Saturday, October 24, 2015

Twenty problems with 20/20's coverage of the Justin Harris 'rehoming'

Posted By on Sat, Oct 24, 2015 at 6:08 PM

POSITION OF POWER: Rep. Justin Harris at the Arkansas legislature. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • POSITION OF POWER: Rep. Justin Harris at the Arkansas legislature.

Last night, ABC aired its six-months-in-the-making "20/20" special on the Justin and Marsha Harris adoption and rehoming, a story that the Arkansas Times originally broke in March. Afterwards, I got a succinct message from Jan Wallis, the former Department of Human Services adoption specialist interviewed by Elizabeth Vargas, the program’s anchor.

"I was disappointed with 20/20!” Wallis wrote.

I was too. The show didn’t present the Harrises as victims, as we first worried it might attempt to do, but Vargas and her team all but ignored what may be the most important part of this entire ordeal — the question of Rep. Justin Harris’ influence over decision making within DHS. I say this may be the most important piece because there are thousands of other children in the state who are right now in the care of DHS’ Division of Children and Family Services. The agency’s integrity is not an academic question, but one that has urgent ramifications for every family that interacts with the child welfare system.

Moreover, Wallis told me in a phone conversation that she told 20/20 on camera what she confirmed for me back in March: That Cecile Blucker, the DCFS director, had exerted pressure on the Harrises’ behalf to make this ill-conceived adoption happen in the first place. ABC did not include that footage.

The Harris rehoming was always two stories at the same time: the wrenching, intimately personal story of a failed adoption and three victimized children, and a larger story of political influence being deployed to serve powerful people and marginalize the interests of others. 20/20 did a fair job presenting the first story. It failed to acknowledge the existence of the second, unfortunately.

I've exhaustively covered the Harris rehoming for the Times. It’s possible this could be my last major post on the subject. However, we have miles and miles to go on the larger project all this has sparked: An ongoing, in-depth look at how child welfare is handled in Arkansas, from DCFS to the courts to foster care and behavioral health services. Thanks to the generosity of readers in Arkansas and far beyond in responding to our crowdfunding campaign this spring, we’ve been able to bring on Kathryn Joyce, a stellar journalist who’s previously authored an acclaimed book on international adoption. So far this year, Kathryn has produced two cover stories for the Times delving deep into the Arkansas foster care system and confronting head-on the complex realities of child abuse, poverty, politics and the role of government in family affairs. Her third story is coming out soon; don’t miss it.

So before I outline my complaints about 20/20’s special last night, this seems like a good spot to express my gratitude to everyone who’s kept up with with the Harris story. Thank you for the donations — and more importantly, thank you for taking an interest, even when the subject matter is hideous or morally complex or technocratic and complicated. Thank you for your time, your interest, your support, and your social media shares. Thank you for reading and for asking questions about how to build a better system for protecting kids.

Now then. Here are twenty things missing from last night's 20/20 special. Almost all of this is information that we've covered previously in the Times:

1) No explanation was given as to why the adoption proceeded even after Jan Wallis, the Harts and others urged against it. This is a major hole in ABC's narrative. The program shows Wallis, the DHS adoption specialist assigned to the case, saying on camera she had always advised against allowing the Harrises to take the girls. Cheryl and Craig Hart, the foster family who had the two younger sisters for 18 months before they were adopted by the Harrises, also tell 20/20 they urged against the adoption. Then, bam: The adoption is approved by Judge Stacey Zimmerman anyway in the summer of 2012. Why?

I was told by the Harts and Wallis that they told 20/20 that DCFS Director Cecile Blucker — who Justin Harris knew well — exerted influence on local DHS workers to change their recommendations at the last minute and advise the adoption to proceed. When I spoke to Vargas on Thursday, I asked her whether the 20/20 special would include those allegations.

"I think that’s more a local angle on the story," she replied. "We have lots of lawyers here at ABC that don’t let us report gossip or opinions [that are] unsubstantiated … I can just tell you that I drilled deep on that, and I certainly might have opinions on that that I can’t share, [but] that’s not what I’m supposed to do on prime time television. ... If we had a smoking gun, we would have reported it."

2) Rep. Justin Harris had direct influence over the DCFS budget, and emails show that on at least one occasion he flexed his legislative muscle by holding up funding for the division. ABC mentions Harris is a legislator, but only in passing. The show almost seems to take pains to portray the Harrises as an average Arkansas family, but of course Harris is in a position of power in state government.

In March 2013, Harris took to the House floor to ask his colleagues to not pass a routine DHS spending bill until an unnamed issue with the agency was resolved. In an email afterwards (obtained under the FOIA), Harris told Blucker that after he "spoke out against SB 737, an appropriation, it failed miserably. Only garnered 36 votes." That particular budget hold did not concern the fateful adoption hearing itself (Harris' attorney told the Democrat-Gazette later that it concerned one of Harris' constituents) but the exchange shows that Harris isn't shy about using his power as a legislator to get what he wants. 

