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Months after the rehoming of their adopted daughters was made public, Justin and Marsha Harris have yet to face consequences 

Despite public outrage, Justin Harris' status as legislator remains unchanged.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: Justin and Marsha Harris with their attorney, Jennifer Wells, at a March press conference image
  • Brian Chilson
  • UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: Justin and Marsha Harris with their attorney, Jennifer Wells, at a March press conference.

On March 24, three weeks after the news first broke that state Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork) and his wife, Marsha, gave their two adopted daughters in 2013 to a family where one of them was later sexually assaulted, Rep. Harris returned to Twitter. Normally an active presence on social media, Harris had shuttered his feed the first week of March in response to an onslaught of unwanted attention as the Arkansas Times report revealing the "rehoming" of the girls, ages 3 and 5 at the time, was picked up by national and international media outlets. But by the last week of the month, the media spotlight was already beginning to dim, and Harris resumed tweeting, albeit with his account now visible only to his followers. He broadcast two verses from Psalms (37:12-13) that seemed intended to signal defiance rather than contrition:

The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him

But the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming

Justin Harris' unshaken sense of righteousness was striking given the revelations of the previous weeks, outlined in this timeline. Three young sisters — the Times calls them "Annie", "Mary" and "Jeanette," from youngest to oldest — were taken into state Department of Human Services custody in Fayetteville in 2011 and placed in foster care. The Harrises sought to adopt all three children. According to Cheryl and Craig Hart, a foster family who cared for Mary and Annie for over a year, local DHS workers and therapists advised against the adoption out of concern that the Harrises were poorly equipped to adopt the three sisters, who had suffered past abuse. The Harts claim that Justin Harris then flexed his influence as a legislator: They say Cecile Blucker, the director of the DHS Division of Children and Family Services, pressured local caseworkers to recommend the adoption proceed.

After the girls entered the home in 2012, things quickly began to go wrong. The Harrises returned Jeanette, then 6, to DHS custody before year's end due to her behavioral problems, but the couple pressed ahead with Mary and Annie. They became the two girls' legal parents in March 2013. The Harrises have claimed that the 3-year-old and 5-year-old were dangerously violent and that they feared for the safety of their own sons, yet were unable to turn to DHS for help out of fear that they would be threatened with child abandonment if they dissolved the now-completed adoption. But the Harts and the girls' current adoptive parents (who have asked to remain anonymous) said Mary and Annie were not, and are not, violent. According to a babysitter at the Harris home, Chelsey Goldsborough, Justin and Marsha Harris kept Mary locked in a barren bedroom out of a belief she could communicate telepathically with Annie. Goldsborough and others claim that the Harrises believed both girls were possessed by demons and had an "exorcism" performed, which the Harrises deny.

In October 2013, the Harrises gave away Mary and Annie to friends of theirs, Eric Cameron Francis and Stacey Francis of Bella Vista, a couple with three adoptive children of their own. That same month, Eric was hired as a teacher at the West Fork preschool owned by the Harrises, Growing God's Kingdom. He was asked to resign in January 2014, ostensibly due to poor work attendance, and the Harrises' adopted daughters were soon thereafter moved to the care of a third family under circumstances that remain unclear, again without DHS or court supervision. (That third family has since adopted the two girls.) On March 28, 2014, a state police investigation found that Mary had been sexually abused by Eric Francis, who is now serving a 40-year sentence for that crime and two separate incidents of second-degree sexual assault involving other children in the community. It took another year for news of the rehoming to be made public, in March of this year.

Almost three months later, Harris continues to serve as state representative from District 81 — a job that this year saw a boost in salary, from $15,869 to $39,400. Justin and Marsha Harris also continue to run Growing God's Kingdom, which gets 90 percent of its funding through state and federal revenue streams. Despite widespread public outrage, no elected official from his own party has yet called for Rep. Harris' resignation or offered a statement censuring his actions. Republican leaders such as Gov. Asa Hutchinson and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) have said the focus instead should be on preventing future tragedies.

