Foster family disputes key statements from Justin Harris

Date: 2015-03-07

By Benjamin Hardy

Friday afternoon, Rep. Justin Harris and his wife Marsha held a press conference at the state Capitol to address the revelations in this week's Arkansas Times cover story about their failed adoption, which ended in the "rehoming" of two girls in a household where one of them was sexually abused. As Max Brantley wrote yesterday, it was an emotional statement. But extensive reporting we've done these past few days casts doubt upon crucial points in the narrative Justin Harris delivered Friday.

An experienced foster family that housed the two younger girls for a year and a half prior to their adoption by the Harrises has approached the Times with their story. Craig and Cheryl Hart say, among other things, the adoption was allowed to proceed over the objections of the foster parents and local DHS staff only because the head of the the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Cecile Blucker, exerted pressure on behalf of Justin Harris. DCFS is the arm of DHS responsible for child welfare.

The Harts also say the middle sister — who would have been 4 years old at the time she entered the Harris home in 2012 — was not violent or dangerous. They claim the Harrises were warned repeatedly by themselves and local DHS staff that their home was not a suitable placement for the two girls or their older sister.

The third sister, who would have been about 6 when she entered the Harris home, was fostered at a different household that provided specialized therapeutic care for troubled children. The Harts had some contact with her as well, since DHS would sometimes arrange for the siblings to visit one another. Harris said on Friday the third girl threatened to kill his entire family.

A former DHS employee contacted by the Times confirmed that the Harts were indeed the foster family of the two younger girls (that is, the ones written about in our original story on the Harris case). The Harts provided an "excellent home," said the employee, who is familiar with the details of the Harris adoption.

The Harts told the Times that they had been foster parents for 15 years and housed many children with severe emotional and behavioral problems over the years; they've dealt with about 70 foster children during that time. The Harts formerly lived in Fayetteville, but have since moved out of state. In March 2011, they said, the two younger girls entered their foster home, and the sisters remained there until September 2012, when the Harrises brought them into their household to join the older sister. She had entered the Harris home several months earlier.

Let's take a look at several of the points made by Harris yesterday, both in his press conference and in a later extensive interview with Drew Petrimoulx of KARK. Some of what he said conflicts with accounts given by the Harts and others sources the Times has heard from these past few days. Other statements by Harris are corroborated by our sources.

1) The Harrises weren't told what they were getting into. "We were misled by DHS to believe that the youngest two [sisters] did not have any severe issues," Harris said on Friday.

According to the Harts, those who worked on this adoption case attempted to talk the Harrises out of adopting the girls. A local team of people highly familiar with the case  — including DHS caseworkers, the attorney ad litem and the foster family — felt the Harrises were not prepared to handle girls who had been subject to sexual abuse (especially considering the Harris household contained three young boys — not a good combination). 

"DHS attempted to talk to them about the girls' issues, but I feel like they were in denial," Cheryl said. "They were very defensive about it. 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."

Cheryl said the local team recommended the adoption not proceed. The former DHS employee independently confirmed that this was the case.

"In one meeting in particular, we each went around the room and tried to sort of put all our cards on the table and say why this was a bad idea," Cheryl said. "Everybody used strong terminology and tried to deter them, and [the Harrises] kept saying, 'Yes we know, yes we know.'

"I asked them point blank, 'Why would you put your sons through that?' Because the oldest one at the time was aggressive — that’s how she learned to get things in her life. And they knew [the middle girl] had been sexually assaulted, and she would have some anger issues."

Harris told Petrimoulx yesterday that DHS "fought us the whole way" with the adoption, but it is important to clarify that these objections came from local staff workers familiar with the girls and their needs, and included concrete concerns about the appropriateness of the placement with the Harrises.

2) The murky role of Cecile Blucker, director of Children and Family Services at DHS. DCFS Director Cecile Blucker is the person ultimately in charge of adoption and foster care for the state of Arkansas. Harris said Blucker is the one who informed him of the possibility of an abandonment charge when he and Marsha were struggling to handle the girls. In the interview with Petrimoux, he said "I did go to her and ... we were told we could get the charge of abandonment ... I talked privately, constantly, being on the [House] committee of Children and Youth, with Cecile Blucker."

But the Harts believe Blucker's influence made the adoption happen in the first place. They say she exerted pressure on people in the local DHS team that had previously objected to the Harris adoption.

"In most conversations with us, [Harris] would mention Cecile's name. 'Well, Cecile said this, Cecile said that.' They were impatient for papers to be filed and did not want to wait for anything. They wanted it to happen faster than it did," Cheryl Hart said.

The Times asked the former DHS employee whether the wishes of the local adoption team were not followed because of Blucker. The former employee responded, simply, "True."

The Times also asked DHS spokesperson Amy Webb whether Blucker had ever corresponded with Rep. Harris about influencing the outcome of an adoption proceeding. Webb said she would look into the question and provide us with a response.

By the time the Harris adoption went before a juvenile judge in the summer of 2012, Cheryl said, many on the DHS team had changed their recommendations. "Everyone testifying before the judge had stipulations, like 'to be followed up', 'to continue their therapy at Children's House [a specialized treatment center for abused kids],' but nobody would say, 'We really don't think this is a good idea.'

"And 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 said. "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 soon followed.

DHS can't comment on specific cases, but when the Times previously asked 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 and all that looking at stuff 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."

Harris also indicated yesterday that Blucker also knew about the rehoming: "Cecile Blucker knew where the kids were. They kept up with the kids. I don't know how."

This is quite a statement: Harris is saying the state's top official for Children and Family Services was aware that two children from a background of abuse were sent to live with a family that had not undergone the agency's process for adoption, and yet she did not take any evident action to rectify the situation.

