A child left unprotected

Date: 2013-03-05
Source: arktimes.com

State Rep. Justin Harris and his wife adopted a young girl through the state Department of Human Services. How did she, six months later, end up in the care of a man who sexually abused her?

By Benjamin Hardy

On April 4, 2014, a 38-year-old resident of Bella Vista named Eric Cameron Francis was arrested by the Arkansas State Police for the rape of a 6-year-old girl in what the police said was his temporary care. Sexual crimes against children always attract a certain horrified attention, but this particular case earned additional scrutiny because Francis had recently worked as head teacher at a Christian preschool in West Fork owned by state Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) and his wife, Marsha.

Harris, who said he was "devastated and sickened" by news of the abuse, told the Arkansas Times in April 2014 that Francis had been in his employ only about three months, from November 2013 to January 2014, before being fired for poor work attendance.

"He came with a pristine record," Harris said at the time, noting that Francis was also a youth pastor at a church and had worked previously in early childhood education for the Bentonville School District and with a Head Start program. Harris added that he was confident nothing had happened to any of the children at Growing God's Kingdom Preschool, because of strict security protocols (the classroom contains a continuously operating camera that generates a permanent record). Indeed, no further charges against Francis resulted from subsequent State Police interviews of families at the preschool, although investigators uncovered at least two other incidents of sexual abuse of children in the community outside of the school. In November, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison on a negotiated plea.

What Harris did not publicly disclose last spring, however, is how Francis came into contact with the 6-year-old victim. In prosecutor documents recently obtained by the Arkansas Times, state police investigators and multiple witnesses concur that the child was in fact the legally adopted daughter of Justin and Marsha Harris.

The Harrises had adopted the girl and her 3-year-old sister through the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS). The couple also has three biological sons who are older than the girls. Pictures of the girls appeared on Justin Harris' social media accounts in early 2013 (the images have since been deleted), and Harris announced on Twitter and Facebook on March 6, 2013, that the couple had officially adopted the girls. Because DHS adoptions require an in-home trial period of at least six months prior to papers being signed, the girls likely entered the home no later than September 2012.

And then, something evidently went amiss in the household. For unknown reasons, about six months after the adoption was finalized, the Harrises sent the two girls to live with Eric Francis and his family in Bella Vista.

According to an Arkansas State Police investigative report prepared by Sgt. Kimberly A. Warren dated April 3, 2014, she contacted Crimes Against Children Division Supervisor Terri Ward who advised that "Mr. and Mrs. Harris placed the girls into the care of Eric Francis and his wife Stacy [sic] Francis in October 2013." The report further states that "It was later reported to the Department of Human Services that Mr. and Mrs. Harris had left the children with another family and had basically abandoned them. This incident was reported to the child abuse hotline and the children were interviewed."

After her husband's arrest, Stacey Francis told a state police investigator that she and Eric "met [the girls] through friends of theirs, Justin and Marsha Harris, who were looking for a new adoption plan for themselves ... Stacey Francis reported that she and Eric Francis brought [the girls] into their home with the hopes of being able to adopt them." The Francises already had three older children — two girls and a boy — who were adopted internationally. Stacey Francis said the Harris girls stayed with her and Eric "until February or March of 2014." That means the Harrises left the girls with Eric Francis and his wife even after firing him.

The sexual abuse of the 6-year-old girl came to light only because of a call placed to the state's child maltreatment hotline on Friday, March 28, from an unidentified caller who said the Harrises "gave their adoptive children to a family" and "that family in turn gave the children to another family" and that they had "continued to accept adoption subsidy money even after giving the children away." Investigators evidently determined that this third home was a safe place for the girls because they remain there today.

Arkansas's child maltreatment hotline is operated by the Crimes Against Children Division (CACD), a semiautonomous arm of the State Police tasked with performing the sensitive and highly confidential work involved in cases of child abuse and neglect. When the CACD needs additional resources, however, it can also draw upon the assistance of the State Police's Criminal Investigation Division (CID).

"On the afternoon of March 28, 2014, the CID was asked by the commander of the Crimes Against Children Division to assist in determining where two minor age children might be, who had been adopted," said Bill Sadler, spokesman for the State Police. "By sometime late in the afternoon, CID had told CACD that the girls were accounted for — at the home of a family who appeared not to be the custodial parents of the girls." By the morning of Monday, March 31, the prosecutor documents indicate, the girls were interviewed by a CACD agent. During this interview, the 6-year-old disclosed the abuse by Francis, which Francis later told police occurred sometime in January 2014, while his wife was out of state.

