An Arkansas lawmaker with a history of causing church-state conflicts is in hot water this week in the wake of allegations that he “re-homed” – a euphemism for gave away – two adopted girls to a former employee who later raped one of the children.
You probably don’t remember Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), so here’s a brief refresher. Harris runs a religious pre-school called Growing God’s Kingdom (GGK). Starting in 2005, Harris managed to funnel $2.6 million in taxpayer dollars to his overtly sectarian school through the Arkansas Better Choice (ABC) program. This included a whopping $534,000 for the 2010-2011 school year alone.
Since Harris’ school has a stated mission to “share the love of Jesus” with students, and the school operates with a Christian curriculum that includes a “Bible time” for verses, stories and prayer, there was an obvious constitutional problem in play.
So Americans United took action, and thanks to our complaint, in 2012 the Arkansas Department of Education changed its rules to bar pre-schools that teach religion from receiving state funds.
We haven’t heard too much out of Harris since then, other than a Harris-proposed scheme in which GGK students would sing prayers rather than say them in an attempt to skirt the new ABC rules. (That proposal was not well received. Rep. Johnnie Roebuck, a Democrat from Arkadelphia, said Harris’ school would lose its funding if Harris “wants to push it,” the Associated Press reported in 2012.)
Now it seems Harris is under scrutiny after newly released records show that Harris may have given two children he and his wife, Marsha, had adopted to Eric Cameron Francis, a former teacher at GGK who was fired after just three months for what Harris said was poor attendance. That termination came in January 2014; Francis was arrested that April.
A lengthy piece by the Arkansas Times provides the details of this sordid affair. Harris legally adopted a six-year-old and a three-year-old through the Arkansas Department of Human Services. The publication said pictures of the two little girls showed up on Harris’ social media account in early 2013 and in March of that year he said the girls had been formally adopted.
It’s here that things get a little murky. The Times simply said: “For unknown reasons, about six months after the adoption was finalized, the Harrises sent the two girls to live with Eric Francis….”
But what we do know is authorities learned of the abuse thanks to an unidentified caller’s tip to Arkansas’ child maltreatment hotline on March 28. The caller 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.” The report added that the girls are currently with that third family.
Thus far, Harris has not been charged with a crime and it’s unlikely that he will be. As hard as this may be to believe, giving adopted children to someone else falls into something of a legal gray area, the Times reported, and it remains unclear if Harris will face any penalties.
“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,” said Matt DeCample, a former spokesman for former Gov. Mike Beebe, who left office in January.
Harris also has the support of state Republicans, who have said the issue is old news. They also argued that his religious beliefs indicate that he could not possibly have done what he is accused of doing.
“[Harris is] a dedicated Christian,” and “a family man with the highest integrity who cares deeply for the welfare of children,” said House Republican Majority Leader Ken Bragg.
Thus far, Francis has not confirmed that he received the children from Harris. As for Harris, he did originally express shock and sadness when Francis was arrested – but he hasn’t shown any remorse for his alleged actions. In fact, he won’t even read the case file. Harris said he doesn’t want to see it because it is disturbing.
But in a truly disgusting turn, Harris later claimed that he is the real victim here.
“You don't know what we’ve been through this past year. You have no idea what my family has been through,” he said. “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.”
Harris’ attorney claimed the children were passed on to someone else because Harris simply couldn’t handle them.
“Upon the advice of both a psychiatrist and a pediatrician, they were forced to move the children to the home of trusted friends, who had a lot of experience with children with reactive attachment disorder,” the attorney said in a statement.
After all that has already been said and done, it’s time for Harris to drop his “good Christian” act. He may run a religious pre-school, but there is no excuse for his behavior if the allegations are true. Even if he is never charged with a crime, Harris bears some of the responsibility for what happened to those two young girls.
It also shows yet again why states should not be getting into bed with unregulated, private schools. Harris’ school received millions of dollars in state money – some of which could have gone toward paying the salary of a man who is now a convicted sex offender. It never should have happened, and one can only hope Arkansas has learned its lesson.