An emotional Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), his wife at his side, told reporters at a press conference last week that he sent his two adopted daughters to live with another family, where one of them was later sexually abused, because he would have faced abandonment charges by the state.
Responding to the Arkansas Times’ report that uncovered Harris’ “rehoming” of his children, the state legislator said he was “failed” by the Department of Human Services when he told employees the girls were too difficult for the family to handle. He said DHS’ threat to charge him with abandonment could have cost him custody of his three biological sons (and, though he did not say so, could have cost him his business as well, Growing God’s Kingdom preschool). The lawmaker also said DHS “misled” him about severe behavioral issues with the girls. He said they suffered from reactive attachment disorder, a condition sometimes occurring among children with unstable backgrounds that results in severe emotional and social problems.
Harris spoke for the first time of a third, older sister that he said DHS made him adopt before he could take the younger sisters into his home. The Times had reported on the third sister before the press conference, held Friday afternoon in the old Supreme Court chambers in the state Capitol. The older girl, who would have been about 6 years old at the time she entered the Harris household, presented an imminent danger to his older three sons, Harris said. DHS ultimately placed the child into a hospital after just a few months of living with the family, and the Harrises did not proceed with the planned adoption. He also said the younger sisters, ages 4 and 2 when they entered the Harris home, were violent. He said one of the girls — the implication was the middle sister — had to be medicated to stop hurting her sister, and that he was advised by therapists to treat her RAD by removing toys and other belongings from her room.
After one of the two younger girls crushed a family pet to death, Harris said, he and his wife were advised by “a therapist, a psychiatrist and a pediatrician” to remove the children from the Harris home. He said he sought DHS assistance at that time but was given none. He said he thought he’d found the “perfect solution” in handing the girls over to Stacey Francis, a longtime friend of his wife’s, and her husband, Eric Cameron Francis. Eric Francis is serving 40 years in prison on charges of raping the child the Harrises rehomed and sexually assaulting other children.
This story will refer to the three girls taken in by the Harrises by pseudonyms: We will call the oldest sister Jeannette, the middle sister Mary and the youngest sister Annie. When they began living with the Harrises in 2012, Jeannette was around 6, Mary was 4 and Annie was around 2.
Nearly a dozen people interviewed by the Times tell a different story of Justin and Marsha Harris’ dealings with DHS and their relationship with the three young girls. Among them: two foster families who cared for the girls prior to the Harris adoption, the girls’ biological mother, a former DHS employee familiar with the proceedings and a former babysitter at the Harrises’ West Fork home.
Cheryl and Craig Hart, an experienced foster couple who housed Mary and Annie for a year and a half before their adoption by the Harrises, said they tried to talk the Harrises out of adopting the sisters. The Harts said that a local team working on the adoption — including themselves, DHS caseworkers, adoption specialists, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and therapists from Ozark Guidance, a mental health provider — made the Harrises fully aware of the girls’ history of neglect and sexual abuse and cautioned them that they were unprepared to handle children from such a background, especially considering their home included young boys. The former DHS employee confirmed this account.
The Harts also said the adoption was allowed to proceed despite their objections because of the direct intervention of Cecile Blucker, head of the Division of Children and Family Services, the arm of DHS responsible for child welfare. They say Blucker exerted pressure on the Washington County DHS office on behalf of Justin Harris to facilitate the adoption. The former DHS employee confirmed this information as well.
Chelsey Goldsborough, who regularly babysat for the Harrises, said Mary was kept isolated from Annie and from the rest of the family. She was often confined for hours to her room, where she was monitored by a video camera. The reason: The Harrises believed the girls were possessed by demons and could communicate telepathically, Goldsborough said. Harris and his wife once hired specialists to perform an “exorcism” on the two sisters while she waited outside the house with the boys, she said.
Multiple sources who interacted with the family confirmed Goldsborough’s account that the Harrises believed the children were possessed, and another source close to the family said that Marsha Harris spoke openly about the supposed demonic possession.
