Earlier this year it was reported Arkansas State Representative Justin Harris, in October of 2013 disrupted the adoption of his two daughters and out of desperation they ‘rehomed’ them without the involvement or intervention of law enforcement agencies or children’s protection services (an act which was still legal in 2013). As a result of the rehoming, the older daughter was raped by her new prospective adoptive father. She was just 6 years old.
The Harrises originally sought to adopt the three sisters together but in the end only finalized the adoption for the younger two sisters. They wanted to expand their family and provide a forever home for children who needed one. Except in this case, they took on more than they could handle and adopted children who had been severely abused and neglected by their birth mother and her strings of unsavory boyfriends, most of whom were drug addicts and drug dealers. When they first came in contact with the Harrises in 2011, their ages were 4, 2 and 9 months. By this time the oldest and middle girl had already been repeatedly sexually abused and were exhibiting predatory and disturbing behaviors. According the their foster-mother, the 9 month old on the surface seemed fine, except that she rarely cried. An infant not crying is a telltale a sign of neglect. This little baby knew, even just at 9 months old, if she cried, no one would come get her and comfort her, she might as well been raised at a Russian orphanage. This keen observation came from a very experienced foster-mother who has cared for over 70 children in her home. The first and second daughter were later diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).
In the end, the Harrises decided to adopt the younger two girls. The oldest girl proved too much for the Harrises to handle due to her RAD and before the 6 month trial adoption period was over, they made the decision to not formally adopt her. However, against the recommendations of the adoption counselors at DHS, the Harrises insisted on finalizing the adoption of the middle and youngest girl. They claimed they both had 4-year degrees on child development, they run a successful Christian based therapeutic child care center and Marsha Harris herself was a survivor of abuse so she could provide the healing that was necessary for the girls. The Harrises felt they were more than equipped to parent these two little girls. They felt the opposition by the DHS was due to their religious devotion and not their inherent unsuitability. They believed they were being discriminated because of their strong Christian faith. As a result, any constructive advice and recommendations made to the Harrises by DHS was construed as bias and was dismissed.
The final tragedy of this story is, when the Harrises disrupted the adoption and ‘rehomed’ them on their own to Stacey and Eric Francis, a couple the Harrises knew and Eric Francis worked for Marsha Harris’s day care center, the middle daughter was raped by Eric Francis. The Francises were deemed suitable by Justin and Marsha Harris because they have three internationally adopted children of their own, one of whom is also diagnosed with RAD. Within months, when his wife went out-of-town for just one day, Eric Francis raped the middle daughter, who by this time was 6 years old. He is currently serving a 40 year sentence for this crime. Before hiring Eric Francis, he was thoroughly vetted by Marsha Harris and even underwent a FBI background check, his record came back clean. Eric Francis was also a child development specialist and came with good recommendations from his previous employment. But Eric Francis was fired just three months after he was hired due to poor work attendance. Even after his termination, the two little girls still remained in he and his wife’s care.
From the Beginning
This story made the news for two reasons. First, the principle character involved is an elected official, a representative for the Arkansas state legislature. Second, because the ‘rehoming’ went really badly. If the ‘rehoming’ of the two little girls was successful and no one was harmed and it was a true miracle solution where all parties are safe, happy, growing and thriving, then what’s the harm (besides concept of ‘rehoming’ your children like you do pets)? If this were the case, it would have been a small blurb in the news or it would be spun as a positive story. And the controversy and barbarity behind the concept of ‘rehoming’ your adoptive children like you do an unruly pet wouldn’t have been exposed and examined.
In the Harrises 20/20 interview with Elizabeth Vargas, they claimed that they were discriminated by DHS of Arkansas because of their strong religious faith. They claim that they were called religious ‘fanatics’ by the authorities at DHS and that’s why they were recommended against adopting these three girls. I find this claim to be spurious, they live in Arkansas for God sakes, specifically in his area of West Fork, AK, where there are more churches than 7-11s, the demographics of the area is white, affluent Southern Baptist Christians. Most of the other people interviewed in connection to this story all describe themselves as practicing Christians.
