LITTLE ROCK, Ark., March 7 (UPI) -- Arkansas state Rep. Justin Harris and his wife defended their decision Friday to "rehome" their two adopted daughters in 2013 and explained how the girls ended up in the care of a man who later sexually assaulted one of them.
Eric Francis, who pleaded guilty in November of sexually assaulting a 6-year-old in his custody, was a former employee of Harris at the Christian preschool he owned, Growing God's Kingdom. He is currently serving a 40-year sentence.
An investigation by the Arkansas Times revealed this week, however, that the two girls in Francis' custody, ages 6 and 3, had in fact been legally adopted by Harris and his wife, Marsha Harris, from the state Department of Human Services in March 2013, but were "rehomed" Francis and his family less than a year later without notifying authorities.
The sexual abuse by Francis was only discovered by the Crimes Against Children Division, which runs a child maltreatment hotline, after an anonymous caller claimed the Harrises "gave their adoptive children to a family" and "continued to accept adoption subsidy money even after giving the children away."
After the report, Harris and his wife released a statement saying their family had "suffered a severe injustice," prompting backlash.
The Times subsequently revealed Harris and his wife initially took three sisters into care, but later returned one to DHS because of severe behavioral problems stemming form past trauma. The couple at the time kept the other two girls, who they say had "reactive attachment disorders," an inability to form healthy emotional attachments with primary caregivers.
Harris spoke to the media at the Arkansas State Capitol Friday, accompanied by his wife, and the Republican said DHS failed him and his family.
"We are heartbroken by this situation," Harris said. "We attempted to make the situation work for two years, because we care deeply for the girls."
Harris admitted there were initially three sisters in his care. He also claimed his sons, who are older than the two girls who remained, were living in fear after one of the girls "crushed" a small pet. He said he did try to contact DHS for assistance with the girls, and that the department threatened him with child abandonment charges.
He said his family decided to give the girls to Francis, whose wife Stacey Francis had been friends with Marsha Harris since high school. Harris said he drew up guardianship papers and paid them a stipend.
The DHS is prohibited by law from commenting on individual cases, and in a statement noted "we also are prohibited from clarifying any inaccurate information."
State lawmakers reacted to the incident swiftly, drafting two bills that would stop and possibly criminalize such transfers. There are no laws in Arkansas to prevent giving an adopted child to another family.
"We've got a lot to do here in Arkansas, and we want to be the most foster-friendly, adoptive-friendly state that you can possibly be," said State Rep. David Meeks, who drafted one of the proposed bills.