The Harrises deny those claims. Their attorney, Jennifer Wells, said in a statement: “Exorcisms and telepathy are not part of the Harrises’ religious practice. They followed the techniques in a book called ‘When Love Is Not Enough, a Parent’s Guide to Reactive Attachment Disorder’ by Nancy Thomas, who is a recognized expert on therapeutic parenting techniques.”
Mary and Annie stayed in the Harris home for no more than 14 months (not two years, as Harris said at the Friday press conference). For about half of that time, from the end of 2012 to summer 2013, Goldsborough would babysit the Harris boys, Annie and, in an unconventional sense, Mary. Goldsborough said she would watch Mary on a monitor linked to a camera in her room, but usually only entered the room to provide food or water. Goldsborough, who is now a college student in Bentonville, said she would stay at the Harris house for three to four hours after school many days during the spring semester of her senior year of high school.
“The first night I was over there, I just broke down and cried with this little girl because I just felt so bad for her,” Goldsborough said.
According to Goldsborough, the two girls were kept in separate rooms that were outfitted with locks, alarms and video cameras. They were not allowed to be around each other because of the Harrises’ belief in demonic possession and telepathy, she said.
While Annie would be allowed to roam the house and interact with other family members, Mary was often confined to her room, Goldsborough said.
“We couldn’t ever take [Mary] out. I’d watch her from a camera. I think it’s crazy. They were adopted, so they’re going to want TLC.”
Goldsborough said the “exorcism” was performed by specialists from Alabama who came to the house to orchestrate the event. Other sources confirmed to the Times that Marsha Harris told them at least one “exorcism” was performed on the girls.
Goldsborough said the Harrises showed her “a picture of [Mary] where they’re like, ‘You can see the demon rising from her back,’ and it just looked like a little 6-year-old to me.” [Mary was 4 or 5.] The separate source close to the Harrises reported seeing a video that Marsha Harris said showed a demon interacting with one of the girls. The source said demons were an “obsession” with Marsha Harris.
“They consider it to be spiritual warfare,” the other source said. “I’m a Christian, and I have these beliefs, but this was completely beyond anything I’ve ever seen or heard about.”
Goldsborough said the reason the family removed Mary’s toys was “because a demon told [Mary] not to share. … Demons told her to not appreciate [her toys] and all that, so they took away all the toys and her colored clothes.”
Although she was disturbed by what she saw in the household to the extent that she reported it to DHS*, Goldsborough said she felt compelled to continue babysitting for the sake of the girls. “I think everything happens for a reason, so I feel like I was there for a reason,” she said. “In some ways I did break the rules and give [Mary] attention. When it was just me and her one night, I took her on a walk down the street to hang out and took her to the playground.”
When asked whether either of the girls displayed any signs of violence, Goldsborough said, “Yeah — they’d throw a fit sometimes if I made them eat their broccoli. They were like any other kid I watched.”
At the Friday press conference, Justin Harris said he and Marsha had their biological sons sleep in their room for “their protection” from the young sisters. The source close to the Harrises said the pet — a guinea pig belonging to one of the boys — was killed not by Mary, but by the oldest sister, Jeannette, who had long since left the home by the time the Harrises, allegedly on the advice of therapists, rehomed the girls with the Francises.
Asked about the death of the guinea pig, Wells, the Harrises’ lawyer, said via email, “A family pet, which was a guinea pig, was crushed to death by one of the children. Another pet, which was a hamster, was hurt but not killed by another child. We don’t want to identify exactly which child did what. It may be in the report you have, but just in case the minors’ identities are known, we don’t want to be specific for their own protection.”
The lawyer had not responded to a long list of other questions from the Times by midday Tuesday.
