Last Friday, ABC’s “20/20” aired a six-months-in-the-making special on the failed adoption of three young girls by Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) and his wife, Marsha, a story originally reported by the Arkansas Times in March. Given the outrage the Harris rehoming attracted both in Arkansas and beyond, ABC’s take on the issue was eagerly anticipated.
Unfortunately, “20/20” anchor Elizabeth Vargas and her team all but ignored one of the most important parts of the entire ordeal: Harris’ influence within the Arkansas Department of Human Services. There are thousands of other children in the state who are in the care of DHS’ Division of Children and Family Services, so the agency’s integrity is a matter of grave importance. But for tens of thousands of viewers introduced to the story for the first time on Friday night, the issue of political influence was never raised.
The central facts of the Harris adoption are by now well known: In late 2013, only months after becoming the legal adoptive parents of two young children, then ages 3 and 5, the Harrises gave the girls away to another family in Northwest Arkansas where one of them was then sexually abused by the father in the household, Eric C. Francis. Francis was an employee at the Harrises’ preschool. (Months previously, the Harrises had disrupted their adoption application for the girls’ older sister, returning her to state care.) Remarkably, the Harrises' actions were legal at the time, as they are in most states. After news of the Harris rehoming broke, the Arkansas legislature passed a new law to make such under-the-table transfers of physical custody of children a felony.
The “20/20” team presented these facts, complete with on-camera interviews with many of the people the Times spoke with in March: Cheryl and Craig Hart, who fostered the two youngest children before their adoption; Chelsey Goldsborough, the Harrises’ former babysitter; Jan Wallis, a former DCFS adoption specialist who was assigned to the case and who spoke to the Times in March under the condition of anonymity, but has since allowed us to identify her; the Harrises themselves, and the girls’ current adoptive family. The show even included footage of the children themselves, their identities concealed.
Yet this is an incomplete picture. The Harris rehoming was always two stories at once: the wrenching, intimately personal story of three victimized children, and a story of political influence being deployed to serve powerful people and marginalize the interests of others. ABC did a fair job presenting the first, but failed to even acknowledge the existence of the second. Here’s some of what was left out:
1) No explanation was given as to why the Harris adoption proceeded even after others urged against it. The Harrises were never ideal candidates to adopt three young girls with a history of abuse, in part because their household included three biological sons. While Jan Wallis and the Harts stated on camera that they urged against the adoption, “20/20” did not explain why the adoption was then approved by a judge anyway.
The Harts and Wallis have told the Times that DCFS Director Cecile Blucker exerted influence on local DHS workers to change their recommendations at the last minute. Both parties said they told “20/20” as much, on camera, but that footage was not shown.
On Thursday, before the program aired, the Times asked Elizabeth Vargas whether the special would include those allegations. “I think that’s more a local angle on the story,” she replied. “We have lots of lawyers here at ABC that don’t let us report gossip or opinions [that are] unsubstantiated. … I can just tell you that I drilled deep on that, and I certainly might have opinions on that that I can’t share, [but] that’s not what I’m supposed to do on prime time television. … If we had a smoking gun, we would have reported it.”
2) Rep. Harris had direct influence over the DCFS budget. ABC mentioned Harris is a legislator, but only in passing. The show almost seemed to take pains to portray the Harrises as an average Arkansas family, but of course Harris is in a position of power in state government. An email exchange from March 2013 shows that he wasn’t shy about using his power as a lawmaker in regard to DHS. In March 2013, he took to the House floor to ask his colleagues to not pass a routine DHS spending bill until an unnamed issue with the agency was resolved. In an email afterward, obtained under the FOIA, Harris told Cecile Blucker that the bill “failed miserably” after he spoke out against it. (That particular budget hold did not concern the fateful adoption hearing itself.)
3) Rep. Harris also sat on two legislative committees with power over DCFS. Harris served on Joint Performance Review, which executes periodic inquiries into state agencies and services, and served as vice-chair of the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth. Legislation pertaining to DCFS often originates from the latter committee. He’s since resigned from JPR and stepped down from the vice-chairmanship of Children and Youth, though he remains a voting member. Yet “20/20” didn’t mention the fact that Harris’ position gave him unusual leverage over DCFS.
4) Harris claimed that DCFS Director Cecile Blucker knew the children had been rehomed all along. Soon after the Times broke this story, Harris began attempting to spread blame for the rehoming fiasco. “Cecile Blucker knew where the kids were. They kept up with the kids. I don’t know how,” he said at the time. A DHS spokesperson said the agency couldn’t comment due to the confidentiality of adoption cases. But if the producers looked into this fairly remarkable accusation by a state legislator against the state’s top official for child welfare, it didn’t make the final cut.
5) Though he’s not running for a fourth term, Rep. Harris has another full year in elected office. He’ll receive another year’s salary (boosted this year from $15,869 to $39,400), plus thousands more in per diem expenses. He’ll also continue to sit on committees and exert influence over the state’s budget. Again, “20/20” barely mentioned that Harris is an elected official.