3) Rep. Justin Harris also sat on two committees with a degree of power over DCFS. Harris sat on Joint Performance Review, which executes periodic inquiries into state agencies and services, and served as vice-chair of the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth. Legislation pertaining to DCFS often originates from the latter committee. He's since resigned from the JPR committee and stepped down from the vice-chairmanship of Children and Youth, though he remains a voting member. He would have interacted closely with Blucker throughout his time on Children and Youth. Cheryl Hart told me this spring, "In most conversations with us, [Harris] would mention Cecile's name. 'Well, Cecile said this, Cecile said that.' " Now, Jan Wallis is on the record corroborating that claim.

Yet ABC didn't include that footage, nor does it mention the fact that Harris' position gave him unusual leverage over DCFS — a huge omission.

4) Harris claimed that DCFS Director Cecile Blucker knew the children had been 'rehomed' all along. Soon after the Times broke this story, Harris began attempting to spread blame for the rehoming fiasco. "Cecile Blucker knew where the kids were. They kept up with the kids. I don't know how," he said at the time. A DHS spokesperson said the agency couldn't comment, due to the confidentiality of adoption cases. But if ABC looked into this fairly remarkable accusation by a state legislator against the state's top official for child welfare, it didn't make the final cut.

5) Though he's not running for a fourth term,  Rep. Justin Harris has another full year in office as an elected leader of the state. He'll receive another year's salary (boosted this year from $15,869 to $39,400) plus thousands more in per diem expenses. He'll also continue to sit on committees and exert influence over the state's budget. Again, 20/20 barely mentions that Harris is in a position of power as an elected official.

6) 20/20 provides a misleading impression of Reactive Attachment Disorder, and in a supplementary video online, includes footage of what appears to be "holding therapy," a technique that mainstream child psychologists consider dangerous and pseudoscientific. The term "Reactive Attachment Disorder," or RAD, is often mistakenly used as a catchall for disruptive, violent behaviors among child victims of abuse and neglect. Absolutely, such behaviors sometimes exist among such children — but RAD itself is a description simply of an inability to form healthy social bonds, not of violence. There's a great deal of confusion around the term, and ABC doesn't clarify much by including footage that seems to equate RAD with violence.

More troubling is a supplementary video that ABC includes online that opens with footage of an adult subduing a screaming, cursing child on the ground, locking him in a tight hold. Text on the screen: “You’re watching a therapist as he safely handles a child with R.A.D." This looks to be what's called "holding therapy," something that most child specialists will tell you is not a safe way to handle children. Kathryn Joyce wrote about such techniques for the Daily Beast when discussing the Harris case. Leslie Peacock wrote in March about the controversial "therapies" embraced by the Harrises, which are disconcerting even if one accepts their statements that they did not perform "exorcisms" on their children. But speaking of which ... 

7) Workers at Growing God's Kingdom say the Harrises believed the children were possessed by demons. I've spoken to six former and three current workers at the preschool who had firsthand knowledge of the girls. They all backed up the claims made by Chelsey Goldsborough, the Harrises' former babysitter, and now Jan Wallis: That the couple believed their adopted children were possessed.

I know ABC filmed inside Growing God's Kingdom, because some of the workers I spoke to told me as much. But if they interviewed any of those workers, or attempted to get written statements, there's no evidence of it in the final cut. The Harrises therefore get something of a pass on the demon question.

8) According to those same workers, the young girls frequently were signed in at the preschool on days when they weren’t there. I detailed those claims here. The Harrises deny them, but again — worker after worker has told me it's true. I don't know if ABC ever asked anyone directly.

9) Growing God's Kingdom is paid for almost entirely by taxpayer funds, via DHS. This seems necessary to mention as another example of the Harrises' complex relationship with the agency. Suffice it to say that in 2013, the Harrises earned about $177,500 from both Justin's legislative salary and the preschool. About 90 percent of the preschool's revenue was from public money. ABC doesn't touch the matter.

10) The Harrises continue to be responsible for the well-being of scores of children at their preschool. ABC doesn't say much about the preschool at all, or the question of whether the Harrises' alleged beliefs in demons might carry over to their treatment of children at their facility. Recently, by the way, a three year old child was left for most of the day in a van at Growing God's Kingdom. (It was a cool day and she was thankfully unhurt.)

11) All sexual abuse aside, it's traumatic for a young child to be given away to a new home. I wish ABC had dwelled more on just how damaging it can be for children to be kicked out of their home, even if it's not a happy home. Sexual abuse, of course, incites loathing and outrage. But being dumped by your family is traumatic in itself. 