Goldsborough said Mary and Annie were moved to the Francis home in Bella Vista months after she moved away for college. “But I knew they had talked about it, they were going to rehome them,” she said. “They were looking for a new house because Marsha had gotten sick.” Doctors found that Marsha Harris had a possible cancerous mass sometime in 2013; Goldsborough believes that’s why the Harrises eventually sent the girls away. “She just felt tired all the time, and she went in [to the doctor] and they found something and she said, ‘I just don’t know if I can handle all this.’ ”
Justin Harris said they took Mary’s toys away from her at the suggestion of professionals from Ozark Guidance. But Dr. Peter Jensen, acting director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said that did not sound like an appropriate therapy for RAD.
Children with RAD may be successfully treated, especially if reached at an early age and placed in a stable, loving home, Jensen said. But “parents cannot use normal parenting. … They have to learn skills most parents don’t have — such as how to talk a child down.” Therapists need to become involved. “You can have a degree in child development, but that’s not a degree in child development run amok, gone wild.”
To allow a child with RAD to emotionally attach to her new caregivers requires a focus on positive reinforcement; any punishment must be kept gentle, Jensen said. Attachment to a mother or father figure is “a deep, biological need and necessary for normal social development,” Jensen said. With attachment comes a sense of security; without it, a child may experience a heightened wariness of his or her environment, become withdrawn, and be unable to respond to attempts at comfort.
“We see this happening in orphanages and kids moved into foster care at a young age. … Basically, they haven’t had their emotional needs met, or they’ve been taken away,” Jensen said. When a child has repeated changes of caregivers, “that child is learning that the world is not to be trusted and there is no one there for me at a critical time, and I might be bounced out at any moment,” he said.
Taking toys away for long periods of time — “that’s just the wrong thing,” a naïve idea, Jensen said.
“Sometimes you see kids put in a safe environment and all hell may break loose. Now it’s safe for them to show all the disturbance that has been hidden,” Jensen said. But “even that can be treated.”
‘This was my winning battle’
“All I wanted to do was to make sure my girls were safe and in a good home, you know? To at least keep them together, instead of DHS taking my rights,” said Sarah Young, the biological mother of the three sisters, in an interview with the Times.
That is why, in 2011, Young approached the Harrises and asked them to adopt her daughters, then in foster care. She said she was originally introduced to the Harrises by a former friend. After Friday’s press conference, Justin Harris gave a lengthy interview to a KARK-TV, Channel 4, reporter in which he told a similar story about how his troubled adoption began.
“A mother … heard that we were wanting to adopt,” he said. “[She] heard about us … through the church on Dickson Street [in Fayetteville] where they gave free meals. So she called us out of the blue, the mom, and said ‘Will you take my three girls? Because I’m about ready to lose them to DHS.’ ”
The girls had been taken into DHS custody in early 2011 after suffering through a staggering sequence of chaos and abuse. First, Young discovered her husband sexually assaulting Jeannette, the oldest of the three girls, and turned him in; he is now in prison. (Other sources claim Young waited for days to turn the husband over to the police.) Young then became involved with a man who cooked and sold methamphetamine; a fire started by his meth lab provoked a police investigation that sent that man, too, to prison. The child abuse hotline soon thereafter received a call from an individual concerned for the girls’ safety, and investigators found the children in the care of a woman in a house with multiple adults who tested positive for meth; one man at the home had been sexually abusing both Jeannette and Mary, and he is now serving a 120-year sentence. When DHS collected the children, the eldest was 5, the middle girl was 3 and the youngest was under a year old.
The two youngest girls were taken into the Harts’ foster home. “We got the little one first; I’m pretty sure it was the first weekend of March 2011,” Cheryl Hart said. “The middle girl came maybe two months later — she had a potential adoptive family that for some reason changed their minds very suddenly and said she had to be out right away, so we took her, too.”
The Harts kept the two younger sisters until October 2012, and their descriptions of the girls’ behavior throughout those 18 months stands in stark contrast to the harrowing picture painted by Justin Harris.