Although the hotline caller alleged that Justin and Marsha Harris had given away their adopted children, no criminal charges were brought against them, according to Sadler.

If some readers are startled to learn that it's legal for adoptive parents to give their children to another family, they're in good company. As the State Police investigation unfolded last spring, one person kept apprised of its progress was then-Gov. Mike Beebe. Matt DeCample, Beebe's former spokesperson, said the governor was surprised as anyone to hear about the practice of "rehoming," as it's called in the adoption world. (DeCample said it was common practice for the State Police to alert the governor's office whenever it discovered a state elected official had an ancillary connection to a criminal investigation.)

"As we were briefed on the State Police investigation into Mr. Francis and the circumstances around that case, none of us in the office, including the governor, had ever dealt with the rehousing of children who had been adopted through DHS," DeCample recalled. "It's not something that had ever come up before, and, frankly, we didn't know that it was something that could happen, or why it would ever happen.

"The governor asked some of our legal folks to look at how that was legally possible in the state — or at least why there wasn't anything preventing it from happening. And everything we got back said there was not anything definitive in Arkansas Code prohibiting such an activity."

In February, the Arkansas Times asked Rep. Harris to comment on the case and explain what became of the girls he and his wife had adopted. He refused, and stated that the Times was attempting to "smear" him. "It's evil," he said, becoming visibly upset.

When asked whether he rehomed his adoptive children with another family, he replied, "I'm not confirming that." When asked about the statements made in the State Police report in the Francis case, Harris said he hadn't read the file because of the disturbing descriptions of sexual abuse that they contain.

Harris then quoted Isaiah 54:17: "No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you."

"You don't know what we've been through this past year. You have no idea what my family has been through," he said emphatically. "I don't care what the people of Arkansas think about me. I don't care if I lose my position. I care what my wife thinks about me, and I care what my three sons think about me."

Overcome with emotion, he then turned and walked away. Harris has not responded to repeated requests for further comment, even again this week when advised this story would be published.

'It's just nuts'
DHS spokesperson Amy Webb said the agency cannot comment on any specific adoption. Almost all records relating to foster care, adoption or child maltreatment are closed to the public under state law. However, she said the agency was aware of nine instances of rehoming that have occurred in Arkansas in the past two years. In some cases, the adoptive parents gave the children to families they barely knew. Webb acknowledged that the real number could be higher, since rehoming is by definition something that takes place off the state's radar. (DHS learned of the nine cases through the families themselves or by word of mouth.)

"Even a few cases are concerning to us because the families do not go through the vetting process before caring for the children," she said. "If we hear of a situation in which there was rehoming, we will reach out to families. It's not something we want to see happen."

Rehoming is a national issue. In 2013, a Reuters investigative series titled "The Child Exchange" drew attention to Internet forums in which parents sought to give away unwanted adopted children to complete strangers. Kids adopted from overseas are especially at risk: Stories abound of overwhelmed American families struggling to deal with Russian and Eastern European orphans with mental health issues, extreme behavioral problems and sometimes destructive or violent tendencies.

Sometimes the families on the receiving end of such transactions turn out to be good parents seeking an easy alternative to the expense and bureaucracy of legal adoption; sometimes they turn out to be abusive or predatory. Reuters uncovered harrowing stories of kids passed between homes like unwanted puppies, of pedophiles effectively shopping for children online, of prospective parents whose backgrounds bristled with red flags but were never remotely vetted by any authority. In most states, with a simple power of attorney document, a child's guardian can delegate temporary parental responsibility to another adult.

"We've got to protect these kids! It's just nuts!" Joe Kroll, the executive director of the Minnesota-based North American Council on Adoptable Children, said. Last summer, he testified before the U.S. Senate on the need for a federal law to address rehoming.

"The bottom line is, two things," Kroll told the Times. "One, there should never be a transfer of custody of a child from one family to another — who are strangers; we're not talking about relatives here — without a court being involved. That's just the absolute bottom line. The second thing is, it should not occur without background checks and some preparation for the family."

