The sisters were supposed to be moving out of neglect and chaos and into the stability of their forever home. For one of those girls, however, Arkansas Rep. Justin Harris’s house came to represent something very different: a temporary stopping point on the way to some place much, much worse.
A series of stories by the Arkansas Times revealed that Harris — a day-care owner, a vociferous defender of his Christian faith and a prominent figure in the state’s Republican Party — put two young girls he adopted in the care of a man who later sexually abused one of them.
More shocking still: What Harris did, unofficially giving away an adopted child, is not illegal in Arkansas.
It is known as “rehoming,” a name that describes a practice more common in pet adoption. The extralegal practice is highly controversial — “a monstrous act,” according to adoption advocate John M. Simmons.
Though no one can say for sure, child advocates believe that rehoming is relatively rare in the United States. Those adoptive parents who do it, advocates say, are gambling with the well-being of at-risk children whose entire life experiences have been characterized by abandonment, separation, grief and often abuse.
“There’s probably no greater trauma than thinking you have found a forever family and finding that’s not the case,” said Sandy Santana, interim executive director of Children’s Rights, an advocacy organization based in New York. “The foster kids are coming into the foster system because they have been abused or neglected. They’ve already experienced trauma; they’ve experienced separation from their birth parents.”
Moving from home to home “compounds the trauma and the loss, and the grief,” Santana said.
How exactly things could go so wrong for the girls once they were placed in the care of the Harris family is a study in failure at all levels.
The three sisters taken in by Justin and Marsha Harris had already lived with a toxic mixture of neglect and abuse. The girls were at one point placed in the care of methamphetamine users,
The scrutiny-free practice of rehoming opens the door to children becoming victims once again. An extensive Reuters and NBC News report in 2013 laid out the series of events that often plays out online, where parents use message boards and Facebook groups to find new families for their unwanted adopted children:
Many of the online posts say the unwanted children have physical or mental disabilities. In the group Reuters analyzed, more than half were described as having some sort of special need. About 18 percent were said to have a history that included sexual or physical abuse.
Such descriptions could serve as a beacon for predators. …
Especially at risk are children described as troubled and lacking a consistent parental figure, says Eric Ostrov, a Chicago-based forensic psychologist who evaluates sex offenders. Those depictions, Ostrov says, would be a “tremendous lure.”
Faced with the allegations before they were published by the Arkansas Times, Harris first became defensive.
“It’s evil,” he told the Times. “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you,” he added, quoting a Bible verse.
Later, at an emotional press conference, Harris placed the blame squarely on the state health services department, which, he said, refused to help when he and his wife struggled with the girls they had adopted. State officials also did not act when they learned that the Harrises had given the girls to another family, according to the Times, until it was too late.
Yet others involved in the case say that the Harrises knew the girls had mental and emotional challenges due to past trauma but insisted on adopting them anyway, the Arkansas Times reported.
Both sides agree that the Harris family was approached to adopt three girls by their biological mother. After several months with the eldest girl, who was 6 at the time of the trial period, the Harrises did not finalize her adoption due to her behavioral issues, Harris said at a news conference last week.
But around March 2013, he and his wife formally adopted the girl’s two younger sisters, according to the Arkansas Times.
Months later, according to the Harrises, they were struggling to cope with the mental and behavioral challenges presented by the two girls, particularly the older one, who was 4 at the time. According the Arkansas Times, people who knew the family, including a former babysitter, say that the Harrises kept the 4-year-old locked in a room and monitored her with cameras because they believed she was possessed by demons. The babysitter told the paper that the family hired “specialists” to perform an exorcism.
A lawyer for the Harrises, Jennifer Wells, denied to the Arkansas Times that “exorcisms and telepathy” are part of the couple’s beliefs. She said that instead they used a controversial book on “therapeutic” parenting to help deal with the adopted children.
Cheryl and Craig Hart, foster parents who had taken in the two younger girls before they were adopted by the Harrises, said the state lawmaker and his wife shouldn’t have been surprised by the girls’ behavior, according to the Arkansas Times:
The Harts said that a local team working on the adoption — including themselves, [Department of Health Services] 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.
At his news conference last week, Harris rattled off a litany of offenses that brought his family to a breaking point. One of the girls, he said, killed a family guinea pig, harmed a pet hamster, screamed in her room for eight hours straight and collected sharp rocks that she said would be used to kill the entire family, including her three adoptive brothers.
The Harrises made the boys sleep in their bedroom and away from the girls.
“At this point, we again reached out to DHS for help, and then we were threatened with possible abandonment charges and potentially losing our own boys,” Harris said.
And so Harris chose to take matters in his own hands near the end of 2013. Marsha Harris was friends with a woman named Stacey Francis, and Justin Harris believed Francis and her husband, Eric, would be a “perfect solution” to a seemingly intractable problem.
“As a dad, it was fight or flight,” Harris told KTHV in an interview. “The whole way through, we thought everything was perfect. We checked on them, took them to the doctor.”
There is no question, however, that it became a perfect nightmare.
While caring for the two girls, Eric Francis was employed briefly at Growing God’s Kingdom, the Christian day-care owned by Harris. But by January 2014, Francis had been fired for “poor work attendance,” the Arkansas Times said.
One day that same month, with Stacey Francis out of town, Eric Francis acted. By then, the 4-year old girl Harris had adopted and then given away was 6.
Months later, the Francises transferred the girls to yet another family. Police only learned that Eric Francis had raped the girl because of an anonymous tip. In November, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Years ago, no states had explicit prohibitions against rehoming. But recently, Wisconsin, Colorado, Florida and Louisiana have passed laws addressing the practice.
Startled by the Harris case, Arkansas could be next. In the last week alone, lawmakers have filed two bills seeking to outlaw the practice, according to KTHV.
It is a good step, advocates say, that could help protect some of the most vulnerable children and underscore the importance of preparing families for the challenges of foster children before adoption.
“This is not the norm in adoption; most families do well,” said Megan Lestino of the National Council for Adoption.
There are times when families are unable to cope with the challenges of caring for children adopted through the foster system. But typically, those cases should involve family services officials and a judge who makes the final decision about custody of the child, Lestino said.
“In reality, when they are doing it in these illegal ways, what it is is child abandonment and neglect,” Lestino said.