“They were not a challenge compared to a lot of kids we’ve had, but we were familiar with their kinds of behaviors,” Cheryl Hart said. The girls had regular counseling at Children’s House in Springdale, a center specializing in mental health treatment for young victims of abuse. “They got therapy every day — play therapy, occupational therapy, anger management.”
With 15 years fostering some 70 children, the Harts were veterans at living with tough kids. Mary, they said, had some problems at preschool — tantrums and occasional inappropriate behavior. She “didn’t have boundaries,” Cheryl Hart recalled. “If the checker at Walmart asked if she wanted to go home with her, she would. They were thrown in with a lot of transient people in their lives before us.
“But she was such a sweet little girl. We could reason with her and talk to her. The neighbor kids liked her. She loved to dress up.”
Craig Hart objected strongly to Harris’ implication that the girls were dangerous. “Our friends, our neighbors, our church — we can get as many character witnesses as you want for those girls,” he said. “And also, they’re both small children for their age. Unless he gave them guns, they weren’t dangerous.”
He felt especially offended at Harris’ statement in the press conference that they had to “medicate” the middle child to prevent her from “hurting her sister.” He said Mary displayed only affection and kindness toward her younger sister. “They loved each other. The older one was very protective of the younger one.”
“If they were violent [in the Harris home], they were taught violence. We had a dog, a little Bichon, that they were around all the time and there was never once any issue with her abusing an animal. … They thrived in our home,” Cheryl Hart said.
Kyra Guthrie, a Fayetteville resident and friend of the Harts, sometimes provided respite care for the foster family. “I knew the two girls for over a year and spent many hours with them,” Guthrie told the Times. “They’re just normal little girls. They were very delightful, fun, energetic … never an ounce of threat from them. They played with my adopted son in my home.”
But what of Jeannette, the oldest daughter and the first to be taken in by the Harrises, who the lawmaker said “sometimes spent about eight hours every day screaming and in a rage” and threatened violence upon his sons?
After Jeannette entered DHS supervision in early 2011, she bounced around between foster care and inpatient psychiatric treatment before landing in a therapeutic foster home in May 2011. The mother in that household, who asked that her name not be used in this story, still refers to the girl as “my daughter” and describes her as simultaneously one of the most disturbing casualties of sexual abuse she’s ever encountered and a remarkable, resilient child who she grew to love as deeply as her own biological son.
“Now, I’m really good with kids with sexual trauma. But this kid was so sexualized, I’d never seen anything like it,” the therapeutic foster mother said. “My husband was so worried of any allegations that he wouldn’t go down the hall to her room.
“I had a big dog outside, and I caught her trying to stick a stick up the dog’s nose. So you think of the typical labels these kids get, like ‘Oh, they’re a sociopath,’ but when I asked her what she was doing she said, ‘I was trying to get him to kill me, so I could go to heaven.’ It wasn’t about controlling an animal — she was so sad about everything that happened to her, she really wanted to die.”
Therapeutic foster parents are trained to deal with the intense demands of traumatized children and nudge them toward healing and bonding with intentional, careful steps. Gradually, the foster mother said, this troubled girl’s behavior began to change.
“She did so good. It was hard. She was the toughest kid I ever had, but when she finally came through and I realized I could take her to our homeschool co-op, she was just like a normal kid. She’d get overexcited or scared, and we’d come back out and she’d calm down with me. I’d take her to parks and she wouldn’t run off or act all crazy or beat other children to death — she was just another kid.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Young, the biological mother, had made a plan of her own. When DHS takes children from a home, it’s usually assumed to be temporary — the eventual goal being reunification with the birth family — but the agency will move to terminate parental rights if it determines the birth parents are unfit.
Given the abuse the kids had endured while entrusted to her care, Young believed that it was unlikely a judge would return her children. She mistrusted DHS and disliked the foster system. She told the Times that she wanted to get the girls into a permanent home — and to keep the three of them together, above all else — in large part because of her own unhappy childhood spent in foster care in Minnesota.
