Based on recent news emerging from Arkansas, a casual observer might assume that a child molester lurks around every corner right along with married cousins and toothless hillbillies. I’m sorry that my beloved native state suffers such disrepute, but the fact is, there’s truth in it. In March, a story came to light about Arkansas State Representative Justin Harris and his wife and how they had ‘rehomed’ two little girls they had adopted, one of whom was raped by the new ‘father.’ Most recently, last week a Duggar family skeleton involving incest and pedophilia emerged from the closet, resulting in the prompt suspension of their popular television show “19 Kids and Counting” which aired for years on TLC network.
Is there any connection between these horrific incidents? I think there is.
The Harrises and the Duggars are evangelical Christians. They have, each in their own way, placed themselves in the public eye to advocate on behalf of their faith. There’s risk in holding up oneself as an example, as they are finding out.
Justin Harris is serving his third term in the Arkansas Legislature where he has introduced conservative measures ranging from abortion restriction to denying funding to the state’s department of human services under the campaign promise to reduce government spending. He and his wife own and operate a preschool in his legislative district town of West Fork, a largely rural constituency with a high percentage of fundamentalist church followers. Alongside the alphabet and fingerpainting, Mr. Harris’ school teaches religion.
In 2012, Harris found himself on the hot seat after a formal complaint was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Seems Mr. No Government Funding had his hand in the public till by obtaining grant funding for his preschool. Over a million dollars had flowed into his coffers, courtesy of a state agency charged with providing tax monies in support of preschools that addressed the needs of ‘underserved’ youth. Originating through the Arkansas Department of Education, federal and state taxes are channeled to the Department of Human Services (DHS) and its ABC program (Arkansas Better Chance), which awards grants based on a lengthy list of criteria including family income.
Mr. Harris mounted a vigorous and outraged defense of his right to all that money. He brought in a team of attorneys from Arizona who specialized in defending schools who want to teach Jesus on the public dime. Subsequently, the ABC program promulgated a set of rules specifically addressing the issue of religious instruction. It is unknown whether the ‘solution’ was put forth by the Arizona attorneys, modeled on rules operating in other states, or sprang from a singular Arkansas process, but the novel approach defines an ‘ABC day’ as a set number of hours of purely secular instruction. Whether religious instruction occurs before the ABC day commences or after it ends would not be the state’s concern.
Since then, Mr. Harris has expanded his operation and state funding approaches a million dollars annually. His students arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. and leave as late as 6 p.m. The ABC day begins at 9 and lasts until 3. Before and after, it’s all about Jesus.
Soon after the flap over school funding, the Harrises—who already had three sons—decided to adopt little three girls whose dysfunctional family had lost custody. The girls were fairly well adjusted in a foster home, but the natural mother allegedly made a personal plea to Justin Harris. This arguably admirable effort left many to question Harris’ quick use of the girls in a family portrait promoting his re-election campaign (a violation of adoption policy), the nearly $30,000 tax break that came with the adoption, and the monthly stipend allotted to Harris in the form of state support. Clearly, the adoption wasn’t all about benevolence.
Firmly fixated on the adoption idea, the Harrises refused to listen to DHS field agents who reported that the girls would not be suitable in the Harris household. With all the arrogance befitting a person who believed God directed his acts, Harris apparently used his elected office to pressure DHS to approve the adoption. Local caseworkers opposed to the adoption mysteriously changed their recommendation after their boss advocated on the Harris’ behalf. That Justin Harris held a powerful position in the legislative committee which controlled DHS funding seems never to have been examined as a possible contributor to this department head’s advocacy, which resulted in a local juvenile court judge granting the adoption. Unfortunately, because the case involves adoption, DHS has not released any information.
Within a year, the Harrises decided to ‘rehome’ the girls to another family. By early 2014, one of the girls had been raped by her new ‘father,’ Eric Cameron Francis. Later that year, Francis would be convicted of multiple counts of child abuse and is currently serving time. As it turns out, Francis had been an employee at the Harris preschool and his wife was good friends with Mrs. Harris. Not surprisingly, Harris chose to stay quiet about his role in placing the victim in the Francis home until a reporter from the Arkansas Times connected the dots. The story went public in March 2015.
When the adoption/rehoming scandal broke, Harris held a press conference as reported by the Arkansas Times. He presented himself and his family as the damaged party.
