation into Justin and Marsha Harris.
Such investigations are confidential, and DHS generally cannot confirm or deny whether one has occurred, but the Harrises’ lawsuit indicates an investigation took place. The complaint says a DHS investigator interviewed the Harrises’ three biological sons at Shiloh Christian Academy in Springdale on April 29, 2015 “in the course of a child maltreatment investigation.” (It’s not clear whether that investigation sought evidence of maltreatment of the Harrises’ sons or of the adopted girls who had previously lived in their home.)
The Harrises filed their complaint against DHS in April 2018, long after public outcry around the adoption scandal had passed. (Justin Harris served the rest of his term as a state legislator but did not run for re-election in 2016.) In the lawsuit, they claim DHS sought to perform the April 2015 interview at the school only “because of the intentional Malice that a certain DHS official had for the Plaintiffs” and that their constitutional rights were violated by investigators interviewing their sons on the grounds of a private, Christian school.
“Plaintiff parents and Plaintiff minor children had reasonable expectations of privacy and to be free from the threat of government intrusion in the safety, security and sanctity of the Private School environment,” the complaint says. The Harrises are represented by Springdale attorney Travis Story, who is known both for his activism around social conservative causes and his controversial tenure on the state medical marijuana commission.
An attorney for DHS argued the Harrises’ suit should be dismissed for several reasons, including sovereign immunity — the principle that the state should be immune from lawsuits. Washington County Circuit Judge John Threet rejected DHS’ arguments in a December 2018 order, but the agency appealed. Today, the state Supreme Court reversed Threet’s order and dismissed the suit.
The majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Robin Wynne, expounded only upon the sovereign immunity argument. The court’s interpretation of sovereign immunity has expanded enormously in recent years, giving the state more and more power to dismiss claims against it out of hand. Justice Jo Hart dissented, as she has in other recent sovereign immunity cases, warning that the majority’s decision “gives new unbridled power to the State.”
The Harrises’ assertion that they were unfairly targeted by DHS in 2015 is ironic, considering Harris was a state representative at the time. In 2015, he sat on a committee overseeing DHS and had the power to hold up the agency’s budget. He was also well-acquainted with Cecile Blucker, the head of the DHS division responsible for adoption and foster care.
Cheryl and Craig Hart, who were foster parents to the two girls before they entered the Harris household, told the Arkansas Times in 2015 that they believed Harris had used his status as a legislator to expedite the adoption over the objections of the Harts, DHS caseworkers and others. The Harts believed Blucker intervened to facilitate the adoption after local DHS caseworkers expressed doubts that Justin and Marsha Harris were prepared to handle the adoption.
After the news of the adoption broke in March 2015, the state legislature created a new law prohibiting the so-called “rehoming” of an adopted child. Harris himself voted for the law. But had it been in effect in 2013, Harris would have been committing a felony by giving away his legally adopted daughters to another family.