This week, the Arkansas Times broke a tragic story about a sexually abused 6-year-old girl. The most horrifying element of this story is how the girl came to be living with the man who molested her, rather than with the family of the three-term Arkansas state legislator who had legally adopted her.
The facts, as we know them:
The girl and her sisters, who were 8 and 3, were wards of the state of Arkansas. They were in foster care when their natural parents’ parental rights were terminated. In September 2012, the Department of Human Services (DHS) placed the three girls in the home of Justin and Marsha Harris for adoption. Justin Harris is a third-term Republican state representative here in Arkansas. He sits on multiple legislative committees that oversee matters pertaining to children. He also runs an overtly Christian preschool that is unconstitutionally funded with government money.
The oldest girl stayed in the Harrises’ home for just a few weeks before DHS moved her elsewhere. It was obvious that the Harrises’ home was not the right placement for her. The Harrises did eventually adopted the two younger girls.
Then, around October 2013 – just a year after the girls had come to live with them – the Harrises “rehomed” the girls, who they claim were a danger to their family. Eventually, in March 2014, someone called in an anonymous complaint to the Child Abuse Hotline to report that the the girls were no longer in the Harris home. During DHS’s investigation of that complaint, the Harrises’ adopted 6-year-old daughter, by then living with yet another family, revealed that she was touched inappropriately by the man the Harrises had given her to.
When the perpetrator was arrested, Justin Harris made public statements about how tragic it was that any child had gone through such trauma. He never admitted that the victim was his own daughter, or that Harris himself had given her to the man who abused her. Until the anonymous complaint, no one had notified DHS that these little girls were no longer living with the Harrises, who, as their adoptive parents, were receiving a cash subsidy for their support.
Because they were foster children, we can assume that these girls were removed from their biological parents by the state because of neglect or abuse. According to the Arkansas Times story, the 6-year-old had been sexually abused by someone before she was ever placed in the Harris home. The story doesn’t reveal whether this sexual abuse was the reason for the children’s natural parents losing custody, or whether it might have happened while she was in foster care. In all likelihood, that information was not available or ascertainable by the Times reporter, because the records of juvenile courts pertaining to child abuse and neglect cases and adoption records are sealed.
When children are placed for adoption, Arkansas law requires that the adoption not be finalized until the children have been in the adoptive home for at least six months. Typically, if there is no guardianship in place, the court issues a temporary order of adoption when the children are first placed in the adoptive home.
The state might never have known but for a call to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline in March 2014. DHS apparently investigated the abandonment by going to the older child’s school and interviewing her. The child revealed that the caller had told the truth, and that Eric Francis, the man the Harrises had given her to, had molested her. Francis confessed. The molestation had happened in January 2014.
It’s sickening that this little girl was abused, spent time in foster care, was adopted, was abandoned by her adoptive parents, was again molested by the man her adoptive parents gave her to, and was then put in yet another home. It’s horrifying that the abandonment and sexual abuse and second rehoming happened without the knowledge of DHS.
This triggers the juvenile lawyer in me.
I practiced juvenile law for more than 15 years. I saw a lot of abused and chronically neglected kids get adopted into new families. When their existing foster parents adopted them, I wasn’t worried about them nearly as much as when new families adopted them.
In defense of families who give up on children
Children who have been abused have so many emotional and behavioral problems that it takes a special family to take them in. It takes really special – and dedicated – adoptive parents to deal with all the therapy appointments, crises, acting out, insecurities, and everything else that goes along with the trauma of severe child abuse and neglect. And face it: if the abuse and neglect weren’t severe and chronic, those kids wouldn’t be in a position to be adopted.
It’s hard enough if the parent has bonded with an abused child since birth and has shared the joys of the child’s development and personality as well as the despair of something this devastating. It’s much harder to remain committed to a child with whom the parent does not have a strong bond. And it’s harder still when, because of a serious case of reactive attachment disorder, any bond between the parent and child is tenuous and volatile. In my experience, attachment disorder is tragically common in foster children and abused children.
New adoptive parents who think they can manage when they’ve only known a child for a few months have no idea what they’re getting into. The honeymoon period is real; problems may be ignored or minimized because they think the child “just needs time to adjust.” Nope. Those problems aren’t going anywhere, at least not without a lot of seriously intensive help. And truthfully, no matter how young the child was at the time of the abuse or neglect, the trauma from it lingers for a lifetime.
What’s worse, when that six month period between the court orders for the temporary and final adoption nears its end, the new adoptive parents are completely stressed out and exhausted. They don’t have an attachment disorder so they feel committed to the child, who they may not ever be able to handle. Saying no to a clearly troubled child is devastating for well-meaning and deeply compassionate people, especially when there’s an encouraging DHS caseworker standing in the wings, promising that things will improve.