However, the fact that they’ve never even been foster parents to any child, never mind severely abused and troubled children didn’t factor into their thinking? Perhaps that besides running their day care center, though it offers therapeutic services, is about the only other experience they have with children who are not theirs? And since their day care center is a ‘Christian’ based organization, it’s safe to bet that most of the children enrolled there are of a Christian background not too dissimilar to theirs. The therapy methods used may lean more towards Christian based therapies as opposed to secular therapies. There’s nothing wrong with religion based therapy but one must be open minded to all types of therapies when helping children. In other words, the Harrises have no experience dealing with children and families which do not resemble theirs, whether abuse is involved or not. This perhaps was the main concern of the Arkansas DHS, not their Christian faith. For two people who claim to be child development professionals, they seriously lack the introspection required for their chosen profession.
The genesis of this whole sorry saga began when Marsha Harris received a phone call from the girls’ biological mother out of the blue one day (she didn’t clarify how a strange woman got her phone number). The woman said she had three daughters that was about to be removed by DHS and asked if the Harrises could take the three girls and adopt them. The birth mother felt this was better than her children being forcibly removed from her. The birth mother explained her situation and it wasn’t pretty. She was drug addicted and the people she hung around with was drug addicts and drug dealers. She could no longer cope with her three girls.
Marsha Harris went home, told her husband and they prayed about it and decided to go for it. They contacted DHS about their intentions, the girls were removed from their mother and were placed in temporary foster homes while the adoption process was making its way through the courts. The oldest girl was placed separately from her two younger sisters and they were all placed with foster parents who are experienced in caring for children with behavioral issues. It was clear right off the bat the oldest girl had been repeatedly sexually abused and was beginning to show predatory behavior.
While the Harts did not have the older sister in their home, they had been in touch with girl’s then-foster parents and knew she was a troubled child. In fact, because of the repeated sexual abuse she had suffered at such a young age, she had begun to exhibit predatory behaviors. Cheryl Hart recalls asking the Harrises, “Why would you subject your sons to a sexual predator?”
And though the two youngest girls had never given the Harts any severe problems, they did not believe the younger sisters should be placed in a home with any young children because of the abuse they had suffered in the past.
And the Harts said they weren’t the only ones who opposed the adoption. For reasons similar to their own, the Harts said DHS therapists, case workers, adoption specialists and other former foster parents also warned that this would not be the right fit.
But the Harrises countered:
…They were both early childhood educators, ran and operated a preschool and had experience working in therapeutic daycare centers. They argued they were more than capable of raising these young girls. Furthermore, Marsha Harris had been abused in the past, which she said would help her deal with the two older girls’ special needs.
One of the main reasons the Harrises chose to not adopt the oldest girl and eventually rehomed the two younger girls is because they were posing a legitimate threat to their three sons and the middle daughter has already killed a family pet and threatened to harm another family pet. So when push came to shove, they chose their biological children over their adopted children, which one cannot fault them for doing. It’s every parent’s instinct and right to protect their biological offspring, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, this was precisely why DHS and the other foster parents didn’t feel the Harrises were a right fit. This is exactly the reason these three girls needed to go to homes where there are no other children present, where in order for them to not only heal but thrive, they need to be the sole focus of their adoptive parent’s endeavors. The girls need to be in homes where the ONLY ‘choice’ is them, not them or mommy and daddy’s real kids. Again, the Harrises being child development professionals, how could they not realize this? Even an amateur such as myself watching the 20/20 program was able to arrive at this conclusion.
Next, the two older girls got diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), which is a “rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. Reactive attachment disorder may develop if the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection and nurturing aren’t met and loving, caring, stable attachments with others are not established.” There are no established treatment protocols or cures but “treatments for reactive attachment disorder include positive child and caregiver interactions, a stable, nurturing environment, psychological counseling, and parent or caregiver education.”