“The older girl, who would have been about 6 years old at the time she entered the Harris household, presented an imminent danger to his older three sons, Harris said. DHS ultimately placed the child into a hospital after just a few months of living with the family, and the Harrises did not proceed with the planned adoption [of that child]. He also said the younger sisters, ages 4 and 2 when they entered the Harris home, were violent. He said one of the girls — the implication was the middle sister — had to be medicated to stop hurting her sister, and that he was advised by therapists to treat her RAD [Reactive Attachment Disorder] by removing toys and other belongings from her room.
“After one of the two younger girls crushed a family pet to death, Harris said, he and his wife were advised by “a therapist, a psychiatrist and a pediatrician” to remove the children from the Harris home. He said he sought DHS assistance at that time but was given none. He said he thought he’d found the “perfect solution” in handing the girls over to Stacey Francis, a longtime friend of his wife’s, and her husband, Eric Cameron Francis. Eric Francis is serving 40 years in prison on charges of raping the child.”
[Francis had also been a children’s church group leader in Northwest Arkansas and abused other children besides the Harris adoptee.]
The foster family who had custody of the girls prior to the Harris involvement repudiated Harris’ allegations about the girls. They said the girls had been kind and loving, happy to be in a solid home situation and eager for affection. Other witnesses came forth to give similar statements. Unfortunately, no one other than the Arkansas Times has investigated the facts of this case, and since the Arkansas Legislature is the only agency with authority to remove Harris, he remains in public office despite a petition demanding his resignation signed by over 5000 people.
Within a month of the revelation that Arkansas DHS had no rule or restriction on the rehoming of adopted children, the state legislature passed a law making rehoming a felony. Harris voted for the bill, in essence making himself a retroactive felon. He resigned from the chairmanship of the public health committee, but failed to yield his legislative seat. He has also refused to accept any responsibility for the little girl’s sexual abuse. At the peak of this fiasco, his school billboard proclaimed that “God Himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.”
Throughout the intense scrutiny on Harris and his failure as an adoptive parent, a considerable body of information has come to light about ongoing religious activities at his preschool. Although random spot inspections by the state theoretically rule out the chance of illegal religious activity during the ‘ABC day,’ reports from former teachers and others allege that children who misbehave are routinely taken to the office where they are prayed over to ‘cast out demons.’ Harris has made efforts to gain official approval for singing religious songs during the lunch hour, since this was not an education period. It’s unclear at present exactly what level of religious activity occurs during the tax-funded ‘ABC day.’ Apparently the state isn’t all that eager to find out.
With the name of “Growing God’s Kingdom,” the school certainly should have received intense scrutiny from agencies charged with the responsibility of appropriately dispensing tax dollars. Instead, as previously stated, the state had blissfully doled out funds not only to the Harris school but also to several other religion-teaching preschools across the state, some of which were owned and operated by others elected to public office. And they continue to do so.
Currently, the new Republican governor Asa Hutchinson and the first-time-since-Reconstruction majority Republican legislature have passed a special dispensation to allow one of those religious pre-school owners/elected officials, Johnny Key, to serve as head of the state education department. The governor, himself a conservative religionist, formerly served as a member of Congress during which time he led the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton for his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. At the same time, Asa’s brother Tim Hutchinson held elected office as a U.S. Senator. It came to light after the impeachment that Christian family man Tim had been carrying on an affair with his legislative director, Randi Fredholm, whom he married as soon as he divorced his wife. Lucky for him, no one initiated impeachment proceedings.
After the Harris rehoming debacle erupted, a bevy of complaints about DHS surfaced, especially about adoption practices. Governor Hutchinson appointed a special investigator to examine the department’s policies and procedures. While it is too early to say as the investigation results are due any day now, a cynical bystander might assume that the governor’s investigation will not examine whether Harris abused his office to obtain the adoption.
Also unclear is the legality of Arkansas preschool operations which comingle the Bible and education. Queries to the compliance office at DHS receive less than informative replies. For example, a recent question asked whether there is a viability test (for preschools which include religious instruction) to determine whether religious instruction could exist without tax funding of the ‘ABC day.’ Local contributions, the only funding that can be legally used for religious teaching, comprise only ten percent of the school’s funding. Would that ten percent be enough to provide the facilities and support needed to provide religious education?
No one knows. DHS confirmed that there is no viability test.