“When I was a child, I was abandoned, then adopted, and then my adopted mom threw me back in the foster system because she didn’t want me. Because of my behavior, my problems. That’s something I didn’t want for my girls. I knew how foster homes are — some are good, some not.” And then, she found the Harrises.
Justin and Marsha Harris always evinced a keen, sincere interest in helping vulnerable kids. In the KARK interview, Justin Harris noted that he and his future wife met at Children’s House. She was a volunteer and he an intern, confirmed a source familiar with the Harrises. They married four months later.
“We had wanted to adopt from the very beginning. … We had decided to add on to our house in order to expand the family, and we couldn’t have any more children, so at that point we had decided we were going to adopt. We just always kept that in our mind,” Harris said.
To both Young and the Harrises, it must have seemed like providence. Here was a young, desperate mother pleading for help, seeking a home for her three little lost girls. And here was a stable family with a successful business, the father a state representative, seeking new children. “Marsha was showing me these really beautiful pictures of these rooms that they had supposedly set up for the girls,” Young recalled.
So one day in late 2011, a few months after they were first introduced, Young met with the Harrises. “Their attorneys pulled up all the paperwork for me. They came in to one of the church lunches and had me go to the bank with them to have it notarized and all that stuff to take it back to their lawyer.
“DHS was still trying to go after me, and when they talked about terminating my [parental] rights, I said, ‘I don’t have any rights. I turned them over to these people,’ ” Young said. “I never signed any parental rights away to DHS. I figured this was my winning battle. … I felt it was better. It was the only chance I had to keep my girls together. This was my last effort at being a good mother.”
“Our idea was going to be to have a private adoption,” Harris said in the KARK interview. “[The biological] mom wanted to have control of what happened to the children … and Marsha and I said we didn’t want to go through DHS because of some issues we’d had with them in the past.” (Roughly around this time, in late 2011, the Harrises were feuding with DHS over an investigation involving Growing God’s Kingdom that found the school included overtly Christian instruction despite receiving public money.)
DHS, Harris said, would not let him and Marsha adopt the girls privately — that is, via the legal documents drafted by their attorney attempting to transfer custody from Young to their family. Instead, “they wanted us to do it through the system.” Even once the couple began the lengthy process of adopting through DHS, though, he said the agency “fought us the whole way. … They felt like we had an ulterior motive to wanting these children in the first place.”
But it was not just DHS. The two foster families themselves strongly objected to the Harris adoption, whether done privately or through the system. When the therapeutic foster mother argued that troubled Jeannette in particular should not be placed into the Harris home, she said, Justin Harris waved away her concerns.
“She was a kid that needed an experienced family,” the mother explained. “The problem was simple hubris. He saw it as, ‘I’m with God. God’s going to solve this.’ … There are lots of children you could adopt — you don’t need to take the most traumatized ones out of the system. He was told by many people in DHS, ‘These are not the kids you want to just jump into.’ … That’s why I’m angry. I knew [Jeannette] wouldn’t last five minutes there.”
But Justin Harris now says he and Marsha were pressured to take Jeannette against their wishes. He said at the Friday press conference that they wanted only to adopt the younger sisters but were forced to accept the eldest as part of a package deal: “Marsha and I always planned to have five children. … We decided to adopt two girls. After initiating a private adoption, we were informed in a meeting with DHS, CASA, the attorney ad litem, and Ozark Guidance that we could not adopt the two children unless we also took their older sibling.”
Harris contradicted himself in the KARK interview later that same evening, stating that Sarah Young asked him, ” ‘Will you take my three girls?’ … and we said, ‘Yes, we will take your three girls.’ ”
Cheryl Hart also vividly remembers the roundtable meeting described by Harris, which she said occurred on Valentine’s Day 2012. What she recalls is that Justin and Marsha Harris did not heed the warnings of person after person familiar with the sisters’ special needs, who uniformly counseled against placing troubled girls in a home with young boys and busy parents.