Though Harris wasn't censured, his actions were. The General Assembly swiftly and unanimously passed bipartisan legislation this session intended to prevent further instances of rehoming. One bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville), prohibits adoptive parents from continuing to collect state subsidies if they rehome a child and tightens the requirement that DHS provide post-adoptive services to families struggling with difficult adoptions. The second, sponsored by Rep. David Meeks (R-Greenbrier), makes rehoming a Class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. When the governor signed the bills into law in April, Arkansas went from having no statutory prohibition against giving away adopted children to having one of the toughest such laws in the country. (The felony statute does not apply to biological children, recognizing the unhappy fact that adoptive children are especially vulnerable to abandonment.)

Yet it is difficult to ignore the fact that one of the votes cast in favor of both bills belongs to the man whose actions convinced the public and the General Assembly of the need to change the law in the first place. Those actions would have remained concealed — and the law presumably unchanged — had this newspaper not made them public in March. The new law is not retroactive, so Justin and Marsha Harris are in no danger of being charged with the crime of rehoming, but there is an undeniable irony to a legislator voting for a bill that would make something he did 18 months ago a felony.

House Minority Leader Eddie Armstrong (D-North Little Rock) put it bluntly: "Had he done now what he did [in 2013], he would definitely have been impeached, and he would have broken the law.

"We got it right with DHS in creating the rehoming law ... but nothing is being said about the representative who is the culprit of this whole ordeal. I find it to be somewhat of a double standard."

Armstrong is not alone in asking whether the Harrises will face consequences. In the past two months, the Arkansas Times has spoken with a number of current and former workers at Growing God's Kingdom who feel the Harrises are not being held accountable for actions they say they witnessed at the daycare. A variety of other credible concerns remain unresolved: about tax benefits, about child maltreatment, about Justin Harris' influence over DHS, about the improper use of a foster child in campaign materials.

"It unfortunately remains a distraction," Armstrong said. "They're asking me questions in the coffee shop. They're asking me questions when I speak at Kiwanis about the legislative session, and the one question I can't answer is the outcome of one of our own representatives.

"I've had the chance to travel across the country from Washington to California and I get the same exact question: 'Whatever happened to that representative that gave that child away and she got raped?' And the unfortunate reality is that I have nothing to tell them."

ALLEGATIONS AT THE DAYCARE: Several current and former workers at the Harrises' Growing God's Kingdom say the two adopted girls were absent more than they were present image
  • Kat Wilson
  • ALLEGATIONS AT THE DAYCARE: Several current and former workers at the Harrises' Growing God's Kingdom say the two adopted girls were absent more than they were present.

The view from West Fork

Growing God's Kingdom sits on a stretch of U.S. Hwy. 71 on the outskirts of West Fork, about 10 minutes from Fayetteville's southern edge. Considering the town is home to some 2,300 people, the preschool is a fairly large operation, serving 159 children from the surrounding area. In West Fork, a bedroom community with few jobs, Growing God's Kingdom is one of the only employment options available for women with young kids of their own.

To date, the Arkansas Times has spoken to six former and three current workers at the preschool who had firsthand knowledge of Mary, Annie and/or Jeanette. Some worked directly for Growing God's Kingdom, others for an on-site contractor. All spoke on the condition of anonymity, although most said they would share their stories if asked by an investigator.

Mary and Annie lived in the Harris home from approximately September 2012 to October 2013, during which time they were also enrolled in preschool at Growing God's Kingdom. However, according to all nine workers, the two girls were absent more often than not. All nine also said it was common knowledge that staff were expected to mark them as "present" on days when they were not there.

One woman, who worked for a 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 Mary and Annie 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 former classroom aide, who said that she was sometimes assigned to work in the same classroom as Mary, said, "We were told to write her name down. I never did, but the lead teacher [in the classroom] did ... When I did a head count, I'd see 14 kids in the classroom and 15 kids on the roster. ... They'd say, 'Oh, that's Marsha's daughter.' "

The former aide also said workers were expected to mark Mary as present for meals. "We'd make a plate for her and put it in the refrigerator ... I know they weren't taken home to the kids, because they'd be in there for the whole week. At the end of the week, they'd be thrown out."

