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Harris blames adoption woes on Department of Human Services


By Max Brantley and Leslie Newell Peacock

In a sometimes emotional Capitol news conference, state Rep. Justin Harris, with his wife, Marsha, by his side, told of a failed effort to bring three sisters into his home for adoption, but an inability to have them adjust.

He spoke for the first time of the third sister, which we reported earlier today. He said the state Department of Human Services had insisted that the Harris family take in that child if he was to adopt two younger sisters as he hoped. She was a danger to his family, he said, and ultimately placed elsewhere. The younger sisters, too, proved a problem. One "crushed" a small animal, he said. He said he had his older sons sleep with him out of fear.

The most explosive charge by Harris was that he DID seek DHS assistance before giving the children to another family, but was met only with a threat of child abandonment charges . He said he supported both Rep. Greg Leding's bill on rehoming limits (which would prohibit in the future actions such as Harris took in turning children over to another family) and Gov. Asa Hutchinson's vow to put DHS practices under review.

DHS has released this statement in response:

Though Rep. Harris is talking about this adoption, by law we cannot do so and are concerned about the very sensitive and protected information that has been released about vulnerable children. We also are prohibited from clarifying any inaccurate information.

We can say that when parents adopt children from us, we disclose in writing medical and psychological information and diagnoses and have the adoptive families sign those forms.

Senior DHS officials have always been available to Rep. Harris when he had personal or constituent concerns and they have had many conversations over the years. That open-door policy would have been true in this case as well.

This is a sad and unfortunate situation. For us, what is important is the safety and well-being of children. So we are working with the Governor and the Legislature to ensure there is more oversight in place to limit families’ abilities to “rehome” children who come from state custody. The legislation also will prevent families from giving a subsidy to anyone else without DHS and court oversight.

We want every adoption to succeed and urge families to let us know if they are struggling. We understand that in rare cases, a successful adoption is impossible to achieve. In those situations, there is always an option.

Harris opened his news conference by saying that he viewed the children as victims, not his family. His statement last night that his family had suffered a "severe injustice" had stirred a firestorm of criticism in the immense web reaction the story has prompted.

Harris said he and his wife "always planned to have five children," and that DHS and the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) said he could not adopt the younger two children without adopting their older sister. Because he and his wife "have degrees in child development," he said, he and his wife agreed. He said he was aware the oldest girl had problems, but was "misled by DHS" as to the severity of the two younger children.

Harris described in detail behavioral problems he said the girls had. As it turned out, the older child proved too difficult for them. The lawmaker said she spent "eight hours every day screaming and in a rage," had hit a 2-year-old in the head with a rock and had threatened to kill everyone in the Harris family. DHS placed her in inpatient care, he said, and he said he and his wife continued to visit the girl for several months. DHS placed the girl with another foster family and asked the Harrises to have no more contact with her, Harris said.

The Harrises provided the girls "intensive in-home therapy" and on the advice of the Ozark Guidance removed the middle girl's "toys and belongings" and were to slowly reintroduce them as a way to treat her "reactive attachment disorder." (The middle child, the 6-year-old abused by Eric Francis, told investigators that the Harrises had taken all her books and toys away and that she did not like them.) Harris also said they had to "medicate" the 6-year-old to prevent her from "hurting her sister." After the 6-year-old "crushed a family pet to death," Harris said they were advised by professionals to remove the children from the home. "At this point, we again reached out to DHS for help," Harris said.

"Then we were threatened with possible abandonment charges and potentially losing our own boys as well if we returned the girls to DHS custody."

He said others had told them of similar treatment at the hands of DHS. He provided no names.

He explained that his wife knew Stacey Francis for 20 years and that the Harrises never had any indication that Eric Francis was anything other than a child care professional. "Faced with no help from DHS, we thought we had found a perfect solution when Stacy and Eric told us they were interested in adopting these girls."

Harris said DHS told him — incorrectly — "sometime in February 2014" that the girls had left the Francis home. He said he then spoke with the Francises and learned that the girls had not left the Francis household but that another family was completing a homestudy with DHS to take over their care. He said he has signed over guardianship to the new family and has been asked by that family not to have contact with the girls.

He took only three questions. He said he could prove that he had passed state subsidy checks to the Eric Francis family. Francis is serving a 40-year sentence for sexually abusing one of the children Harris placed in that family's care. Harris defended Francis, as he has to us before, as having a clean record. He wouldn't identify the DHS employee who allegedly threatened him. Harris was asked if he really believed DHS would charge him with abandonment had he tried to relinquish the children to the state. He said he believed what he'd been told.

Marsha Harris didn't speak.

Several of the things Harris said are at variance with what multiple sources have told Benji Hardy and Leslie Newell Peacock in the course of their reporting this story.

Benji will be in later with a fuller report. We'll also be posting a complete video.

As expected, DHS continues to say confidentiality rules bar their comment on specifics of the case. But it seems a time for discussion of state performance in a way that wouldn't violate any children's confidences.

We do know from our reporting that an inquiry into the care of Harris' adopted children after they were put in the Francis family custody did include an anonymous allegation of abandonment. We've previously reported that nothing came of that allegation and no charges were filed or contemplated. But the hotline tip did lead to a child's report of inappropriate touching by Francis and ultimately his guilty plea.

Harris has over a period of weeks refused to talk to the Times about the situation. He avoided reporters yesterday, engaged a lawyer and, according to KATV, consulted with a public relations firm.

2015 Mar 6