Adopting a child through DHS is no small task for prospective parents. It typically involves six months' worth of various background checks and training. "We do home visits, home studies, and it's just a full and thorough vetting process," Webb said.

If the parents pass muster, DHS will then place the children in the potential adoptive home for a period that lasts at least another six months. "It's basically kind of a trial, to make sure it works for everybody. We like to make sure it's the right fit for the kid, the right fit for the family, because we want it to last long term. And, of course, there's also court supervision all along the way. ... There's a [DHS] caseworker for the family and the kid, and there's an attorney ad litem who's representing the kid." Eventually, if everything goes smoothly, the adoption is finalized by a judge.

"It's very thorough and extensive on the front end, and quite frankly we have some people complain," Webb continued, "but the reason is that we want to make sure that these families provide stable, loving homes for these kids, and we're going to take our time to do that."

Once the adoption is complete, DHS and the courts step out of the picture almost completely in regard to oversight. In the eyes of the state, adopted parents should be treated essentially the same as biological parents. "We want these families to go out and live and be real families like anybody else," she said. "We want those kids to have a sense of normalcy, and if they're having to visit a DHS caseworker every week, that's not normalcy."

But in the case of some adopted families, there are two ways that the state does remain involved. The first is subsidies. One of the sad realities of adoption is that some types of children are more in demand than others, so the state incentivizes, for example, the adoption of kids with physical disabilities. Families tend to want babies, so parents receive a subsidy for children who are 9 years or older. Then there's the racial dimension: Children of color who are 2 years or older come with a subsidy. DHS also subsidizes the adoption of sibling groups and kids with special emotional needs.

Because DHS can't comment on any particular case, it's impossible to know for certain whether the Harrises received a subsidy for their children, but it's likely. The girls in question were adopted as siblings, and the prosecutor documents indicate at least one of the girls had significant behavioral problems stemming from past trauma. According to the CACD interview, the 6-year-old said she was sexually abused by someone in her biological family before entering the foster system.

(In that same interview, the girl also indicated she was unhappy in the Harris home. A CACD agent writes, "She said she had to stay in her room; she said she had her books, but then they took away her books and she had nothing in there, just her bed. When asked why she had to move away from Marsha's house, [the girl] said 'because I didn't like it.' ")

Webb said the pre-adoption training provided by DHS includes specialized instructions "on how to deal with children who have experienced trauma." The agency wants families to know what they're getting into when they adopt a child with a difficult past. "When that family is going through the adoption process, one of the things we do is make them fully aware of that kid's history ... the trauma they've experienced, any special needs they might have or special concerns," she said.

The second way that DHS may become involved with a family post-adoption is if the parents are in need of help coping with a child's behavior. "There can be situations where down the road, the families go, 'This is not working,' " Webb said. "Maybe it's a kid who's had behavioral issues and they've tried everything they can think of to address it. Or maybe they have concerns about protecting other kids in the home, and they just feel like they can't protect those kids from one of the adopted kids."

In such cases, the family can ask DHS for a hand, Webb said. "We can intervene in a number of ways — do they need respite on the weekends? Does the kid really need some inpatient psych services, or additional therapy?

"If none of that works, then they can come to us and say, 'We have exhausted all of our available resources. Please, help us. We cannot take care of this child.' And we will take that child back into custody if the family has exhausted all available resources, and we will do that without any repercussions for the family." (What exactly constitutes "exhausting all available resources" would be a question for a judge to answer, Webb said.)

It is quite rare for an adoption to be dissolved after a family obtains full custody of a child. DHS facilitated 4,055 adoptions in the state between July 1, 2006, and June 30, 2013. Among those, only 67 children were returned to foster care — that is, 1.65 percent of the total. Those figures are consistent with national estimates. A 2012 fact sheet published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that "studies consistently report that only a small percentage of completed adoptions dissolve — probably between 1 and 5 percent."

The document also notes a variety of risk factors that increase the likelihood of a failed adoption, ranging from the age of the child to unrealistic expectations on the part of adoptive parents to inadequate parental preparation on the part of the agency. Perhaps the single biggest predictor is past trauma: "Children who had experienced sexual or emotional abuse had the highest rates of disruption."

Webb said DHS sees dissolution as a last resort, but adoptive parents are made aware that it's a possibility. "Families who adopted from us would know that if they were having troubles, we want them to contact us. ... It's clear that they know there are options."

