Monday, March 30, 2015

Former workers at Justin Harris' preschool say they were told to sign in adopted girls despite absence

Posted By on Mon, Mar 30, 2015 at 6:30 AM

GROWING GOD'S KINGDOM: Former workers say they were told to falsely sign in the Harrises' adopted daughters. - KAT WILSON
  • GROWING GOD'S KINGDOM: Former workers say they were told to falsely sign in the Harrises' adopted daughters.

According to five former workers at Growing God's Kingdom, the West Fork preschool operated by Rep. Justin Harris and his wife, Marsha Harris, the couple's two young adopted daughters were often signed in at the school on days when they were not actually in attendance.

The workers contacted the Times independently of one another after reading our initial March 5 story that revealed the two girls — we've started identifying them by the pseudonyms "Mary" and "Annie" — were sent by the Harrises to live with another family only about seven months after their adoption was finalized. They were ages 5 and 3 at the time they were "rehomed" in late 2013. Mary, the 5-year-old, was then sexually abused by the father at the new home, Eric C. Francis, before the sisters were moved to a third family in early 2014.

Mary and Annie lived in the Harris home from approximately October 2012 to October 2013. The five former employees — none of whom were willing to use their names on the record at this time — worked in various positions between 2010 and 2014. Some said they quit under amiable circumstances, while others were terminated.

"The girls were there maybe once a week at the most, then they weren't there at all, and they were still signing them in like they were there," said one woman.

A second worker, who worked for another company that contracted with the preschool, said "those little girls hadn't been in the school for months when I left, but they were saying they were." Though not a teacher, she had direct contact with the children at the school. "They told me to sign them in when they weren't there, and I refused. I said ‘I’m not doing that.’ "

"A lot of people know what’s going on but they’re afraid to speak out," said a third former employee, who worked at Growing God's Kingdom for three years. She said that whenever Mary and Annie would come to the preschool, it was "for maybe 1-2 hours at most" and even then "they were kept so separate from other kids." The Harrises, she recalled, "said to put [Mary] in the roster every day, even if she wasn't there."

An attorney for the Harrises did not respond to a question about whether Justin or Marsha Harris ever directed employees to sign in the girls as "present" on days when they were not at the preschool.

A fourth employee said she has recently contacted the state Department of Human Services to report that the girls were falsely signed in at Growing God's Kingdom. "I'm not sure if they’re looking into it," she said. She noted that the cameras in the preschool are supposed to generate a permanent record, so the state could possibly compare attendance rosters with that video record, if it still exists.

The fifth employee, who interacted with the girls directly, said, “I talked to the teacher about it. They said they were told to do that: ‘Marsha told me the girls had been bad and coming to school was a luxury and they were not allowed to [come to school].’ ” She also said she believed Growing God’s Kingdom received money for the falsified sign-ins.

However, it is not clear whether the preschool actually would have received money for the girls’ attendance. That depends on the financial situation of the Harris household in 2013, since a family's eligibility for preschool assistance is determined by income. Given what we know, it seems unlikely that the Harrises would have been eligible for public funds to send their adopted daughters to pre-K, but it’s a question that still bears close examination given that it would have been fraudulent for the school to receive money for children who were not present.

Preschools like Growing God’s Kingdom are private entities but most of their budget comes from public funds, as the Democrat-Gazette explored in an article on Sunday. Yet unlike the K-12 public school system, Arkansas pre-K is not guaranteed by the government. The Harrises’ preschool is funded by a patchwork of tuition paid privately by families, a federal voucher program associated with TANF, and the Arkansas Better Chance program, or ABC, which subsidizes pre-K for some 3- and 4-year-olds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also pays for meals of students from lower-income families, a program similar to but distinct from free and reduced-price lunches in K-12 schools.

DHS administers the ABC program and also disburses the federal voucher and food money.

Financial statements the Times requested from DHS show the preschool received about $180,000 in federal vouchers, about $100,000 from USDA and about $520,000 from ABC in 2013. These aggregate numbers tell us nothing about whether Mary and Annie would have been eligible for ABC funds, but they do show how important ABC funding is for the school’s existence. According to the Democrat-Gazette report from Sunday, about 90 percent of the budget at Growing God’s Kingdom comes from those three public funding streams, and the preschool gets ABC funding for 110 children out of a total enrollment of 159 kids.

But whether a preschool receives funding for a particular child from each of those three streams depends on the income level of the child’s family. The federal vouchers are available only to families making under 150 percent of the federal poverty line. Amy Webb, a spokesperson for DHS, said the cutoff for the USDA feeding program is 180 percent of poverty, while ABC funding generally is only available to families making under 200 percent of poverty.