There comes a point at which foster parents and adoptive parents break. Maybe it comes when their natural child is abused by the adoptee. Maybe it comes when the child sets a fire or when the parent wakes up to find the adoptee wielding a knife in a darkened bedroom with mayhem clearly on her mind. Maybe it’s when the family dog is bludgeoned to death. Maybe it’s when feces get smeared all over the walls and furniture. In the worst cases, these kids are so disturbed that they end up institutionalized. (Newsflash: There’s not a lot of love or nurture in a long-term mental institution. They don’t come out “fixed.”) In his prepared statement yesterday, Rep. Harris said that his family was in danger from these two little girls. Even at the ages of 4 and 6, that might well have been true.
What to do when adoptions go wrong
I have no doubt that the Harrises meant well when they adopted these children. The problem isn’t that they wanted to adopt. I’m sure they had every intention of giving these children their “forever” home. The problem is that when the adoption went south, they passed already-traumatized children off to non-professionals who had not been vetted. The Harrises had no way of knowing whether the new home would meet the needs of children whose needs the Harrises apparently could not meet. Without the help of the state, it’s highly unlikely that the severe emotional issues of these children – issues that caused the Harris adoption to fail – could get addressed adequately.
I won’t condemn the Harrises for giving up on a pair of seriously troubled children. I’ve worked with these kinds of kids and their natural, foster, and adoptive families. I’ve seen how tough it can be to live with a deeply disturbed child. It’s can be emotionally and physically draining for the parents and completely disruptive to other children already in the home. Not everyone can or should take on such a situation. When they realize the situation is beyond them, the potential adoptive parents should throw in the towel – it’s best for the child and for themselves. So, no, I don’t condemn the Harrises for deciding that these children shouldn’t live in their home.
When a situation with a child gets that bad, though, there are avenues for relief. The first thing parents can do is seek medical intervention for the child. This kind of help includes mental health treatment, therapy, and even institutional treatment. If the parents can’t afford the medical or mental health treatment, they can tap the resources of the state.
Arkansas juvenile law allows parents of troubled children to file a petition with the court to claim status as a “Family in Need of Services” (FINS). Even with no resources of their own or only modest ones, families can ask the state for assistance with therapy, treatment, and even temporary foster care for their troubled children. By saying formally that they can’t cope with their child’s problems alone, they are not deemed bad parents. Parents who avail themselves of the state’s resources are not abandoning their children, even if a judge decides that the child should be removed from their home – and even if the parent asks the court to remove the child from the home for the safety of one or more other family members. When parents have to choose which of their children to protect, they need the help of the system.
With a FINS action, the parent can ask that the state take custody of the child. There are special foster homes that are specifically trained to provide therapeutic foster care to seriously troubled children who disrupt from regular homes. The Harrises could have availed themselves of such training had they been serious about keeping the girls in their home, too.
When problems arise with adopted children, adoptive parents are encouraged to get help directly from DHS. “[I]f you’re having difficulties or troubles with a child you adopted from us, reach out to us, we have resources that can help families,” said DHS spokesperson Amy Webb when asked about the situation.
There were services the Harrises could have tapped to get help, and when all else failed, the children could have gone back into the foster care system. While they might have had more disruptions and uncertainty there, as wards of the state they at least would have had a caseworker who was ultimately responsible for seeing that they were safe and had the treatment, education, and basic requirements of living in a non-abusive environment.
If it looks like abuse, sounds like abuse, and smells like abuse
Children aren’t pets. Responsible parents – natural or adoptive – don’t just give them away when they become inconvenient, and parents don’t surrender their parental rights or responsibilities when they park their troubled kids with someone else.
According to the statement the Harrises’ attorney issued yesterday, they apparently felt that they could not seek any help for the children:
Due to threats of possible abandonment charges, they were unable to reach out to [the Arkansas Department of Human Services] for help with children who presented a serious risk of harm to other children in their home. Upon the advice of both a psychiatrist and a pediatrician, they were forced to move the children to the home of trusted friends, who had a lot of experience with children with reactive attachment disorder. Rep. and Mrs. Harris are devastated about the outcome of that decision, but faced with no good option, they did the best that they knew how.
This statement raised more questions than it answered.
Presumably Rep. Harris had some clue as to how the law in this area works – he is vice-chairman of the state House Committee that oversees matters pertaining to youth and children, after all.
Why didn’t the Harrises make sure that these children, at least one of whom had already been severely abused, were able to get the services they needed in a stable and loving home? Giving them away to another family – one that had not been vetted and made perfectly aware of the needs of these children by professionals and not merely by a pair of frustrated and overwrought adoptive parents – is abuse and neglect in and of itself. They packed one trauma on top of another when they gave these kids away to be rehomed. They set the children up for the abuse that was to follow.