12) Speaking of which, the sexual abuse in the Francis household is mentioned almost as an afterthought. ABC rushed through the section about the Francis household and provided little information about Eric C. Francis. Looking through comments on ABC's Facebook page, it appears as though many viewers were left confused about whether there was indeed abuse at the Francis home, or just allegations of abuse.

There absolutely was abuse: Francis admitted it to police and it's also now known that he abused at least two other children in the community. That's why he's serving a 40 year sentence. Maybe this is given short shrift because pedophilia is an unpleasant thing to talk about, but it is the heart of the entire story. Why is rehoming bad? One reason is that it creates an opportunity for predators to get their hands on kids. Bizarrely, this message almost gets lost in the shuffle.

13) Of COURSE you can be charged with abandonment for giving up your adopted children. That’s the way it should be. The Harrises defense, beyond their claims about violent behavior from the children, is that they were terrified of being charged with child abandonment by DHS if they tried to give up the girls. They say Jan Wallis told them that local DHS "hated them" and would try to punish them. Wallis told me yesterday that the Harrises did indeed have a bad reputation among local DHS workers, largely "because they were so arrogant." Harris, she recalled, would sometimes correct workers who didn't use his honorific. "He'd say, that's Representative Justin Harris," she said.

But the larger point here is that you shouldn't be able to give up children you adopted without facing consequences, any more than you should be able to give up your biological children. Yes, adoptive parents should be provided with services to help them cope. Yes, I've never adopted a child and don't know what it's like firsthand. The point remains that adoptive parents are parents and as such have full legal responsibility for those kids! ABC should have stated this more forcefully, but instead Vargas didn't argue forcefully with the Harrises' claims that they had no other option.

Remember, the Harrises had six full months living with the two youngest sisters, during which they could have disrupted the adoption at any time. They forged ahead. Eight months after that, they'd kicked the children out of the house.

14) 20/20 makes no mention of Marsha Harris’ diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. I mention this mostly because its omission is just plain odd. I don't know what to make of it. The Harrises have said repeatedly that a major factor in giving up the children was that Marsha was "dying of pancreatic cancer." If they brought up the illness with ABC, that didn't make the cut. Since then, Justin Harris has said Marsha's cancer has been cured, under what he implied may have been divine circumstances. "My God Heals!" he said in a tweet announcing the cancer had disappeared.

15) The Harrises may have received an adoption tax credit of up to $25,940 for both girls in 2013. I've never received a straight answer from the family's attorney about whether they claimed the federal credit for adopting the children, which possibly might have worked out to a net financial benefit. Details here. I wonder if ABC brought it up?

16) The actions of Justin Harris have never been condemned by any Republican Party official in the state. Not a word.

17) Justin Harris continues to receive support from the Family Council, an influential conservative group. The group recently awarded Harris a "Power of Courage" awards for sponsoring anti-abortion legislation. The point here is that far from being politically isolated, Harris still seems to have the backing of political allies. I wish that had been noted by 20/20.

18) Had the law criminalizing rehoming (which Justin Harris voted for this spring in the legislature) been in effect in the fall of 2013, the Harrises would have clearly been guilty of a felony. The change in law is mentioned, as is the fact that Harris voted for it. But Vargas could have asked whether Harris believes rehoming should be a crime. If so, then he believes that what he did was, well, wrong. If not, that means he voted for making something that he believes is not wrong into a felony.

19) No explanation has yet been given for why exactly the girls were moved from the Francis household to the "third family" where they remain today. For me, this remains the single largest unanswered question in the entire story. The children were sent to live with the Francises in October 2013. The abuse likely occurred in January 2014, according to prosecutor documents in the criminal case against Eric C. Francis. By March, the children had been moved to a new family, which later adopted them. Who made the decision to move them out of the Francis household? And why? Did the current adoptive family know the Francises? Did they know the Harrises? I've never been able to get a satisfactory answer to these questions, and I'd hoped ABC might shed light on that part of the story, but no such luck.

20) The Arkansas Times broke this story and established virtually all of the facts presented in the 20/20 special back in March. Just saying, Elizabeth!

Finally, on 20/20's Facebook page, I see a range of reactions — lots of anger directed towards the Harrises, but also a fair amount of support. This comment has the most 'likes' so far, which makes me think the 20/20 special perhaps turned out pretty well for the Harrises after all, incredibly enough:


I don't think 20/20 was trying to make the Harrises look sympathetic, but I think by leaving out the political angle (which perhaps they assumed was boring) they unwittingly pumped a lot of blood out of their own story. People were outraged by the stories we ran in the Times, I think, in large part because of the sense that this was a powerful person getting what he wanted.  When parents abuse their power over children, it's reprehensible. When political leaders abuse their power over the system, that's reprehensible too. When both things happen at once, it doesn't go over well with the public. Too bad the ABC team didn't tell both pieces of the story.

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