Like Justin Harris, the Duggar father Jim Bob served a stint in the state legislature, elected from a conservative district near Springdale. (The geographical distance between West Fork and Springdale is about twenty miles.) Duggar gained media recognition after his wife Michelle produced their twelfth child (or at some count along in there). Their home-schooled family has promoted themselves as the model for clean Christian living as Michelle continued to squeeze out another Duggar clone every other year. While Duggar originally supported his tribe through used car sales, the income from their television appearances superseded used cars sometime around 2010. It helped the bottom line that the family became a hot ticket item for talk shows and other celebrity circuit events.
Well, probably not so much since last week, when it became known that the Duggar’s oldest son Josh had been sexually molesting his younger sisters and other young females unfortunate enough to spend the night at the Duggar family home. The story first came to the parents’ attention in March 2002 when one of Josh’s victims came crying to her parents about his nighttime visits to her bedroom. He admitted his bad behavior and was disciplined. Four months later, he admitted to more of the same. More discipline.
The family had adopted ‘basic life principle’ instruction from Bill Gothard’s “Advanced Training Institute for Homeschooling.” As advised by Gothard, persons involved in a sexual abuse situation shouldn’t ask why God let it happen but instead consider what the abused person did wrong, such as dress immodestly, indecently expose the body, or hang out with evil friends. Further, “if the abused is not at fault,’ he/she should welcome the gift of gaining spiritual strength from the experience.
[Mr. Gothard resigned in March 2014 after female employees alleged over thirty incidents of sexual abuse. Evidently, they didn’t find their ‘gift’ of spiritual strength sufficiently rewarding to offset the experience of Mr. Gothard’s harassment.]
In March 2003 the now fifteen-year-old Josh Duggar was again outed by his siblings that he was still slipping into his sisters’ bedrooms at night to fondle their breasts and genitals. His touching also occurred on the living room couch, in the laundry room, and on at least one occasion, outside the home. At this point, the father arranged for Josh to spend three months with a family friend in Little Rock who put Josh to work helping remodel a house.
Upon his return home, his father took him to speak with an officer of the Arkansas State Police. It seems Corporal Hutchens was selected for good reasons. He did not file an official report despite a mandatory reporting requirement for law enforcement officers in such cases. Rather, the young man was subjected to a “very stern talk.”
[Subsequently, unrelated to his dereliction of duty in the Duggar case, the now 69-year-old Hutchins is serving a 56-year sentence for repeated child pornography.]
No doubt everyone prayed over everyone’s demons.
The cover-up of Josh Duggar’s pedophilia continued over the years until the statute of limitations had run for any sexual abuse charge. Then, triggered by a note that came to light in 2006 describing these activities, the local police department interviewed all family members and established a record. That too would remain a secret during the coming years including during a 2014 campaign funded and led by the Duggars in an effort to overturn a city ordinance passed in the neighboring city of Fayetteville, Arkansas, which established anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender people seeking housing, employment, etc. Michelle Duggar personally narrated a robo-call that urged the ordinance’s overthrow because under the law, she alleged, a transgender male could get into the women’s bathroom and sexually molest little girls.
Oh, the irony.
Die-hard supporters of Justin Harris and Josh Duggar lament that everyone is casting aspersions on them when they’ve asked Jesus for forgiveness and promised never to rehome or molest again. Duggar fans vow to boycott TLC programs until the “19 Kids and Counting” show returns to the air. They’ll probably be waiting a long time. Reportedly General Mills, one of the show’s top sponsors, made it abundantly clear to TLC that they would not be in that parade. Pundits remark that the Duggar explosion “taints the whole brand.”
One can only hope. Never mind that for years the Duggars have made a sickening spectacle of indiscriminate and unconscionable reproductive excess. Never mind that a more caring and responsible approach to a large family, assuming one absolutely must have a house full of children, would be to produce one or two of your own gene pool and then, for God’s sake, adopt some of the many children languishing in adoption facilities and foster homes here and around the world.
Above all else, the hypocrisy involved in the Harris and Duggar stories staggers the imagination. While firmly denying funding to DHS based on his campaign promise to reduce government spending, Mr. Harris fought for government handouts to fund his religious school in spite of the fact that he knew he was breaking the law by teaching religion in a tax-supported program. As an elected person who held himself up as an example of Christian righteousness, he should have been the first person to recognize he was crossing the line between church and state as delineated in the U. S. Constitution. Instead, assuming he understood the thrust of the Founding Fathers’ intent, he no doubt privately justified his behavior with his belief that God willed it.