In 2013, the Harris household included Mary, Annie, Marsha, Justin and the couple’s three biological sons. The poverty line for a family of seven in that year was $35,610, so 200 percent of poverty would be twice that, or $71,220.

We don’t know how much income the Harrises made in 2013, but it’s higher than $71,220. As the Times reported earlier this month, Justin Harris took home $45,300 as a legislator that year. The financials from DHS show that Marsha Harris earned at least $40,000 at the preschool, meaning the family made a minimum of $85,300 for the year, and perhaps more. (The DHS financials only reveal the portion of the preschool’s budget that came from ABC funding, so it’s quite possible Justin was also paid a salary from Growing God’s Kingdom, just not with ABC money.)

However, an early childhood education specialist in Arkansas — who also asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the story — cautioned that ABC eligibility is not so black and white.

There is a sliding scale of partial subsidies for some families who make between 200 and 250 percent of poverty (or up to $89,025 for a family of seven). And, the specialist said, a portion of the overall ABC budget is governed by an older set of rules that does not solely rely on income but includes other "at-risk" categories — including victims of abuse or neglect. It's possible that even a family making 250 percent of the poverty line might be eligible for some ABC money.

Webb, the DHS spokesperson, said, "eligibility is different in the former ABC funding, which allows for a broader list [of criteria]." 

(A brief digression: The eligibility criteria is so complicated largely because Arkansas pre-K is not universal. ABC doesn't even cover every kid in the state who meets the 200 percent income eligibility criteria, because the legislature has not provided enough money to do that. So, we’ve ended up with a mishmash of criteria to help determine which children get a preschool slot and which do not. How much simpler everything would be if the state would simply levy a tax to pay for pre-K for every child in Arkansas, exactly like it does with K-12. But instead, funding has remained stagnant for ABC for eight years while the legislature prioritizes other things. Not only do we not have universal pre-K, the existing ABC program is now in jeopardy due to stagnant funding.)

All things considered, it seems likely that the Harrises were not fraudulently receiving public money for claiming their adopted daughters were in attendance at the preschool. But then why would they tell workers to falsely sign-in the girls?

The early childhood education specialist said that she has come across other reasons for falsifying attendance records. “For example, there could be a custody issue … dad could want to keep it from mom that a kid hasn't been there at the school, for whatever reason.” She said such a situation would be “unethical but not necessarily illegal.”

One possibility: The adoption order that gave the Harrises custody of Mary and Annie may have included some specification to keep them in school. The specialist said that that’s not unheard of.

“If a child has special needs,” she said, a judge might instruct foster or adoptive parents to keep the kids in preschool “as a resource to meet the child’s needs … and improve socialization.” Like all adoption records in Arkansas, the court order in the Harris adoption is not available to the public.

Webb, the DHS spokesperson, said that it would be “concerning” if a school were counting a student as present if he or she was not there. “Obviously it would be a problem if the day that we took the enrollment, the kid was counted and they weren’t there,” she said.

If a program were to improperly receive funds for ABC, Webb said, "the program would be cited for non-compliance with ABC rules, asked for a corrective action plan and then we would begin the repayment process."

The five workers the Times spoke to also corroborated details provided in our March 12 story, in which we interviewed Chelsey Goldsborough, a former babysitter for the Harrises, and another unnamed source close to the family.

The fifth employee mentioned above said that she and other workers got in trouble for allowing the girls to live in the same room. "They weren’t allowed to come out. They weren’t allowed to come at the table. [Marsha] was locking them in their bedrooms." She also said that she was told by Marsha Harris that the girls were demonically possessed.

The second employee mentioned above disputed the Harrises' assertion that the girls were unmanageably violent. Much as others have said, the former worker said that the girls' older sister, "Jeanette," had severe behavior issues, "but the other two ... they were not violent. I would have taken them home with me and kept them … they just needed a loving, stable environment, in my opinion."

She also said the girls were kept segregated from one another and repeated the story about demonic possession. However, she did offer one point in the Harrises' defense: She doubted whether the couple actually spanked Annie with a whip or switch, as the young girl evidently told investigators. The worker said the Harrises were nothing but gentle with the children at Growing God's Kingdom, in her experience.

"They were so against any even raising your voice at kids at school. Now, that’s not to say they didn't do it at home, but they didn't do it at school," she said.

Think this reporting is important? Help us provide deeper and broader coverage of Arkansas's child welfare system by contributing to our crowdfunding campaign.

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