In 2012, Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) and his wife, Marsha, began fostering three young girls with troubled backgrounds, two of whom they adopted in March 2013. Sources familiar with the case claim Harris used his influence as a legislator to pressure the Department of Human Services to proceed with the adoption over the objections of caseworkers and others who said the Harrises were ill suited to care for the girls. Indeed, the adoption failed only eight months later, when Justin and Marsha Harris sent the two youngest children to live with friends of the family in Northwest Arkansas. At the new home, one of the girls was sexually abused by her new "father," Eric C. Francis, who is now serving a 40 year prison sentence for his crimes against children.
The Arkansas Times first broke the news of the Harris "rehoming" the first week of March 2015. In a press conference soon thereafter, Justin Harris blamed DHS for failing to provide adequate support to his family; he also said that the girls, then ages 3 and 5, were dangerously violent and had posed a threat to his biological sons. Others acquainted with the girls, including their new adoptive family, have fiercely rejected such claims. According to multiple sources familiar with the Harrises, the legislator and his wife believed their adopted daughters were demonically possessed and enacted harsh punitive measures within their home in an attempt to combat this supposed supernatural influence. The Times detailed that backstory in an extensive follow-up piece to our initial reporting.
Since then, the legislature has passed laws criminalizing rehoming and mandating stronger DHS services for adoptive families (Harris voted for both bills), and Gov. Asa Hutchinson has ordered an independent review of the state’s child welfare system. But many questions remain, both about the Harrises and about the way in which DHS handled the case. Justin Harris remains a state representative, and he and Marsha continue to operate a publicly-financed preschool in West Fork, Growing God’s Kingdom. At DHS, sources have alleged that the agency too frequently prioritizes political imperatives over the needs of the children it is charged to protect. In the coming months, the Times will continue to cover developments in the Justin Harris story as we also broaden our investigation to examine issues within the larger Arkansas child welfare system.