Arkansas officials are examining the fallout after a state legislator gave his two adopted daughters to a man who sexually abused one of them. Only a few states are known to have laws to regulate the so-called “re-homing” of adopted children.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is working with lawmakers and the Department of Human Services to potentially change state adoption procedures after a state 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 one adopted daughter of Rep. Justin Harris of West Fork was abused.
Harris said Friday that the children had behavioral problems and professionals had recommended the transfer.
Only a few 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.
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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 had threatened family members and one had 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,” said Harris, a Republican. “When DHS fails adopted parents, they fail the children even more.”
Harris also said he and his wife adopted an older sister of the girls, who was transferred to another family before her sisters were given to Francis.
The state’s Democratic Party leader called on Harris 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.
Another family has since adopted the two sisters, said Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith.
State Reps. 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 nonrelatives without court approval.
Leding wouldn’t comment on Harris’ situation, but said most lawmakers previously didn’t know that giving away children was legal.