When asked if Blucker had prior knowledge of the rehoming, Webb said the agency could not comment — again, due to the confidentiality of adoption cases.

3) DHS threatened the Harrises with an abandonment charge when they reached out for help. "Despite what you may have read, we reached out to DHS numerous times and were met with nothing but hostility," Harris said on Friday.

This is the heart of the Harrises' defense for rehoming their children, and it's difficult to respond to for two reasons. First, as DHS said yesterday in a statement, they're legally prevented from commenting on details of an adoption. Just as they're shielded by confidentiality, they're also handicapped by it in a situation such as this one. Second, by the time the Harrises were supposedly reaching out to DHS about their troubles, the Harts and others were no longer in touch with the girls. To our knowledge, no one can corroborate what correspondence did or did not occur between the Harrises and DHS other than those two parties themselves.

Harris said to Petrimoulx yesterday that an "informant" at his local DHS office told Marsha Harris that the agency had a vendetta against Harris for his political beliefs. He said, "I hold DHS accountable. We have a lot of constituents who have concerns with foster and adoption care, and I hold DHS accountable. And I'm not sorry for doing it. I'm not sorry for doing it."

Harris' attorney yesterday said that she had been in contact with several other families with similar stories of DHS threatening child maltreatment charges if they attempted to dissolve an adoption that wasn't working. I have myself received two emails from Arkansas parents saying much the same.

"They are not the adoptive parents partner as they portrayed themselves to you for the article," one father wrote. "DHS was aggressively opposed to offering us any assistance or talk of dissolving the adoption." Another adoptive mother said she found Harris' choices "despicable" but told the story of adopting a child whose behavior issues were downplayed and subsequently posed a threat to her family. "We decided we couldn't risk the safety of our other children, so we retained an attorney to see about dissolving the adoption," she said. "Even with an attorney, DHS tried to threaten us with a child maltreatment report if we tried to put her back into the system. ... it was clear that DHS's first move is to threaten people to see if they'll back down."

Such stories are important to note as we try to understand what happened with the Harris case. However, it should also be noted that the extensive vetting process and trial period on the front end of an adoption is in place because adoptions are, generally, supposed to be final. Dissolving one is supposed to be a rare and extraordinary event. That still doesn't mean, of course, that individual situations may have been mishandled by the agency; perhaps the governor's call for a review of DCFS practices can shed light on how widespread such stories are.

4) The two younger girls were violent and posed a danger to the rest of the family.
The Harts acknowledge that the oldest of the three sisters — who was kept in a different foster home from theirs — was a very difficult child, though not to the irredeemable extent that Harris depicted in his statement yesterday. They had occasional contact with her through her therapeutic foster family.

However, they say the younger children were generally well-behaved while in their care, and certainly not violent. The middle sister had suffered past sexual abuse and the trauma of moving from one family to another, and she had special emotional needs — but she wasn't violent, the Harts said.

"If they were violent, 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 said.

Craig Hart was upset at the implication that the girls were unmanageable. "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 yesterday that they had to "medicate" the middle child to prevent her from "hurting her sister." He said the middle girl displayed only affection and kindness towards her younger sister. "They loved each other. The older one was very protective of the younger one."

The Harts also put us in touch with Kyra Guthrie, a Fayetteville resident who sometimes provided respite care for the foster family. "I knew the girls for way 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 threats from them. They played with my adopted son in my home. I have two dogs, and they were also around our neighbors' dogs — never any problem, never any threat. When they'd sleep at my house, I'd sleep with my door wide open. I was never afraid of them."

5) The Harrises had no options for dealing with the girls after the adoption. The Harts say that they wanted to remain involved in the girls' lives, since the girls had grown attached to the Harts. But the Harrises stopped contacting the Harts as soon as the girls were in their home in West Fork.

"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," Craig said. 

"We offered to provide respite care for them, to give them relief, to help out any way that we could because we’d been living with them for a year and a half. They never once called us," Cheryl added.

6) The timeline. "We attempted to make the situation work for two years," Harris said on Friday. But none of the three girls were in his home longer than one year. The younger sisters entered the Harris household in Sept. 2012 and were rehomed with the Francises no later than Oct. 2013. In contrast, the sisters were in the Hart household for about a year and a half: March 2011 to Sept. 2012.

7) The Francises appeared to be good potential adoptive parents, to the best of the Harrises' knowledge.  We have heard nothing that contradicts this point. The Harrises deserve that much benefit of the doubt, at least — the Francis family seems to have had a good record. Marsha Harris had known Stacey Francis for years. Eric Cameron Francis had worked with kids extensively, and the couple had three international adoptions of their own.

That being said, none of that means that the Francis family was vetted for these girls' placement in the way that DHS vets potential adoptive families. There were no home studies performed by specialists. There was no 6 month trial period.

As for the questions about the subsidy checks the Harrises were receiving — we don't yet know enough to say. Justin Harris has said he'll produce records showing he and his wife cashed the checks from the state and forwarded the money on to the Francises. To substantiate that claim, we should see not only a record that the checks were cut in the first place, but also a record that they were cashed by Eric or Stacey Francis.

It's also unclear how much contact the Harrises had with the girls when they were in the Francises' home. Justin Harris said yesterday that it was regular and ongoing, including doctors' appointments and check-ins. However, he also said that "around February of 2014 we were incorrectly informed by DHS that the Francises had sent the girls to live with another family. After meeting with the Francises, we learned that the girls were not with the new family, but the family was in the process of completing a DHS home study with the intention of having the girls live with them."

If the Harrises were in regular contact with the Francises about their adopted daughters, why were they not informed about this move to a new family?


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