Furthermore, what they did clearly constitutes child abandonment. “Rehoming” happens a lot, even to children who aren’t adopted. Think of the children who live with grandparents or other relatives because their parents are not able or willing to take care of them. There is no state involvement unless the new custodian goes to court to get guardianship.
Rehoming is often very informal. The people who acquire possession of a child this way don’t have legal rights. Without legal guardianship, they have at most a power of attorney from the legal parents or guardians, and they don’t usually even have that. This means the person who the child lives with is not legally able to consent to medical care, can’t enroll the children in school, and can’t apply for government benefits for the children.
Questions needing straight answers
But these aren’t the only questions that demand answers. Michael Cook at Talk Business and Politics has a long list. I agree with each and every question he’s asked, and want to add a few more:
- Were Justin and Marsha Harris trained as a therapeutic placement for seriously disturbed children?
- Did the Harrises ever consider residential treatment for these girls? If so, why didn’t it happen? If not, why not?
- Who was the “head of DHS” who told the Harrises that abandonment charges would be pursued against them if they tried to dissolve the adoption?
- Were Eric and Stacey Francis trained as therapeutic foster parents?
- Did the Harrises give the Francises power of attorney to take care of the girls’ medical, financial, and educational needs?
- Did anyone ever talk to the Harrises about a FINS petition?
When he spoke briefly with the press without making a statement yesterday, Harris understandably looked strained and upset. I have no doubt that he and his wife are heartbroken over the way the adoption unfolded, not to mention traumatized the negative publicity swirling around them now.
Screen grab from video posted on KATV
At his press conference this afternoon, a clearly emotional Harris described a hellish situation. If pets are being tortured and killed and the rest of the family has to sleep barricaded away from the adopted children, there are obviously very serious problems. The Harrises’ home may not have been a suitable placement for those children.
But I find it difficult to believe that the “head of DHS” threatened to file abandonment charges against him and his wife if they gave the children back, despite the fact that the therapist, psychiatrist and pediatrician all recommended that the children be removed. DHS definitely does ask the courts to dissolve adoptions when all else fails.
I practiced juvenile law for 15 years before I threw in the towel myself, burned out and discouraged at the horrible things people did to their children and the unresponsiveness of the state agency tasked with protecting children. I know that DHS caseworkers routinely dole out threats and misinformation to people who need help. DHS is rarely held accountable for failing the people it is supposed to protect and serve.
There is more to this story. It all needs to come out. It’s not going to be easy for the Harrises. It may not make them look very good, but my guess is that DHS won’t look very clean, either. No one is going to “win” this investigation.
But wait – there’s more
For abandoning troubled children into the questionable care of others, both Harrises should investigated for child neglect – and that investigation should not be done by DHS. No agency is capable of policing itself.
If Justin and Marsha Harris neglected and abandoned their adopted daughters, they should be listed in the Child Maltreatment Central Registry, which lists people who have been found to have committed child abuse and/or child neglect. I’ve represented parents who have been listed in the registry and had their other children removed from their custody for less.
Listing them in that registry would disqualify them from operating a daycare or preschool. No more state funds would go to support that patently religious institution run by a state legislator, something that is entirely unconstitutional to begin with. Another problem solved.
Furthermore, Justin and Marsha Harris must be forthcoming with proof that they forwarded the adoption subsidy to the girls’ actual caretakers. The subsidy is taxpayer money intended to get treatment and assistance for children whose natural parents have already abused and/or neglected them to the point of getting their parental rights terminated. If someone other than their caretakers was getting the government assistance intended to address these children’s emotional, physical, developmental, and medical needs, that’s fraud.
I’m no fan of Justin Harris. He’s a hyper-religious Republican who ignores separation of church and state with great abandon, something that deeply offends me. But in this situation, I’m not ready to condemn him or his wife. I’ve seen the ugly side of an uncooperative DHS too many times over the years to disbelieve their version of events entirely.
Investigative journalism is the bedrock of democracy
Investigative journalism is an important and necessary way to get things like this addressed properly. Benji Hardy, with help from Leslie Newell Peacock, has done a fantastic job of exposing this rot. Had Justin and Marsha Harris been more forthcoming about the situation when the press asked, there might be a bellowing call for investigation of DHS right now instead of the pillorying the Harrises are getting in the national press. DHS’s shortcomings are in dire need of exposure, because they are outrageous. DHS has more power to ruin lives than just about any other state agency, and they do it regularly.
When we allow the decline of print media, we forget that excellent journalists like Benji Hardy keep our government and our elected officials accountable. If you live in Arkansas but don’t subscribe to the Arkansas Times, change that. This weekly paper has some of the best, most astute, and well-seasoned serious journalists in the state working for it. Don’t ever dismiss it as just restaurant reviews and a calendar of community events.
And about that First Amendment – without it, articles like this one might never see the light of day. I maintain it is the best, most essential, and most humane of all the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. All of the others flow from it.