Eric Francis, intake photograph at time of arrest, Benton County, Arkansas. 2014
We’re left to wonder if rehoming was God’s will. Or if God wanted that already traumatized six-year-old little girl to suffer rape at the hands Eric Francis.
Similarly, the Duggars must have decided that hiding Josh’s sexual perversion was God’s wish. After all, they undoubtedly prayed on it and God didn’t say to tell. The family had a mission to spread the Good Word to the world via their television show. Even a moron could figure out that TLC probably wouldn’t like to hear about Josh’s nighttime recreation. The Duggars called in favors from local friends and church members to sidestep the law. They failed to put Josh in the hands of a professional therapist who might have helped the young man overcome his predilection for sexually assaulting young children.
As it is, Josh now has a captive audience within his own family and only God knows whether he manages to resist the temptation to fondle them. We can only guess whether his sisters and other victims of his teenage abuse have received any professional help. Chances are, they prayed on it.
Underlying this sickening avalanche of news about Harris and the Duggars is a growing national problem. The evangelical right believes in demons, and they believe that praying can send the demons packing. The implicit teaching from infancy onward is that we as individuals are not responsible for our acts, but rather it’s those damn demons who creep in when we’re not looking. If we can just send those demons away, we’ll be smiled upon by Jesus and everything will be fine.
This kind of simplistic medieval thinking lies behind the ability of political handlers to capture votes from the evangelical demographic. The compelling argument is that demons rule the ‘other’ party, that gay marriage, abortion, and other private activities are the proper province of political action, and only by voting for Mr. Righteous can we satisfy the will of God. So far self-sustaining through multiple election cycles, this obsessed minority turn out to vote in numbers unlike other less fanatical segments of the population. In the most recent Arkansas election, the prevailing vote represented about 30% of the eligible voter base.
By voting sympathetic legislators into office, adherents are able to skirt the intent of the law that requires no tax dollars be spent in promoting religion and to place compatriots in positions of authority such as, in Arkansas, to head the state’s entire educational system. Johnny Key does not hold the master’s degree or ten years experience as a teacher which, until the 2015 actions of the Arkansas governor and legislature, would have barred him from serving the state’s top education post. Now, as long as the number two man meets those requirements, the state can put a favored religious legislator in the top slot.
Further, evangelical right wingers are able to spawn a network of pseudo-professional responses to serious matters of sexual abuse and direct the blame for such abuse toward the abused.
Fundamentally, the movement toward dozens of children, homeschooling, and the non-response to incestuous sexual molestation has to do with—at least in part—the liberation of women from their long history as male property. I’ve recently learned that my own great-grandfather molested one of my aunts, and probably many more, but none of this was discussed openly, nor was any action taken. It was his ‘right’ as the patriarch to thump his Bible and fiddle one of his pretty little ‘properties’ on the side. The aunt herself did not speak of it until old age, at which time she shared it with her sisters. Some of those sisters chose not to believe it really happened and continue to attend fundamentalist churches where women are not allowed to speak.
There are many features of modern life that scare the hell out of those who simply cannot understand science or other changes increasingly widespread in the world. Our technology and culture have evolved faster than our mental or physical state. Everything is too fast and too complicated. It’s only been a hundred years since picking peas and saddling a horse served as the requisite skill set to get through life.
Obviously not all evangelical Christians sexually abuse children or try to use tax dollars in support of religious education. However, a study examining the correlation between fundamentalism and such abuses would be interesting. A January 2014 article in Psychology Today summarized several studies which found positive correlation between low I.Q. and religious belief. One result of the studies was the conclusion “that conservative and fundamentalist religious beliefs can discourage learning.”
From ignorance comes fear, and for many fundamentalists, fear rules the day. Fomenting that fear serves a calculated political purpose that ultimately assures that power rests in the hands of the super-rich. The success of their calculation is demonstrated in increasingly skewed wealth distribution and an exponential increase in fear mongering.
For many, especially in southern states where low income and poor education help spawn the idea that cultivated ignorance is a form of virtue, the solution is to crawl back into the Middle Ages and believe that the problem is abortion, minorities, immigration, or homosexuality. We’re in real danger of allowing this misbegotten movement to gain power over our schools, political structures, and way of life. As long as the system loops back on itself with brainwashing in the early years and rejection of any understanding beyond their closed belief system, the Taliban is looking more and more like a local organization.