One of the current workers — the only one of the three who agreed to be quoted extensively for this article — said, "Many times [Mary and Annie] were counted for breakfast and lunch but not at the preschool at all. How many times exactly, I don't know, but it was often."

Justin and Marsha Harris denied telling workers to falsify sign-ins. Their attorney, Jennifer Wells, said, "The girls were always at the facility when marked present, either in the classroom, the office, or in therapy. The girls did not have to be in the classroom to be counted in the meal count.  However, they must be on the premises to be counted for the meal count."

Unlike with K-12 schools, Arkansas preschools don't necessarily get taxpayer money for every student they serve. In general, Arkansas families making under 200 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for pre-K tuition subsidies through the Arkansas Better Chance program; out of the 159 kids at Growing God's Kingdom, 110 currently have their tuition paid by ABC. A smaller number are paid for by an income-based federal voucher program, and some parents pay out of pocket.

It's not entirely clear whether Mary and Annie were eligible for ABC support. The Harrises made over 200 percent of the poverty line in 2013, but Mary and Annie still may have been ABC-eligible because DHS rules explicitly exempt foster children from ABC's income requirements. Nonetheless, DHS spokesperson Amy Webb has told the Times that "No ABC or voucher funding was paid to GGK in 2013 related to any of the Harris dependents."

However, Webb continued, "if a dependent of the family was in attendance and ate meals or snacks, Growing God's Kingdom would be reimbursed for that." That's because food for the school is paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through a separate funding stream. "Because at least 75 percent of the facility's enrolled children were eligible for free or reduced lunches, federal regulations deem all children in that program eligible," Webb said. If what the nine workers say is true, then, the school received at least some federal payment for the girls on days when they weren't there, albeit a small amount.

DHS has shown little interest in investigating the matter further. "Because of the time that has elapsed, it would be difficult if not impossible for the Division to verify whether specific students were actually in attendance on certain days two or three years ago in which documents indicate they were there. Had the Division been made aware of the allegations at the time, we would have been able to investigate them," Webb said.

Although DHS is the agency responsible for administering USDA funds for preschool feeding programs, those are still federal dollars — which raises the question of whether federal authorities could investigate. (Conner Eldridge, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said he could neither confirm nor deny that his office had looked into the matter.)

The Times originally raised the question of the sign-ins at the end of March, and according to current employees at Growing God's Kingdom, the Harrises recently asked teachers at the preschool to sign a paper disavowing the allegations. The teachers refused to do so, the employees said.

Through an email from Wells, the Harrises denied they had asked teachers to actually sign anything — yet. "The Harris's [sic] attorney instructed them to notify two teachers (teachers who had taught both girls) that she may ask them to sign an affidavit saying that they did not falsify attendance records after an Arkansas Times piece cited an unnamed source who claimed this was a practice at the preschool. To date, they have not been asked to sign any such affidavit."

The attendance records are not the only matter in which the Harrises' account of events concerning Mary and Annie deviates from their employees'. The current worker who agreed to be quoted by the Times said she was upset that the Harrises had effectively denied they believed the girls were demonically possessed and could communicate with one another telepathically. She said that Marsha Harris made such statements to her firsthand back in 2013.

"Everyone is kind of fed up," said the current worker. "If they had stood up and said, 'Yes we did this,' that would be one thing, but they openly lied about not believing" the girls were possessed.

In the only comment the Harrises have offered to date on the subject, their attorney stated in March: "Exorcisms and telepathy are not part of the Harrises' religious practice."

The current worker also said that she had seen Marsha Harris pray over other children enrolled at Growing God's Kingdom, out of a belief that misbehaving kids may be grappling with demons. "I watched her do it. Twice, it happened with a difficult child. He was a biter, a fit-thrower — regular 2-year-old behavior." Although she only saw a few such instances firsthand, she said that kids were also sometimes taken to Marsha's office to be prayed over. "I couldn't tell you how many times that happened." The two other current employees corroborated those claims.