“We tried to sort of put all our cards on the table and say why this was a bad idea,” Cheryl Hart said. “But the Harrises were hell-bent on having it happen. … Organizations, counselors, therapists, caseworker after caseworker told them, you don’t know what you’re getting into. They just were in denial the whole time about how troubled these girls were. … They repeatedly told us they had degrees in early childhood development, they had therapists there at their preschool, and they had God to help them through this.
“I asked them point blank, ‘Why would you put your sons through that?’ Because [Jeannette] at the time was aggressive — that’s how she learned to get things in her life. And they knew [Mary] had been sexually assaulted, and she would have some anger issues.” The former DHS employee the Times contacted for this story independently confirmed this account of the Valentine’s Day meeting.
Cheryl Hart also remembers Justin Harris often mentioning the name of DCFS director Blucker, the person ultimately in charge of adoption and foster care for the state of Arkansas. As a legislator, Harris knew Blucker personally — and has some influence over her budget.
“In most conversations with us, [Harris] would mention Cecile’s name. ‘Well, Cecile said this, Cecile said that,’ ” Cheryl Hart said. It is her opinion the Harrises called Cecile Blucker “to expedite things.”
That summer, the adoption case went before 4th Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Stacy Zimmerman in Washington County. And in court, Cheryl Hart recalled, something strange happened: Everyone on the DHS team that had previously opposed the adoption changed their recommendations. “Everyone testifying before the judge had stipulations, like ‘To be followed up,’ ‘To continue their therapy at Children’s House,’ but nobody would say, ‘We really don’t think this is a good idea.’ ” The Harts believe Blucker’s influence made the adoption happen. They said she exerted pressure on people in the local DHS team on Harris’ behalf.
DHS can’t comment on specific cases, but when the Times previously asked DHS spokesperson Amy Webb whether senior agency officials at the state level ever override the recommendations of a local adoption team, she said, “I’m sure that’s possible that’s happened. That’s part of the process you want. That’s why we have supervisors and area managers … because you want as many eyes as you can to help make sure we make the best, most appropriate decisions for those kids. So, sure, higher-ups will get into discussions about what is best and what is not.”
However, a source familiar with the workings of state-level DHS informed the Times that Blucker supposedly remarked in 2012 that “Harris threatened to hold up the budget for the division if he didn’t get to adopt those girls.”
Justin Harris suggested he used his influence to obtain the three girls during the adoption hearing, according to Cheryl Hart.
“At the hearing, the ad litem attorney — you know, the one who is representing only the interests of the children — said, ‘When we met less than a couple of days ago, everyone’s recommendation was for these kids to not go to this home. Now, what has happened in the last 24 hours that everyone’s recommendation has changed?’
“Harris’ face was getting all red,” Cheryl Hart added. “And the ad litem asked him, ‘Did you make calls?’ And he finally said, ‘I did what I had to do to get these girls.’ I expected the judge would [stop the adoption] but she gave them the oldest girl.” The younger two sisters soon followed.
The Harts reject Harris’ claim that the family didn’t want the oldest child. “They said the whole time in court they wanted all three, and that’s why they were chosen [to adopt] … They fell on their knees when they were told they could take her.”
As for the transfer itself, Craig Hart said, “It was not the process normally followed when we had kids go into an adoption situation … the court said there should be a transitioning period between us and them, and we saw them only once after they moved in [with the Harrises]. We still are in contact with a lot of our former fosters who have been adopted. They cut us off completely, quickly — they just thought they knew so much.”
Cheryl Hart said their offers of respite care — that is, extended childcare to allow parents time away from difficult kids — went unanswered. “We offered to be respite for them, to give them relief, to help out any way that we could because we’d been living with [Mary and Annie] for a year and a half. They never once called us.”
