Thursday, October 22, 2015

20/20 will report Friday on Justin Harris and rehoming

Posted By and on Thu, Oct 22, 2015 at 10:40 AM

FEELING CONFIDENT: This spring, Harris tweeted this picture with the 20/20 anchor.
  • FEELING CONFIDENT: This spring, Harris tweeted this picture with the 20/20 anchor.

An ABC spokesman confirms that its 20/20 news program will air a segment on its show at 9 p.m. Friday on the case of state Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), who adopted children that he later "rehomed" to a new family where they were sexually abused.

The Arkansas Times exposed the details of the case in March, which led to legislation that made the practice of rehoming a crime in Arkansas. Harris has said he won't seek re-election next year. He's also taken a lower profile generally, after rising to a position of some influence at the legislature and particularly in regards to the Department of Human Services.

ABC has promised, but has not yet provided, some film clips and other material indicating the shape the show will take. When an ABC crew first came to town. In April, Harris seemed to think his meeting with 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas went well. Our sources indicate reporting may have taken a turn in a different direction.

UPDATE: Here's the press release from ABC.

October 22, 2015

THE FOREVER FAMILY?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PARENTS WANT TO RETURN THEIR ADOPTIVE CHILDREN, CITING CONCERN FOR THEIR OWN SAFETY BECAUSE OF DISRUPTIVE BEHAVIOR
AIRING ON "20/20," FRIDAY, OCT. 23 ON ABC

It was a story that made international headlines: an Arkansas state legislator “re-homed” two of his three adoptive daughters after fearing for his own biological children’s safety. The scandal became the first time many had heard of the national concern of “re-homing,” which in many states is putting adopted kids in a new home with little regulatory oversight. In this case, the girls were handed to a man who turned out to be a pedophile.

Justin and Marsha Harris of Arkansas seemed like perfect adopters – they were pillars of their community, ran a faith-based day care, and had three sons already. They fought to adopt three abused sisters. The state initially objected, fearing it unwise to place abused young girls in the home with three young boys. Plus, one of the girls had reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Yet the Harrises, child development specialists, thought they could handle any child-related issue. Unfortunately, they could not. They say their home erupted in chaos with the girls even making death threats to the family. The Harrises say there was nothing else they could have done and had good intentions.

Elizabeth Vargas’ six-month investigation includes an exclusive interview with the former Arkansas Department of Human Services caseworker who shares surprising details on the story, plus interviews with the Harris family, the former foster parents of the two girls, and an interview with the babysitter.

Elizabeth Vargas’ report airs on “20/20,” on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23 (10:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on ABC.

“20/20” is anchored by Elizabeth Vargas and David Muir. David Sloan is senior executive producer.

FROM BENJI:

I've had literally no contact with Vargas, 20/20's producers or anyone else associated with ABC, so I'm not sure what to expect from Friday's program.

However, I feel confident that everything substantial we've reported so far will be confirmed. Several of the sources I relied upon for my stories have told me that ABC producers have been in extensive contact with them since the story first broke in the spring. One person in West Fork whom I spoke to said the Harrises are very much lying low at the moment, so perhaps they've realized the story will be less-than-favorable.

I've also been told that in the past few months, ABC at some point interviewed at least one former DHS worker — and possibly more — who can shed light on some aspects of this case. A key question throughout the Harris matter was whether DHS's Division of Children and Family Services, which had custody of the children Harris then adopted, was influenced by the legislator in facilitating the adoption and in subsequent events.

Cheryl and Craig Hart, the foster parents who for a year and a half cared for two of the children taken in by Harris, told me in March that they urged the agency to not allow the Harris adoption to proceed and their assessment was backed up by others from local DHS. The Harts, and others on the local team, thought the Harrises would be ill prepared to handle the three children. (In addition to the two girls who were later the victim of "rehoming," the initial adoption order also included a third, older sister whose adoption was disrupted before it was complete.)

The Harts insist that they and the local DHS workers were essentially overruled by Division of Children and Family Services Director Cecile Blucker, who intervened in the case at Harris' behest. The Hart's claims were corroborated by two separate anonymous sources familiar with DHS, both of whom I made contact with in March. Judge Stacey Zimmerman then authorized the adoption to proceed.

In March, here's what I wrote about the question of Blucker's involvement:

"In most conversations with us, [Harris] would mention Cecile's name. 'Well, Cecile said this, Cecile said that,' " Cheryl Hart said. It is her opinion the Harrises called Cecile Blucker "to expedite things."

That summer, the adoption case went before 4th Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Stacy Zimmerman in Washington County. And in court, Cheryl Hart recalled, something strange happened: Everyone on the DHS team that had previously opposed the adoption changed their recommendations. "Everyone testifying before the judge had stipulations, like 'To be followed up,' 'To continue their therapy at Children's House,' but nobody would say, 'We really don't think this is a good idea.' " The Harts believe Blucker's influence made the adoption happen. They said she exerted pressure on people in the local DHS team on Harris' behalf.

DHS can't comment on specific cases, but when the Times previously asked DHS spokesperson Amy 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 ... 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."

However, a source familiar with the workings of state-level DHS informed the Times that Blucker supposedly remarked in 2012 that "Harris threatened to hold up the budget for the division if he didn't get to adopt those girls."

Justin Harris suggested he used his influence to obtain the three girls during the adoption hearing, according to Cheryl Hart.

"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 Hart added. "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 sisters soon followed.

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