Initiated in early spring, a study of Arkansas’ Department of Human Services (DHS) is Governor Asa Hutchinson’s first step in addressing systemic problems within the agency. The driving force behind this initiative was the ‘rehoming’ and subsequent rape of a six-year-old girl originally adopted by Rep. Justin Harris and his wife Marsha of West Fork, owner and operator of a pre-school, Growing God’s Kingdom.
Harris’ excuse for their ‘rehoming’ of two already traumatized little girls was that he had asked DHS for help and they had refused. He stated that the girls had been “damaged by previous abuse and he couldn’t manage them,” according to Friday’s coverage by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (July 17, 2015).
Unfortunately, the governor failed to require this study to investigate whether Harris abused the power of his legislative position to coerce DHS approval of the adoption in the first place.
The couple fostering the two girls prior to the Harris adoption have voiced their belief that Harris had done exactly that. More than one observer cited local caseworkers’ opposition to the adoption. Harris was warned that the girls would not be suitable for his household. He pushed the adoption through anyway and immediately included the girls in a photograph used in his reelection campaign.
Less than a year later, when he and his wife decided the girls were too much to handle, Harris ‘rehomed’ them to a Benton County couple, Eric Francis and his wife.
Harris may have believed that the Francis household would serve as a suitable home. He cited the couple’s adoption of other children as evidence of their suitability. In hindsight, an observer might suspect that the couple’s eagerness to adopt had to do with the husband’s predilection for molesting children rather than any altruistic urge.
Prior to a stiff “I’m sorry for what happened to the girls” statement in June, Harris has admitted no wrongdoing. Now that the governor’s study is complete, it seems no blame will be assigned. We can take small comfort that Harris won’t run for another term.
State police investigating the extent of Francis’ abuse forced Harris to acknowledge to parents of his preschool students that a former employee had been convicted of sexually molesting children. Investigators found no specific evidence that Francis abused any children at the preschool, but several parents removed their children from the program anyway.
A year passed.
Without a reporter digging into the matter, the link between the conviction of Eric Francis and the role of Justin and Marsha Harris would never have been made public. Harris had reasons not to want any of this known. Not only was he holding elected office and operating a religious pre-school, he served as the co-chair of the House committee with control over the Department of Human Services. The whole debacle reflected poorly on his judgement.
Apparently none of this lit up on Gov. Hutchinson’s radar when he commissioned the study of DHS even though the trigger for the study was Harris’ accusation that he had to rehome the girls because DHS wouldn’t help. There has been nothing from the governor or in the report to criticize Harris for ignoring DHS advice and pressing for the adoption. There’s been no known follow-up on whether Harris held up the DHS budget request as part of his coercion as alleged by some observers. There’s been no statement by any of Harris’ Republican colleagues in the state legislature as to his ethics–or lack thereof.
Yes, DHS has problems and the report confirms just how bad they are. None of that excuses what Harris did.
Gov. Hutchinson brought in Paul Vincent to conduct the study, an experienced career man who formerly headed Alabama’s social services department. Vincent has conducted similar studies in numerous states. His analysis reveals a state agency in deep distress, understaffed and suffering long-term problems, all of which fell under Harris’ purview as Vice Chair of the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth and as a member of the Joint Budget, a powerful committee which approves all appropriations for state agencies.
The study found that caseworkers in Arkansas are expected to handle twice as many cases as the national average (29 versus 15). The state has only two foster homes for every three children who need them which results in one of every five children in need being placed in a non-family living situation. Some caseworkers are forced to hold the child overnight at the office or at their own home.
The problem gets worse by the day. The number of children in foster care increased in just the last two months from 3,875 to 4,323. Fifty-five percent of fostered children are placed outside their home county because adequate arrangements aren’t available locally. With this kind of pressure within the system, the default option for caseworkers is to ignore cases where abuse is not clear cut.
The outcome is horrific. In 2011, 23 children died in families where social services had been in contact but had not taken the child out of the home. By 2014, the number jumped to 40. Most recently, a six year old boy died of intestinal rupture after being raped by his father. Social services had previously visited the home twice and found nothing to justify removing the child from the home.
The six-year-old raped after being rehomed by Justin and Marsha Harris came from an extremely troubled home situation. According to reports, this middle child of three daughters had already been through hell.
- The girls had been taken into DHS custody in early 2011 after suffering through a staggering sequence of chaos and abuse. First, [the mother Sarah] Young discovered her husband sexually assaulting Jeannette, the oldest of the three girls, and turned him in; he is now in prison. (Other sources claim Young waited for days to turn the husband over to the police.) Young then became involved with a man who cooked and sold methamphetamine; a fire started by his meth lab provoked a police investigation that sent that man, too, to prison. The child abuse hotline soon thereafter received a call from an individual concerned for the girls’ safety, and investigators found the children in the care of a woman in a house with multiple adults who tested positive for meth; one man at the home had been sexually abusing both Jeannette and Mary, and he is now serving a 120-year sentence. When DHS collected the children, the eldest was 5, the middle girl was 3 and the youngest was under a year old. (More here)
Vincent pointed out the frustration experienced by caseworkers who want to help children and yet are left without sufficient resources and methods by which to do so. In response to the report, Gov. Hutchinson estimates it will mean hiring an additional 200 caseworkers at a cost of at least $8 million. No one knows where that money will come from.
Price tags remain unknown for the report’s recommendation for better and more accessible mental health care for foster children and others in the state’s care. For years, law enforcement and prison administrators have called for better mental health interventions for troubled offenders who end up incarcerated. The death toll among mentally ill prisoners continues to climb along with deaths of abused children while to date the state legislature has made no real strides in addressing this need.
Meanwhile, in their 2015 sessions Harris and fellow legislators spent countless hours fomenting unconstitutional laws to restrict abortion rights and to allow a Ten Commandments monument to be erected on state capitol grounds. And they’ve given themselves a pay increase from $15,869 to $39,400 per year.
If the Justin Harris case hadn’t been brought before the public by a reporter at the Arkansas Times, it’s questionable whether this study would have occurred. Because that’s how things are done in Arkansas. We don’t want to go looking for trouble.
We know trouble is out there. We know we are among the poorest states but other than appropriating scarce tax dollars to bribe companies to locate here, we can’t figure out how to do better.
Nearly 17% of Arkansans never graduate high school and less than 14% obtain a college degree. We have the next to lowest per capita income in the nation. Our crime rate is significantly higher than the national average and our prison population is growing accordingly. We also rank high in poor health, obesity, and use of tobacco and other dangerous drugs.
Despite the continuing lousy achievement levels in Arkansas, we seem incapable of trying to change anything. The conservative voters of this state loathe national standards in education; they want local control and tax dollars for programs such the Harris preschool where children are taught that their misbehavior is the result of demon possession.
Conservatives are outraged by the Affordable Care Act and legislators promise to end the state’s participation despite its progressive reforms including increased coverage for mental health care.
The governor says he will take the DHS problems to the faith-based community to increase foster care resources and improve care. Because religion helped Justin and Marsha Harris make good choices? Because religion guided Eric Francis? Because religion saved those little girls?
Why am I not reassured?