Faith and forgiveness
The Harrises sent Mary and Annie to live with the Francises in October 2013, just a year after they had taken them into custody. The girls remained with the Francises until February or March of 2014 — a month or two after Francis stopped working at the Harrises’ daycare. In the interview with KARK last Friday, Harris said Francis left to spend more time studying for a seminary degree and that the parting was amicable. When news of the rape came out in April 2014 and Harris was questioned about his former employee, he told the Times he’d fired Francis for a poor work record. The lawmaker did not reveal at the time the child Francis raped was Harris’ own.
For unknown reasons, Mary and Annie left the Francis home in early 2014 to live with yet another family, where they remain today. This couple, the girls’ fourth set of parents in two and a half years, has now legally adopted them.
Although they still decline to share the full circumstances of their adoption, the parents said they felt compelled to respond to the statements Justin Harris has made this past week that portray the girls as dangerous and violent.
“We are aware of the very public conversation going on about events pertaining to our daughters,” they said in an email to the Times. “We are deeply grieved over Justin Harris’ accusations toward our daughters in order to self-protect; it is inexcusable. Like the Harts, we also have two small dogs and the girls have only been gentle towards them. These girls are happy, healthy children who have gone through things no child should ever have to endure. Since they have been home with us, they have adjusted beautifully and are thriving in our home with unconditional love and patience. We are truly amazed at our daughters’ ability to love and bond with us, given all they have experienced. They are both extremely protective toward each other and love each other with all their hearts. They are a beautiful example to us of God’s amazing grace and the power of love to heal the broken heart. Our daughters are a precious gift from God and truly a blessing to each one of our lives and our extended family and friends. We love them deeply and are committed to do everything we can to help them live healthy, happy lives.
“We choose to forgive the Harrises and hope they will truly follow Christ in humility and repentance for the mistakes they made in our daughters’ lives. Due to the sensitivity of our daughters’ story, and out of respect for them, we are asking the public for privacy during this time.”
(Jeannette was eventually adopted by a therapeutic foster family and is said to be doing well. That family could not be reached by the Times.)
Craig Hart also raised the issue of faith when addressing Justin Harris’ comments about the girls. “We started through our church. I know that the Harrises talk a lot about Christianity, but we’re Christians. We [started fostering] because of our Christianity. We took all of the kids we had to church and Sunday school. We kept a loving Christian home for them to be a part of it. It really repulses us what he said. It’s really upsetting.”
If Harris’ account of the girls as violent and threatening holds little water, however, the other half of his narrative presents a more immediately sympathetic defense: DHS is not a friend to parents in need.
“We care deeply for the girls but we were failed by DHS,” Harris said at his press conference. “Despite what you may have read, we reached out to DHS numerous times and were met with nothing but hostility.” He grew emotional describing his dilemma: “We were threatened with possible abandonment charges and potentially losing our own boys as well if we returned the girls to DHS custody. In fact, a past DHS employee at the time came to us and confirmed that the plan at DHS was to seek abandonment charges if we returned the girls.”
Harris later suggested in the KARK interview that the agency was threatening him because of his political beliefs. “I hold DHS accountable … And I’m not sorry for doing it,” he declared.
He also mentioned Cecile Blucker’s name, but this time not in a congenial context. “Cecile Blucker knew where the kids were. They kept up with the kids,” he said, referring to the rehoming. On Tuesday, shortly before this story went to print, Harris sharpened his accusations, telling KTHV-TV, Channel 11, that Blucker — the state’s top official for child welfare — knew he gave the girls to another family and did not report it. A source familiar with DHS indicated that there may be at least some truth to that claim. The rehoming of Mary and Annie officially came to the attention of DHS on March 28, 2014, thanks to an anonymous call to the child abuse hotline operated by State Police. But the source told the Times that Blucker was made aware that the girls had been rehomed days before the call was received by the hotline. According to the source, Blucker made contact with Harris, who agreed to return the girls to DHS custody at a specified time, but Harris did not show up at the office — and Blucker did not notify State Police that the girls’ wherebouts were unknown.