If one reads carefully between the lines, the ‘treatment’ prescribed for RAD is there is no ‘treatment’ except a lot of patience, love, time and see if it makes a difference (sometimes it doesn’t). And during this ‘time’, a lot can go wrong quickly as evidenced by the Harrises. The RAD child can scream violent abuse, thrash and kick for hours, non-stop. If you think toddler tantrums in the middle of the grocery aisle is bad, you’ve seen nothing yet. RAD meltdowns can last for hours, imagine a child of eight or ten years old screaming and tantruming non-stop, and there’s nothing you can do to appease them. You can’t offer them a new toy, candy, chocolate, put on their favorite movie, nothing works. Many who are unfamiliar with children with RAD symptoms wrongly believe that no child could have the capacity or cognition to say things like ‘I will kill you’ or ‘I will kill my brothers when they are sleeping at night’ or when they’ve killed the family pet and then smile cruelly afterwards, revelling in the harm they’ve done on a small helpless creature and causing sadness in other family members. Many people believe children do not have the capacity for this, especially children as young as 6 years old. This type of behavior is only reserved for psychopaths. But when the three girls have been neglected and abused from the day they were born, and given the birth mother’s history, these children could have been born with controlled substances in their systems, there’s no telling the kind of damage these girls birth mother has done to them, in-utero and postpartum. Even if the Harrises are not familiar with RAD and its pathology and symptoms, they should know the damage (regardless what they are ultimately diagnosed with) done to these three girls is far more than the eyes can see.
RAD is a rare disorder, but after a quick Google search, there many places which offer alternative therapy for RAD and resources for parents who has a child that is afflicted with RAD. There’s no pill to take for a child that did not experience love and comfort from a parent. There’s no other shortcut to their healing but with extra amounts of love, patience and tolerance, so much that the child is convinced, finally, no matter what, he or she is worthy and deserving of love. Sometimes, despite everything, it may not be enough. Some adoptive parents must come to accept that no matter what, their adopted children, whom they love with everything, will never love them back because they are too damaged. It’s a tall order for most parents. Even parents who believed themselves to be ready for anything their children throw at them struggle with parenting children with RAD.
The Harrises, citing safety concerns for their three sons, didn’t even have these poor girls in their home for one year. They saw the writing on the wall early, decided this was beyond their capability or comprehension and decided to cut their losses. In doing so, they were delivered to the den of a sexual predator. These girls, again, are being rejected, deemed unwanted and unlovable.
What Went Wrong?
In a word? Hubris. The hubris of a privileged white family who is used to getting what they want. Despite all the opposition from DHS, the judge granted them them them the privilege of being permanent parents to these children. If Justin Harris was not a representative for the State of Arkansas, it’s highly unlikely the adoption would have gone through. As most adoptive parents will tell you, it’s notoriously difficult to adopt a child through child protective services. The level of scrutiny is beyond what anyone can imagine.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the Harrises to fulfil their Christian calling to provide a home for children who need one, but they went about it all wrong. Because you want to adopt children and out of the blue one day, three little girls are dropped in your lap (quite literally), and you are convinced it’s Divine Providence. You go home, join hands and pray about it and you decide you are fit parents for three little girls who have been abused and neglected. On what planet is this logical?
When the two younger daughters resided with the Harrises, the methods employed to calm their rages were suspect at best. According to their babysitter Chelsey Goldsborough, Marsha Harris was convinced that the children were possessed and had ‘demons’ in them. The family frequently prayed over them to cast out the demons and when that didn’t work they enlisted Christian spiritual healers from Alabama to do an exorcism (a claim the Harrises later denied) to cast out their demons. The babysitter also alleged Marsha Harris blasted Gospel music in the rooms of the girls all day, again to cast out their demons. The sisters are not allowed to be together in the same room because they could speak to each other ‘telepathically’ and egg each other on with their bad behavior, alleged Marsha Harris. Their three sons were kept away from their younger sisters for fear that they will harm them. The middle daughter verbally expressed wishes to ‘kill’ her brothers. The three boys for a while slept in their parents bedroom as protection from their sisters.
