Governor expands on interest in adoption issues

Date: 2015-03-05

By Max Brantley

Gov. Asa Hutchinson elaborated today on a statement yesterday responding to the Arkansas Times reporting about the adoption of children by Rep. Justin Harris, his "rehoming" of them with another family and the subsequent rape of one child at the new home.

The governor's statement:

“I have previously instructed the Department of Human Services to review the practice of ‘rehoming’ and recommend changes with the best interest of the child foremost in mind. In addition, I have met with Rep. Greg Leding and Rep. David Meeks to discuss their legislation and additional ideas to reform our adoption procedures so that our children have the greatest opportunity for a safe, loving and secure home.

“There are legitimate concerns brought forth by the recent story in the media. And the public policy issues pertaining to it should be addressed as soon as possible. Our children deserve nothing less than our full attention and utmost care.”

Hutchinson and staff appear genuinely interested, though the continuing discussion will inevitably come with some discomfort for a Republican legislator.

Leding has proposed a bill to prohibit "rehoming" except to another family member. Once adopted, a child may be turned over to adoption by another family, with cursory court approval, unlike the lengthy process that normally applies to those adopting children who are wards of the state, as Harris did.

Hutchinson's reference to Meeks legislation is likely a reference to HB 1676, which, like Leding's bill, prohibits "rehoming" except with a relative. It is not, as I'd written incorrectly, a reference to HB 1624. Its aim covers similar territory. It is to increase protections for children in dependency neglect cases; to keep siblings in foster care together and to provide authorities with better tools for resolving such cases.

I hope the process of review includes a move toward greater accountability. The understandable shield of children's privacy interests has so far prevented even a timeline review of the Harris adoption. Did the family, for example, go through the six-month trial period that normally tests the suitability of an adoptive home? Would departmental communication reflect any political influence in the Harris adoption? What did department officials know about Harris' decision to remove the children from his own home? Harris has now confirmed to the Democrat-Gazette that he continued to receive adoption subsidy payments from the state after the children were no longer in his care. He says he gave the money to the next family to support the children. Did the state then, or since, check the use of that money?

Harris has not talked to us. He did tell the Democrat-Gazette that he'd meant the best for children from a difficult family situation but had been unable to cope with their behavior. Given the secrecy of child adoption matters, his is the only account so far.

But, it is not necessarily any reflection on Harris' good intentions to note these were children who'd been removed from a problem birth home and then moved from a foster home to the Harris' care, before being shipped to a sex abuser's home and, now, a family that reports to the Times they are making good progress.

Children from particularly difficult backgrounds — such as victims of sexual abuse — are often placed in therapeutic settings, that is, with families trained for special needs. We don't yet know if such a circumstance applied in the Harris case. But these are the sorts of questions that demand state accountability. They might even prove a measure of defense for someone, such as Harris, who found themselves in a situation with which they had difficulty coping. Perhaps the state hadn't adequately prepared him.

Harris has shut down his Twitter and Instagram accounts since the story broke. He's made no public posts on his Facebook page where he's sometimes been prolific. But people who participate in a community bulletin board in his home of West Fork say he posted the following message there today:

"Facts are still being gathered, but there will be a press conference before 4 p.m., tomorrow. Thank you for being patient with Marsha and I."

We'll try to be there if notified.

Harris had promised an interview today with KATV today after the House adjourned, but he wasn't present for some House action and he didn't meet with KATV as he said he would. The station reported at 6 that Harris had been meeting with a pubic relations firm.

PLEASE NOTE: The man serving a 40-year sentence for raping the child Harris had adopted is named Eric Francis. We can't repeat it often enough, but he is not, nor is he any relation, to Eric Francis, the Little Rock journalist who's well known in media circles here and has frequently contributed to the Arkansas Times.


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