LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is working with lawmakers and the Department of Human Services to potentially change state adoption procedures after a House member gave his adopted daughters to a man who later admitted to sexually abusing one of them.
Hutchinson met with two legislators after they filed bills this week to criminalize “re-homing,” an informal term for transferring an adopted child to an unrelated family without state oversight. The lawmakers acted after the Arkansas Times newspaper reported that the adopted daughter of Rep. Justin Harris of West Fork was abused.
Harris said Friday that the children had behavioral problems and professionals recommended the transfer.
Only a handful of states have enacted laws to regulate “re-homing,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado and Wisconsin regulate the advertising of adopted children, while Louisiana and Florida have criminalized the “re-homing” practice. Ohio has safeguards against trading money or goods in return for an adopted child.
Harris’ attorney, Jennifer Wells, said the lawmaker and his wife adopted the 6- and 3-year-old girls in March 2013 at the request of the children’s mother. Seven months later, Wells said, he gave the girls to a longtime family friend who had worked at Harris’ family-owned preschool. Wells said the wives of Harris and Eric Francis had known each other for 20 years and that the Francis family had passed background checks for international adoptions.
Harris, joined by his wife and Wells at a news conference, said one of his adopted daughters threatened family members and one harmed a pet. A psychiatrist, pediatrician and therapist all recommended they be moved, he said.
A Human Services employee he didn’t identify said he would be charged with abandonment if he gave the girls back to the state, Harris said, and he said officials didn’t take steps that could have prevented the abuse.
“We were failed by DHS,” Harris said. “When DHS fails adopted parents, they fail the children even more.”
Harris, who took only a limited number of questions after making his statement, also said he and his wife adopted an older sister of the girls, who was transferred to another family by the department before her sisters were given to Francis.
The state’s Democratic party leader called on Harris, a Republican, to resign. Wells said Harris broke no laws and is “not planning on resigning at the moment.”
Francis, 39, pleaded guilty in November to three counts of sexual assault in the second degree, which involved the 6-year-old and two underage girls Francis knew through church. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison with an additional 20 years suspended and is being held at the Benton County Jail. The jail didn’t list a lawyer for Francis and an attorney listed in court records didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Another family has since adopted the two sisters, said Benton County prosecutor Nathan Smith.
Representatives Greg Leding, a Democrat from Fayetteville, and David Meeks, a Republican from Conway, have both filed bills to prohibit most transfers of adopted children to non-relatives without court approval.
Leding wouldn’t comment on Harris’ situation, but said most lawmakers previously didn’t know giving away children was legal.
“I think it’s natural for people to want to make sure children are kept in the safest situation,” Leding said.
It’s unclear when the bills will be heard, but they are most likely headed to the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs, of which Harris is vice chairman. Harris said he supports Leding’s bill.
Department spokeswoman Amy Webb has said she is barred by law from commenting on Harris’ case and said after the news conference that she was also prohibited from “clarifying any inaccurate information.”
“Senior DHS officials have always been available to Rep. Harris when he had personal or constituent concerns and they have had many conversations over the years,” Webb said. “That open-door policy would have been true in this case as well.”
Webb said the agency is aware of nine adopted children who were given to different parents during the past two years but doesn’t actively track or police the practice. She said the department facilitated between 600 and 700 adoptions last year.
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