6) “20/20” provided a misleading impression of Reactive Attachment Disorder. The term “Reactive Attachment Disorder,” or RAD, is often mistakenly used as a catchall for disruptive, violent behaviors among child victims of abuse and neglect. Absolutely, such behaviors sometimes exist among such children — but RAD itself is a description simply of an inability to form healthy social bonds, not of violence. On its website, ABC includes supplementary footage that seems to equate RAD with violence. The show also made no mention of the controversial “therapies” for RAD embraced by the Harrises, including radical punitive measures espoused by author Nancy Thomas, which the Harrises have cited as an influence on their approach to raising the adopted girls.
7) Workers at Growing God’s Kingdom, the Harrises’ West Fork preschool, say the couple believed the children were possessed by demons. The Times has interviewed multiple workers at the preschool who had firsthand knowledge of the girls. They all backed up the claims made by Chelsey Goldsborough and now Jan Wallis: that the couple believed their adopted children were possessed and had an “exorcism” performed on the girls. On camera, the Harrises categorically denied those allegations. Workers have told the Times that ABC filmed inside Growing God’s Kingdom, but no such footage appears in the final cut.
8) According to those same workers, the young girls frequently were signed in at the preschool on days when they weren’t there. The Harrises have denied this claim.
9) Growing God’s Kingdom is paid for almost entirely by taxpayer funds, via DHS. This seems necessary to mention as another example of the Harrises’ complex relationship with the agency. In 2013, the Harrises together earned about $177,500 from both Justin’s legislative salary and the preschool. About 90 percent of the preschool’s revenue was from public money.
10) The Harrises continue to be responsible for the well-being of scores of children at their preschool. “20/20” didn’t say much about the preschool at all, or the question of whether the Harrises’ alleged beliefs in demons might carry over to their treatment of children at their facility. Recently, a 3-year-old child was left for most of the day in a van at Growing God’s Kingdom. (It was a cool day and she was unhurt.)
11) All sexual abuse aside, it’s traumatic for a young child to be given away to a new home. ABC should have dwelled more explicitly on just how damaging it can be for children to be kicked out of their home, even if it’s not a happy home.
12) The sexual abuse in the Francis household was mentioned almost as an afterthought. ABC rushed through the section about the Francis household. Comments on ABC’s Facebook page after the show aired indicated suggest that many viewers were left confused about whether there was indeed abuse at the Francis home, or just allegations. Yes, there was abuse: Francis admitted it to police, and it’s now known that he abused at least two other children in the community. He’s now serving a 40-year prison sentence. Bizarrely, this almost gets lost in the shuffle.
13) Yes, one can be charged with abandonment for giving up adopted children. That’s the way it should be. The Harrises say they were terrified of being charged with child abandonment by DHS if they tried to give up the girls. Adoptive parents should have access to support, but shouldn’t be able to simply give up their children without facing consequences once the adoption is complete, and “20/20” should have stated this more forcefully. The Harrises had six full months living with the two youngest sisters before the adoption was finalized, but they forged ahead. Eight months after that, they kicked the children out of the house.
14) “20/20” made no mention of Marsha Harris’ diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. This is an odd omission from the show: The Harrises have said repeatedly that a major factor in giving up the children was that Marsha was “dying of pancreatic cancer” in 2013. Why was this not mentioned by ABC? (Justin Harris has stated that Marsha’s cancer was later cured.)
15) The Harrises may have received an adoption tax credit of up to $25,940 for both girls in 2013. The couple has not responded to questions about whether they received tax benefits for the children.
16) The actions of Rep. Harris have never been condemned by any Republican Party official in the state.
17) Justin Harris was recently presented with an award from the Family Council, an influential conservative group, for sponsoring anti-abortion legislation. The point here is that far from being politically isolated, Harris still seems to have the backing of conservative allies.
18) Had the law criminalizing rehoming been in effect in the fall of 2013, the Harrises would have clearly been guilty of a felony. The change in law was mentioned by “20/20,” as is the fact that Harris voted for it. But Vargas could have asked whether Harris believed rehoming should be a crime. If so, then he believes that what he did was, well, criminal. If not, that means he voted for making something that he believes is not wrong into a felony.
19) No explanation has yet been given for why exactly the girls were moved from the Francis household to the “third family” where they remain today. This remains perhaps the single largest unanswered question in the story. The children were sent to live with the Francises in October 2013. The abuse likely occurred in January 2014, according to prosecutor documents in the criminal case against Eric C. Francis. By March, the children had been moved to a new family and were later adopted. Who made the decision to move them out of the Francis household, and why?
20) The Arkansas Times established most of the facts presented in the “20/20” special back in March. The Times did not receive any acknowledgement for breaking the story throughout the entire course of the program.