When asked if Blucker had prior knowledge of the rehoming, Webb, the DHS spokesperson, said the agency could not comment due to the confidentiality of adoption cases. Because adoption proceedings are so closed, it is nearly impossible for Blucker or DHS as a whole to refute Harris’ statements that the agency (or individuals within it) provided insufficient support, threatened him and ultimately turned a blind eye to the rehoming. Webb did offer this statement after Harris’ press conference, however: “Though Rep. Harris is talking about this adoption, by law we cannot do so and are concerned about the very sensitive and protected information that has been released about vulnerable children. We also are prohibited from clarifying any inaccurate information.”
While Harris slings barbs at DHS, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has ordered a review of the agency’s practices regarding adoption. Three separate bills have now been filed in the legislature to prohibit rehoming, and the governor is supporting such legislation. Harris has said that he will support rehoming legislation as well, although if such a law had existed when he sent his daughters to live with Eric and Stacey Francis in October 2013, he would have been committing a felony. For the most part, Harris’ peers in the legislature are keeping quiet about the controversy, but the public at large is paying attention to the story. As of Tuesday, a Change.org petition calling for Harris’ resignation had garnered 5,000 signatures.
While some individuals from West Fork had nothing but harsh words for the Harrises, both Chelsey Goldsborough and the source close to the Harrises said they took no joy in speaking out against the couple. “It’s odd, because they’re not bad with children,” said Goldsborough, relating how the Harrises had her watch educational videos about child development before she baby sat. “It’s just — I don’t know. Something somewhere along the line got them out of hand with their own children.”
The unnamed source close to the Harrises felt torn about speaking up. “I’m not trying to devastate them … but people should know what they’ve done to these poor little girls. They genuinely had a commitment, I think, but it wasn’t near as easy as they thought that it was going to be. And I’m shocked, because they did work with these children at Children’s House, and they saw how difficult foster parents have it with little kids who have mental issues. You don’t just change them in a couple of weeks to be the way you want. I was shocked they seemed to have that mentality that they could fix these girls in a short amount of time and have a big happy family.”
One of the many people who contacted the Times after the original story broke was a therapist who works with children with reactive attachment disorder and who is familiar with DHS. Speaking anonymously, she expressed frustration with both adoptive parents and DHS.
“The failed adoptions that we have seen are parents who think they can love their child into being good,” the therapist said. “In a good disclosure meeting, all the child’s current and potential behaviors are discussed in depth and there is a clear road map of what it will take to make this adoption successful. … Adoptive parents don’t believe us. They think their family is different. They think they are the fairy godmother and their charity is to save themselves a Cinderella.”
But regardless of the facts of this particular case, DHS is often culpable in failed adoptions, she said.
“DHS has a long history of avoiding, lying, or otherwise hiding kids’ behaviors in attempts to place children quickly. There are far too few foster parents, and children often end up having to stay at the DHS overnight with a worker, sometimes for several days on end because there are no placement options. They get desperate. It is not OK, but I understand. Some adoption specialists do a hell of a job. The ones that are good, that is their life.” Others, she said, don’t care.
“Without significant support and education, parents grow to dread and then hate their child. In weak moments a parent might feel like the child is less than, not deserving of compassion and basic dignities (albeit these thoughts happen mostly after much physical aggression, sexually acting out towards parents and kids, homicidal thoughts or statements, hours-long tantrums, etc.).
“I do have compassion for parents in the throes of dealing with this. Our whole staff does and understands that it just isn’t always going to work out. But we also know this for sure: There is nothing more traumatic for a child than losing their birth parents. Equally as painful is being promised a family that you will never have to say goodbye to and then losing them. Now imagine that happening three different times. I’d be pretty pissed off, too.”
*This story has been updated since it was originally published.
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