That raises the touchy subject of the expressly religious mission of Growing God's Kingdom. In 2011, a national group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State made a complaint to DHS about the constitutionality of a private, Christian preschool receiving public funds. In response, DHS promulgated a rule saying that private preschools that receive public money can provide religious instruction as long as it takes place outside the seven-hour day required by the ABC program. Harris made it clear at the time that he felt the complaint was an assault on his faith, posting on the school's Facebook page: "We will never be shamed for the ministry that God has allowed us to be a part of."

When asked whether DHS has investigated accounts that Marsha Harris prayed over children to dispel evil spirits, Webb said, "During the times that our staff and contractors have been at that facility, which is several times a year, no one has reported seeing staff 'praying demons' out of children at the center. The center has been in compliance with ABC regulations." She noted that in a recent review of Growing God's Kingdom, "the reviewer did observe children singing a religious song during ABC time" but could not determine whether it was initiated by the teacher or the students. "A reminder about no religious instruction during ABC time was written on the review," Webb said.

The former classroom aide recalled a specific incident in 2013 in which Marsha Harris voiced a conviction that her adopted girls' behavior was fueled by demonic influences. "I remember [Annie] was in the classroom just crying and crying, and [the other teacher] couldn't even talk to her. I sat on the floor and started saying, 'I see a purple dinosaur,' or whatever was around the room. She'd cry, and then stop and look, and cry again, and I kept talking and kind of brought her out of the little tizzy she was in.

"I finally asked her what's wrong. She said she wet her pants, and I said, 'That's OK, we all have accidents,' and I went out, took her wet ones off, and was getting some other ones. About that time, Marsha came storming in and said, 'What's going on in here?' I said [Annie] had an accident, and she said, 'That was no accident.'

"And that's when she told me that it was one of her demons that was making her do that. Then that afternoon or maybe later, she told me that they'd already driven out nine demons, but [Annie] still has one that's making her do those kind of things."

The current worker who agreed to be quoted also expressed dismay over the use of at least one of the sisters' images in Justin Harris' 2012 re-election campaign. A professional photograph used on Harris' campaign website from that summer shows a small girl posed alongside Justin, Marsha and their three sons; the Times has confirmed the child is Jeanette. The same picture appeared on flyers distributed by the campaign. At that point, Jeanette was a foster child and would have been living in the Harris household for only a few months, if that. (By Thanksgiving, the Harrises had disrupted Jeanette's planned adoption because, according to Justin Harris, "she disclosed her plan to kill every member of the family.")

DHS expressly prohibits the public use of photos or any other media that would compromise a foster child's anonymity. Asked whether DHS was aware Harris had used a foster child in campaign materials, Webb said she couldn't comment specifically on Harris, but speaking generally, she said the agency would not allow such use.

"If we were made aware of a situation like you described, we would immediately call the foster or pre-adoptive parent and tell him to discontinue using the picture on any campaign material. We would not be comfortable with a foster child's picture being used during a campaign," Webb said.

But if DHS took any action to dissuade Harris from using photos of a foster child during pre-adoption, it was evidently unsuccessful: The photos were on Harris' campaign website as late as September 2013, almost a year after Jeannette had left the Harris home. As with the allegations regarding the attendance records, the agency has shown little inclination to investigate the matter further.

The Times also asked the legislative leadership in the Arkansas House whether the use of a foster child in campaign materials in defiance of DHS rules would warrant censure or discipline of Rep. Harris. Speaker Gillam and Majority Leader Ken Bragg (R-Sheridan) both said the question should be addressed by the Arkansas Ethics Commission, which primarily handles campaign finance matters. But Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan said the matter would be outside the purview of his agency.

The seeming lack of consequences is frustrating to many observers, in West Fork and elsewhere. "They've been getting by with so much for so long," said the current worker. "I'm so tired of 'poor them,' because it's not 'poor them.' It's 'poor kids.' "

The former classroom aide sighed. "I just think they're going to get away with all this, and it's going to all blow over, and they're going to do what they want to do."

ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY: A photo used in campaign materials of the Harris family with a foster daughter they planned to adopt image
  • ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY: A photo used in campaign materials of the Harris family with a foster daughter they planned to adopt.

Two investigations

The accounts by the workers paint an unsettling picture of the girls' relationship with their erstwhile adoptive parents and corroborate some of the claims made by Chelsey Goldsborough, the babysitter for the Harrises. But the most significant elements of Goldsborough's narrative probably cannot be confirmed by many other individuals outside of the Harris family itself. In March, the babysitter told the Times that Mary was kept locked alone in a spartan bedroom for hours at a time, her books and toys removed as punishment. Goldsborough said she'd monitor Mary by video camera and would usually enter the room only to provide food or water. She repeated those claims in an on-camera interview with KNWA TV, Channel 24, on March 11.

When asked if the isolation detailed by Goldsborough would potentially constitute child abuse, Webb, the DHS spokesperson, said, "Based on the description you provided, that situation would likely result in a call being placed to the child abuse hotline for possible investigation. It would then be up to the hotline to determine whether an investigation would be pursued. The outcome of such an investigation would be dependent on what the circumstances were surrounding that situation. Context is critical in child maltreatment investigations."

Although official confirmation is impossible due to the confidentiality shielding child maltreatment investigations from public view, there is ample reason to believe the Crimes Against Children Division of the Arkansas State Police has looked into the babysitter's story. The Times received confirmation from Goldsborough by text message on March 17 that she had been contacted by State Police investigators. The chief of the West Fork Police Department acknowledged in a May 21 email that State Police had recently completed an investigation involving the Harrises. Chief Bryan Watts said the West Fork PD did not participate in that investigation.

That time frame would be consistent with a child maltreatment investigation. Capt. Ron Stayton, the commander of CACD, told the Times that "the law requires us to close a maltreatment investigation primarily within 45 days. The law does permit us a 15-day extension, so we have a total of 60 days, if needed."

To be clear, just because a child maltreatment investigation occurred does not mean any charges were substantiated as "true." It merely signals that investigators found the accounts of Goldsborough (and perhaps others) worthy of checking out. It's now been over 18 months since Mary and Annie lived in the Harris home, so physical evidence probably would be hard to come by. CACD investigators would likely have to rely on interviews with the alleged victims, as well as any witnesses and the Harrises themselves.

Wells, the attorney, said she could neither confirm nor deny that a maltreatment investigation was ongoing. But she did provide the Times with a paper from a previous child maltreatment investigation into Justin and Marsha Harris from 2014 — a document that shows CACD* investigated a call to the hotline that alleged the Harrises abandoned two children. Those children are undoubtedly Mary and Annie. The form shows the charges against Justin and Marsha Harris were unsubstantiated.

click to enlarge harris-maltreatment.jpg

As the Times reported in our original story on the rehoming, the existence of such an investigation and its outcome could be inferred through the timeline of events included in the criminal case against Eric C. Francis. We know that an unknown individual placed a call to the child abuse hotline on March 28, 2014, alerting authorities that Mary and Annie were no longer living with the Harrises. That would have triggered a maltreatment investigation. Based on what DHS told the Times, it seemed unlikely the alleged abandonment would have been substantiated. Webb indicated at the time that if the Harrises had turned over their state adoption subsidies to the Francises for the care of the girls, they would have been providing "material support" and therefore no abandonment would have occurred. The Harrises have since produced a copy of personal checks that indicate they did indeed pass along the money after the girls were given away.

Had that call to the hotline never been placed, the rape would never have come to light. Francis would likely still be free, and the rehoming would have gone unnoticed. A note scrawled on the maltreatment document seems to suggest that someone was trying to puzzle out who made that hotline call: In the margin, in blue marker, is written, "only DHS would have known."

Money questions

Then there is the question of whether Justin and Marsha Harris may have received a net financial benefit from the adoption itself. The couple would have been eligible for a one-time, nonrefundable federal adoption tax credit of $12,970 per child, or $25,940 for both girls, in 2013. Additionally, the couple's overall taxable income for 2013 may have been lowered by as much as $7,800 if they claimed both girls as dependents on their taxes.

