Monday, March 09, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Re-homing harms kids

We had heard about “re-homing” children, mainly from a Reuters investigation two years ago about Americans who adopted children from overseas and then used the Internet to dump them, sometimes to predators, when the kids proved to be troublesome. But we were shocked to learn that trafficking in vulnerable children happens right here in Arkansas, apparently legally, with the tragic results you would expect.

If the legislature can put aside the strange politics of the situation, it will pass a law making the practice illegal or at least subject to the monitoring and protections that the state is supposed to provide children who are abused or orphaned by one circumstance or another. Gov. Hutchinson said he was alarmed by the story in the Arkansas Times revealing the scandal and asked the state Department of Human Services to provide a remedy.

If you follow the news, you already knew half the story. A year ago, the State Police arrested a Bella Vista man, Eric Cameron Francis, for raping a 6-year-old girl who was in his custody. Francis had been the head teacher at a Christian preschool at West Fork called Growing God’s Kingdom, which was run by state Rep. Justin Harris of West Fork, a prominent Republican lawmaker, and his wife. Harris said at the time that he was “devastated” by the little girl’s rape and revealed that he had let Francis go at the school because the head teacher missed too much work. But he said Francis had “a pristine record” as a youth pastor and came highly recommended. Francis was convicted and is in the Benton County jail. Francis told a reporter at the jail last month that it was a “mistake” to have raped the little girl.

What Rep. Harris did not reveal at the time and what the Arkansas Times revealed this week was that the 6-year-old girl whom Francis raped and her 4-year-old sister were Harris’. Harris and his wife had adopted the girls from the state Department of Human Services in 2013 and when they proved to be unhappy and disruptive for his family Rep. Harris just gave them to his head teacher, Eric Francis, and his wife. Francis’ wife divorced him after his arrest for raping the girl. It all started when an anonymous caller to the state child-abuse hotline said Harris had abandoned the two girls to Francis and that they were being mistreated. The caller said the Harrises had continued to get a monthly subsidy from the state for raising the two girls even after abandoning them.

When the Arkansas Times asked Harris the other day if he re-homed his adopted children to Eric Francis, he refused to confirm it and accused the newspaper of slurring him and his wife. Harris uses Scripture when he gets in trouble. This time he quoted Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon forged against you will prevail and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.”

But Rep. Harris dodged chances to “refute every tongue” until a brief press conference Friday, which didn’t explain anything. His attorney issued a short statement this week saying, “Rep. and Mrs. Harris have suffered a severe injustice.” It said that the two little girls “presented a serious risk of harm to other children” in the Harris home and the couple was “forced to move the children to the home of trusted friends, who had a lot of experience with children with reactive attachment disorder.” It said they were “devastated” about the outcome—the older girl’s rape — but that they had done the best they knew how.

“Reactive attachment disorder” means the girls were unhappy about who had adopted them.

The Harrises, according to the statement, gave the kids away rather than contact the state agency that had approved the adoption “due to threats of possible abandonment charges.” Harris has had some trouble with the women in the agency. Rep. Harris’s daycare business gets about $900,000 a year, about 95 percent of it from federal and state taxpayers, to provide preschool to about 150 children. Several years ago, when state social services people learned that the schooling consisted of Bible reading, they told Harris that taxpayer money could not be used that way because it violated Thomas Jefferson’s injunction against combining church and state. Harris said he moved the religious teaching to after regular hours and the school has continued to get the government aid.

Harris is a vigorous critic of other state spending. He sits on the Joint Budget Committee, which fixes the budget of all children’s programs, sits on the Education Committee and is vice chairman of the committee that will consider any legislation to correct the adoption flaws.

Rep. Greg Leding of Fayetteville filed a bill to halt the practice of re-homing. But political problems arose instantly. Republican leaders came to Rep. Harris’ defense and said he was a godly man and that the real villains were the media. Rep. Nate Bell of Mena called the reporter and editor who provided the first account of the girl’s abandonment and rape “the lowest fork of muckraking slime on earth” and said the editor was going to hell.

Gov. Hutchinson reacted appropriately. He said the issues raised by the Harris-Francis story needed to be addressed urgently because “our children deserve nothing less than our full attention and utmost care.” Mike Beebe said he learned of the re-homing last year but felt indisposed to seek legislation to correct it because he had obtained the information about the Harrises confidentially. That’s not good enough.

Not every such story has a happy ending, but this one sort of does. Those little girls—what happened to them? The Times reached the parents who adopted the girls after the Francises. The mother said she regretted the girls’ path to get where they are, but they are finally in a home where they are treasured. “They are our daughters. They are precious, precious, amazing girls, and we are so blessed to have them.”