This is one of the most puzzling aspects of the Harris case: Why didn't Justin and Marsha Harris ask DHS to take the children back into custody? With international adoptions, parents often have nowhere to turn after the adoption is complete — thus, for example, the infamous 2010 incident in which a Tennessee woman placed her 7-year-old Russian adopted son on a plane back to Moscow with a letter in hand declaring she was terminating custody of the child. Most rehoming takes place in the context of adoptions performed through private agencies; unlike those parents, families who adopt through DHS have an official emergency exit.

"That makes no sense whatsoever," Kroll said when the facts of the Harris case were described. "I really haven't heard a lot of those kinds of situations. ... Usually, if you adopt a kid from the state with special needs, what you're going to do is go back to the state. You have somewhere to go back to. If you work with some private adoption agency overseas, once the child comes to you, they're done with you. They're not going to give you any support. But with a state agency, you should be getting support.

"I hope they stopped getting the state subsidy when they transferred those kids."

This, too, is a question that can't be answered by DHS in specific terms. However, in August 2014, the agency began requiring those families receiving subsidies to sign off on this statement: "I (we) will not under any circumstances re-home my adopted child/children."

The definition of abandonment
Child maltreatment investigators sit at the intersection of social services and state criminal law. Although the State Police operate the child abuse hotline, it's DHS that maintains the central registry archiving the findings of the CACD investigation that follows any allegation of child maltreatment. Reports made to the hotline are determined to be either true or unsubstantiated, and this data is an essential part of background checks used for employment, professional licensing and other purposes. If one works with children, one's name is checked against the central registry as a matter of course.

Although rehoming a child may not be a criminal offense, it could still potentially constitute a civil offense with serious consequences: child abandonment. The original call to the hotline that triggered the investigation is specifically noted as an "abandonment" referral. So what became of that claim?

"We're in a situation where I can't confirm or deny if we were involved in a case or not," Webb said. "What I can tell you is that in order for an allegation to be determined true, it would have to meet the letter of the law as the law defines it. ... If it were an allegation of abandonment, it would have to fit within the abandonment law in order for us to find that true."

Arkansas Code 12-18-103 states the definition of "abandonment" as follows: "[T]he failure of a parent to provide reasonable support and to maintain regular contact with a child through statement or contact when the failure is accompanied by an intention on the part of the parent to permit the condition to continue for an indefinite period in the future or the failure of a parent to support or maintain regular contact with a child without just cause; or an articulated intent to forego parental responsibility."

"Essentially, in layman's term, abandonment would be providing no care or support for the children," Webb said. If a mother sends a child to Moscow with a note announcing her intent to terminate custody, that's clearly abandonment. However, what if a family gives their adopted children to someone else yet continues to pay for some or all of their care?

"Financial support is support," Webb replied. "There is some case law and precedent on that." In a later email, she said that none of the nine recent cases of rehoming known to the state resulted in a true finding of abandonment.

As mentioned previously, only 67 out of over 4,000 DHS adoptions from 2006 to 2013 resulted in a child being returned to the foster system. That number includes both parents attempting to terminate their adoption, and other situations: illness, abuse or neglect and so on. Of those 67 cases, 11 were considered "abandonment."

So why did the Harrises rehome their children rather than attempt to dissolve their adoption through DHS? For one thing, it appears rehoming brings little risk of either civil or criminal penalty; it can be performed quickly and quietly. Meanwhile, recall that DHS will take a child back into its custody with no repercussions for the adoptive parent if and only if they have "exhausted all resources" to the satisfaction of a judge. To dissolve an adoption through DHS can take some time, Webb acknowledged, because "we want to try to work with the family to make it work."

Perhaps, in a tragic miscalculation, the Harrises felt the girls would be better off living with a family known to them rather than being returned to the foster system. Marsha Harris, according to social media posts from Justin Harris, was ill around this time — did that factor in? And Justin Harris has had a prickly relationship with DHS in the past.

In late 2011, he tangled with the agency over overtly Christian practices at Growing God's Kingdom, which receives public funding under the Arkansas Better Chance program. At the request of an organization promoting separation of church and state, a DHS inspector investigated whether the preschool was using taxpayer money to teach a Christian curriculum; she found regularly scheduled Bible study in most classrooms, scripture posted on the walls and children singing "Jesus Loves Me." Around the same time, Harris tweeted that Webb was "giving out false info to the press."