Under normal circumstances, an adoption tax credit would soon be outweighed by the everyday cost of raising the children. Philip D. Oliver, a professor of tax law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law, said, "The federal benefit would be designed to do no more than offset the cost of the adoption. ... The government's not giving a bonanza to people to adopt kids — it's more to offset the disincentive ... it's very hard to make money on this, realistically." The credit is one-time only — an adoptive family can claim the tax benefit only once per child, ever.

What if, however, the children lived in the adoptive household for only eight months after the finalized adoption before they were given away?

Oliver said that "there could be a short-term financial benefit of several thousand dollars in adopting a child ... if the adoption were cheap to carry out." The Harris adoption was likely inexpensive, because it took place through DHS. Legal fees and agency costs associated with private adoptions can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, but those conducted through state social services agencies are usually done at little or no cost to adoptive parents.

In 2013, the federal adoption tax credit was available to taxpayers making up to $197,880 annually in modified adjusted gross income. While we don't know the Harrises' 2013 income, it's probably a bit lower than that cutoff. An ABC grant application for Growing God's Kingdom from April 2013 indicates that Marsha Harris earned $47,500 annually in salary and fringe benefits. While Justin Harris was not on the preschool's payroll that year, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report found that the couple received about $85,000 in shareholder distributions from the business in 2013. And that same year, Harris took home about $45,000 in salary, per diem and other expenses as a state legislator. That adds up to about $177,500 in income for the couple.

Although the adoption tax credit isn't refundable — that is, you can't get back more money from the government than you paid in taxes that year — it can be carried forward to reduce a taxpayer's liability in future years, said Joe Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, a nonprofit that educates adoptive parents about the tax credit.

"If the taxpayer cannot use it all in the first year, they have five more years to use [it], even if the child turns 18," he said. Kroll said that in his experience the IRS generally does not track whether an adoption is dissolved after it awards the credit.

When asked if the Harrises claimed an adoption tax credit for tax years 2012, 2013 or 2014, as well as the number of dependents claimed on their federal income taxes for those years, Wells offered the following statement: "The Harrises have their taxes done by a licensed CPA who insures all federal tax laws are followed. The IRS has plenty of safeguards in place to insure that foster and adoptive parents are not abusing the tax code and the Harrises have complied with all federal tax laws." The couple has not released their tax returns.

UNRESOLVED QUESTIONS: Rep. Harris says DCFS Director Cecile Blucker knew of the rehoming all along. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • UNRESOLVED QUESTIONS: Rep. Harris says DCFS Director Cecile Blucker knew of the rehoming all along.

Silence in Little Rock

Perhaps the question most pertinent to Justin Harris' continued occupation of elected office, though, is whether he used his position of influence to affect DHS decision-making. In Harris' telling, DHS has always been his antagonist, first opposing the adoption and then threatening him and Marsha with abandonment (a child maltreatment finding) after the fact. "We attempted to make the situation work ... because we care deeply for the girls, but we were failed by DHS," he said in his press conference in March.

But, according to Cheryl and Craig Hart, the family that fostered Mary and Annie, DCFS Director Cecile Blucker personally intervened to facilitate the adoption over the objection of a local team tasked with ensuring the best interests of the children. A former DHS worker corroborated this account, which was detailed in a previous Arkansas Times story.

Email exchanges between Harris and Blucker obtained under the FOIA indicate a complicated working relationship, but they give little indication that Harris felt threatened by DHS. If anything, the balance of power seems to flow the other way. In March 2013, for example, when the legislature was in session, Harris took to the floor of the House to hold up a routine DHS spending bill. In an email, Harris told Blucker that after he "spoke out against SB 737, an appropriation, it failed miserably. Only garnered 36 votes." A Democrat-Gazette report found that Harris did indeed ask his colleagues to block that bill. Wells told the newspaper that Harris' request for a meeting concerned a constituent, not the Harrises' own adoption.