But NO. These children are not possessed with demons. They are not possessed period. These children were abused and neglected to the degree no one can imagine and this is the result of that abuse. This is the result when a mother puts her needs or the needs of her boyfriend, drug dealer or pimp ahead of her children. This is the result when her child is crying and she refuses to attend to it and just lets it cry until there are no more tears and that child to protect itself from more hurt turns into a rage filled human being, yes even at 2 years old, this is possible. The Harrises treating their adopted children like they are to be feared is already the wrong start. Despite their RAD, they are still people and they know when they are stigmatized and feared. Again, this is exactly why DHS advised against the Harrises adopting these girls. And if they opened their minds and ears and listened to what was being told to them as opposed what they wanted to hear to suit their agenda, all of this could be prevented. Were there no other children available for adoption in Arkansas? What got into their heads that they must, despite all recommendations against, adopt these girls?
The greatest evil which resulted from this tragic series of events is the middle daughter being victimized again. She was raped when she was rehomed, by Eric Francis, her prospective ‘new’ adoptive father. She was delivered on a silver platter by an elected official because he didn’t want to go through the proper, safe and legal channel of surrendering the girls to DHS, for fear of the state filing abandonment charges against them and possibly remove their three biological sons from their care. So the Harrises took the easy way out, they called around to see who will take their ‘demon possessed’ children so they can resume their lives before they made this ill-advised decision.
The final injustice is when their actions were found out, no charges would be filed against the Harrises because rehoming wasn’t illegal in 2013. They did do their due diligence and vet Eric Francis, however, background checks are only useful if someone was caught committing a crime and was arrested, charged and found guilty, Eric Francis skirted the law until now. And when the Harrises were forced to make a statement on the ‘allegations’ against them, they chose to do it in the Arkansas State Legislature building to appear credible, and roundly blamed DHS for giving them children they weren’t equipped to handle, when DHS all along advised against such adoption. The Harrises countered they were recommended against the adoption due to their devout Christian faith, not because they were ill-equipped.
Marsha Harris told Elizabeth Vargas if people wanted to “judge” her for protecting her three sons, they they can go right ahead. She, as their mother, has a duty to protect her biological offspring. No Marsha, no one will judge you for wishing to protect your children, it is your instinct and duty as their mother to protect your boys (the precise thing which is lacking in the lives of your daughters). What you are being judged on is your intractable and obstinate stance (based on prayer) on adopting children which are beyond your capability, your husband pulled strings to make it happen, you got what you wanted except it was more than what you bargained for, you turned around and cast it off to someone else and made it their burden. In the process, you got one of your daughters raped. That’s where you are judged. You made your bed but you won’t lay in it and then you turned it all around and blamed DHS when they warned you of your unsuitability.
The 20/20 broadcast ended on a happy note. All three sisters found new forever homes and are thriving. The oldest girl was adopted by one family and the two younger girls was adopted by another family. Their adoptive parents are older parents who have already raised biological children and do not have any other children in their homes but them. The adoptive parents of the two younger girls said it took them one year to settle in, but now they are thriving.
One more tidbit about the Harrises, after they rehomed their children, it was reported they were still receiving their adoption subsidy from the state, because, legally, they were still the girls’ permanent parents. This little fact was lost in the avalanche of information, but it’s worth pointing out because he is an elected official. He is also a ‘Conservative, Family Oriented’ politician, which loosely translates to he will defund Planned Parenthood if given the opportunity, restrict women’s access to contraceptives and safe abortions, and blames the poor for the own plight and leeching off the government. Oh yes, after his daughter was raped by a former family friend, he went on to sponsor a legislation where it makes it even more difficult for a woman who became pregnant by rape or incest to get an abortion, it’s called HB1424.
We can all be relieved that after this tragedy, not only will they never be able to adopt any more children, they will have trouble trying to adopt a cat.