It must also be noted that Harris, as a legislator, has direct influence over the DHS budget. He serves on the Joint Budget Committee, which oversees all appropriations for state agencies. He also serves on the influential House Education Committee and is the vice-chair of the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth.

Other questions remain. Who originally called the hotline, and how did he or she know about the issue? Why were the children moved to a third family sometime in February or March — that is, before the call to the hotline was made — and was this a choice made by the Harrises? Did the Harrises give all or part of any state subsidy that they may have continued to receive to the Francises or to the third family?

None of the people who know the answers to these questions are forthcoming. Stacey Francis divorced her husband in August 2014; she has changed her name and moved out of state. When contacted by the Times, she declined a request for an interview, as did another witness cited in the prosecutor file who was familiar with the Francis family.

When this reporter recently attempted to interview Eric Francis at the Benton County Jail, he said he had no interest in talking about the past. "Everyone made mistakes before this all blew up, and I obviously made the biggest mistake," Francis said. He said he originally met the Harrises through Stacey, who attended high school with Marsha Harris: "My ex knew them better than I did." Francis also confirmed that DHS was not officially informed when the Harrises transferred the girls to his home in Bella Vista in October 2013.

"I've got to move on with my life," he said through the reinforced glass, clad in stripes. "I'm sorry, but that's all I'm going to say."

Perhaps no function of state government is more potentially fraught, subjective and morally complex than the child welfare system. The patchy safety net woven by DHS workers and CACD investigators is stretched across an impossibly wide chasm, between the statutory obligations of state bureaucracy and the most intimate and idiosyncratic of human relationships: those of parents and their children. There are sincere dilemmas contained in balancing our collective moral responsibility toward protecting children with the privacy of families to raise their kids — adopted and otherwise — with minimal intrusion.

Yet rehoming is an example of a genuine flaw in the system. In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a memorandum to state social service agencies (including DHS) that cited the Reuters investigation.

"Parents have a legal responsibility to protect and care for their children," the memo said. "Delegating responsibility for a child to an unfit and unsafe individual through a power of attorney does not insulate parents from state laws regarding imminent risk of serious harm. ... We encourage states to review their laws that govern these areas to ensure that the issues that arise through the practice of rehoming are adequately addressed."

Four states — Wisconsin, Colorado, Florida and Louisiana — have passed laws regarding rehoming. The laws in Wisconsin, Colorado and Florida focus on criminalizing the advertisement of adoptable children, although Wisconsin also requires any family that wishes to transfer custody to a non-relative for more than a year to get court approval. The Louisiana law is the toughest — it requires court approval for transfer of custody to a non-relative for any length of time.

In Arkansas, DHS has taken a first step by adding new language on an adoption form that would allow the agency to stop subsidy payments in cases of rehoming. Marilyn Counts, the state adoption manager for the Division of Child and Family Services within DHS, is spearheading Arkansas's attempts to address the problem. She joined a national workgroup on rehoming in May 2014 and was recently elected to the executive committee of the National Association of State Adoption Managers.

"Even if there is just one [rehoming case] that's a problem; it's atrocious," Counts said. She told the Times that the agency was also considering proposing legislation. "We're at a point where we're studying and looking at the issue, but not at a point where we make a recommendation," she said.

This is a story about how adoption can go wrong. The most fundamental problem facing children in the foster system, however, is not that adoptive parents sometimes do the wrong thing. It's that the kids desperately need good homes. The adoption and foster system depends on the willingness of the right adults to make a lifetime commitment to a child. It's easy to find fault with the actions of the Harrises from a safe remove; it's not so easy to be the right parent.

We can only hope the third family, the one that eventually ended up with the two girls, is the right place for them. After the events of last spring, DHS presumably vetted the home, because the sisters continue to live there with the evident knowledge of the agency. The Times was able to identify and contact the adoptive parents, who declined to be interviewed for this story. The mother did, however, offer one comment.

"I don't like that they took this path to get here, but they are home now, and they are loved and cherished. This is God's plan. They are our daughters. They are precious, precious, amazing girls, and we are so blessed to have them."

Leslie Peacock contributed reporting to this story.


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