In addition to leverage over the DHS budget, Harris also held two committee positions with influence over the agency. In the 2015 session, he 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, Legislative & Military Affairs, a panel likely to originate legislation pertaining to the DHS Division of Children and Family Services. In the wake of the rehoming controversy this spring, Harris stepped down from Joint Performance Review and relinquished his vice-chairmanship on Children and Youth, although he still remains a voting member of the latter committee.

In another exchange, Harris reprimanded Sandi Doherty, a DHS administrator who works under Blucker, copying both women on the email: "Sandi, after talking to Marsha, you were not very pleasant. [Blucker] is never to [sic] busy to deal with matters concerning foster care. ... This is not the time to have a breakdown in our relationship." The email was sent shortly after Mary and Annie were sent to live with the Francises, an event that Harris has said Blucker was aware of.

There is nothing improper in itself about a legislator holding up a budget item or emailing agency administrators — but the tone of these exchanges is a far cry from Harris' narrative in which DHS bullied his family into a corner.

Though the exchanges show Harris clearly wielded influence with Blucker in general, however, they give no insight into the events surrounding the adoption of the three girls. Confidentiality rules prevent DHS from releasing any information related to specific children or specific adoptions, and the exchanges between Blucker and Harris have been heavily redacted. Webb, the DHS spokesperson, also said at least 30 emails were not released under the FOIA request because the entirety of the contents concerned specific adoptions. It's impossible to know if those emails concern the Harris adoption or different cases, unless an official investigation grants access to those records and others.

Will such an investigation ever occur? After the news broke of the rehoming, Gov. Hutchinson ordered a review of DCFS policies regarding adoption and post-adoptive services. But Paul Vincent, the Alabama-based consultant performing the review, told the Times that he was not asked to investigate whether Harris improperly influenced DHS or administrators at DHS improperly acted on Harris' behalf.

"I have looked broadly at the system. ... I haven't reviewed the Harris case or interviewed anyone specifically about it," Vincent wrote in an email.

When asked whether Rep. Harris needed to face additional consequences, Gov. Hutchinson said only, "I don't want to comment on any investigation that may be ongoing."

Speaker Gillam said in an email that there were "numerous inquiries ongoing into practices of DHS including [Joint Performance Review] and from the Governor's office, [and] until I have all of that information before me it would be premature to speculate what should or should not be done." As for concerns about how the adoption was handled, he said, "DHS has not come to me with any allegation that Rep. Harris misused his office.  Should information like that about any member come to my attention, then I will certainly do what is within my power to correct it." But since the Harts allege collusion between Harris and a top DHS administrator, it is questionable whether DHS itself would step forward with such allegations.

Rep. Bragg, the House Majority Leader, said by email, "I think the whole story must come out before this can be determined in full.  We need to understand the extent of the relationship between Justin Harris and DHS.  I think that is one of the key drivers in this situation.  A resignation now would be premature until we know fully both sides of the story."

That represents a significant evolution since the rehoming became public in March, when Bragg said of Harris, "I know him to be a dedicated Christian, a family man with the highest integrity who cares deeply for the welfare of children." Recently, when asked about the need for an investigation, Bragg said, "I do think these questions need to be answered. ... I am waiting on the results of both the ABC "20/20" investigation and Mr. Vincent's investigation."

It's now widely known that the network TV newsmagazine has been looking into the Harris story for at least the past month and has interviewed the Harrises and other individuals involved in the story. Workers at Growing God's Kingdom have confirmed that "20/20" camera crews have been filming at the preschool in recent weeks, evidently with the blessing of the Harrises. To date, "20/20" has not contacted the Times, but sources have said that the program will likely air sometime this summer to a national audience. However, ABC is subject to the same limits as any other media outlet; no journalism can substitute for an officially sanctioned investigation with access to confidential files and subpoena power.

While Republican leaders still seem hesitant to criticize Harris, the workers at Growing God's Kingdom who saw the events leading up to the rehoming firsthand have a different perspective. Two of the current workers said they decided to talk to the Times — despite the obvious risk to their jobs — out of a sense of partial responsibility that they didn't speak up for Mary and Annie when the girls lived at the Harris home.

"This was way out of control," said the worker quoted throughout this piece. "You know how you have an 'aha moment'? I said the other day to [a co-worker], 'Why didn't any of us make a hotline call?' She said, 'I don't know' ... I think because Justin is so religious, we sort of accepted it."

A second worker echoed those sentiments. "When all this blew up,  I felt so guilty. We're supposed to be mandated reporters — but all these things happened, like, little bitty things at a time. You're just thinking, 'Well, it's your boss, so ... .' It's weird, being in that situation.

"That's why I decided to talk. ... I was just feeling so guilty for not saying anything," she said.

The first worker also said she was disturbed by the allegations about DHS. "DHS needs to be completely cracked open ... if you're letting Justin have this much power, something is wrong," she said. And she said she was tired of Harris portraying his troubles as the product of partisan politics or religious persecution. "You can't hide behind being a Christian, being a Republican. ... I'm both of those, and what do people think when you say, 'Oh, I'm a Christian' all the time?"

"It has to stop," she said.

View our timeline of events in the Harris adoption and its aftermath.

*This sentence has been modified since the story's original publication. We incorrectly said that DHS performed the 2014 investigation of abandonment; in fact, the investigator was from CACD.

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  • The two faces of Mike Huckabee

    Medicaid expander, Obamacare opponent. Man from Hope, mansion in Florida. Child health proponent, Duggar apologist.
    • Jun 4, 2015
  • The ballad of Fred and Yoko

    How one of the world's foremost Beatles collectors died homeless on the streets of Little Rock.
    • Mar 31, 2016
  • Separate and unequal

    Sue Cowan Morris won the battle to equalize pay of black and white teachers. It cost her her job.
    • Jun 11, 2015

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  • Department of Arkansas Heritage archeologist resigns

    Bob Scoggin, 50, the Department of Arkansas Heritage archeologist whose job it was to review the work of agencies, including DAH and the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, for possible impacts on historic properties, resigned from the agency on Monday. Multiple sources say Scoggin, whom they describe as an "exemplary" employee who the week before had completed an archeological project on DAH property, was told he would be fired if he did not resign.
  • Trump proposes an unconstitutional ban on flag burning, revoking citizenship

    Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States, this morning made a public statement, via Twitter, that the flag burning should be disallowed by law: "there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!"
  • Child welfare too often about 'punishing parents,' DCFS consultant tells legislators

    Reforms promised by the Division of Children and Family Services are "absolutely necessary," the president of DCFS's independent consultant told a legislative committee this morning. But they still may not be enough to control the state's alarming growth in foster care cases.
  • Donald Trump taps Tom Price for HHS Secretary; Medicaid and Medicare cuts could be next

    The selection of Tom Price as HHS secretary could signal that the Trump administration will dismantle the current healthcare safety net, both Medicaid and Medicare.
  • Fake economics

    Fake news is a new phenomenon in the world of politics and policy, but hokey economic scholarship has been around as long as Form 1040 and is about as reliable as the news hoaxes that enlivened the presidential campaign.

Latest in Cover Stories

  • Vive la resistance!

    House Minority Leader Michael John Gray wants to chair the Democratic Party of Arkansas. His plan to lead the party back to relevance: Start listening to Arkansas again.
    • Dec 1, 2016
  • A new day for child welfare?

    After strategizing for months, DHS officials have a plan to address Arkansas's foster care crisis.
    • Nov 24, 2016
  • Jeff Nichols, 'Loving' and the space in between

    The Little Rock native turns to an unheralded chapter of the civil rights era with his new film.
    • Nov 17, 2016
  • More »

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  • Re: Ruth Coker Burks, the cemetery angel

    • Thank you, Ruth! Thank you.

    • on December 2, 2016
  • Re: Art in America

    • I have being hearing about this blank ATM card for a while and i never…

    • on December 2, 2016
  • Re: Asa and Trump

    • I have being hearing about this blank ATM card for a while and i never…

    • on December 2, 2016
 

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