Emails received by a FOIA requests show Harris was willing to block funding to the agency if he did not get his way:
…emails between Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, and Department of Human Services officials, and video from the 2013 House legislative session, also show an at-times confrontational legislator willing to block routine appropriations legislation when he didn’t get his way.
Harris declined Friday and Saturday to be interviewed for this article. An attorney for him, Jennifer Wells, said Harris’ relationship with DHS, and the head of its Division of Children and Family Services, Cecile Blucker, was an “on again, off again” type of relationship.
Harris was happy to work with the agency as long as he got his $4.2 milllion is state and Federal funding. On the other hand, if he felt DHS was acting too slowly, he would attempt to cut funding to them.
An analysis of emails obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act found an often collegial working relationship between Blucker and Harris, replete with favors and offers for assistance from both sides.
Many of the emails regarded Harris’ West Fork day care center Growing God’s Kingdom, which has received nearly $4.2 million in state and federal funding since 2010.
At least 30 emails, according to DHS spokesman Amy Webb, were withheld because they dealt exclusively with individual adoption and custody cases. It was unclear how many of them might cast light on Blucker’s role in the Harris adoptions.
The emails that were provided to the Democrat-Gazette show that in one instance, Harris emphasized his ability to stop DHS funding in its tracks.
Several of the emails are from March 2013, when Harris was pushing to get the adoptions approved.
That month, Harris asked for a meeting with DHS officials and indicated that his wife might attend as well.
The meeting didn’t get scheduled as quickly as Harris wanted. He later blocked legislation that DHS needed.
The routine bill shepherded through the Legislature by fellow Republicans had already passed in the Senate 34-0. It eventually passed 88-0 in the House, with Harris not voting.
But the first time it came up in the House, Harris sunk it.
Interviews with other foster parents show how Harris would abuse his position to get what he wanted:
…Craig and Cheryl Hart, a former Fayetteville couple who had been foster parents for the girls the Harrises later adopted, said front-line social workers may have resisted Harris’ plans to adopt, but the legislator had support from Blucker and the agency’s Little Rock office.
Craig Hart said the Harrises tried to ram the adoption through, and that whenever there was a roadblock presented by someone in the process, he’d call Little Rock and talk to Blucker.
The Harrises, Craig Hart said, weren’t the only couple seeking to adopt the girls.
“It wasn’t aboveboard,” he said. “We all went through the hoops and waited our turn. It takes a vetting process. We all have to wait our turn. They have to do what everyone else has to do.”
Cheryl Hart said it was clear that Blucker was pulling strings for Harris from Little Rock despite objections from caseworkers involved on the ground level.
“Whenever he didn’t get his way … he would call Little Rock. The next thing we know … at court and different meetings, he’d say he’d called Cecile, or Cecile is OK with it, and Cecile said this is what you need to do,” Hart said. “He dropped her name in every conversation.”
Craig Hart said that Harris rushed through one meeting because he was going to be late for an appointment in Little Rock. He said Harris told him he’d have to speed to get there on time, but it was OK because he has special legislative plates and the Arkansas State Police would look the other way.
“That’s the kind of statement he would make to make us think he was special,” Craig Hart said. “He gave the impression that rules didn’t apply to him.”
More: Harris, DHS Ties at Times Friendly, at Others Strained
Meanwhile, State Legislators are attempting to address the practice of “rehoming”
The bills on re-homing are House Bill 1648 by Leding; HB1676 by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway; and Senate Bill 874 by Sen. Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan.
HB1648 is being fleshed out, and a more comprehensive version should be ready by Tuesday, Leding said. The bill as filed is a short prohibition against sending a child to live with someone who is not a relative of the child.
Meeks’ bill would prohibit an adoptive parent from placing a child in a home “to avoid permanent parental responsibility” but includes exemptions for placing the child in the home of a relative or step-parent. It also includes provisions against human trafficking, such as selling children.
SB874 is largely blank, filed just before the session’s deadline for filing new bills. Pierce will fill in the details later. The bill can be amended as long as the Legislature is in session.
The Legislature will probably agree on a bill to restrict re-homing this session, but other issues related to adoption, such as how much the state Department of Human Services should track the statuses of foster children adopted from the state, will probably remain for future legislative sessions, Leding said.
The legislative session is expected to end in less than a month.
Jennifer Ferguson, deputy director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, confirmed that lawmakers are aware of the need for more protection of children in adoption cases and were working on the issue before the Harris case came to light after Francis’ conviction. Arkansas Advocates is a nonprofit group concerned with family and child welfare issues.
Lawmakers in Arkansas also have the experiences of other states to build upon, Ferguson said. Meeks’ bill is modeled after a Louisiana law, she said.
“You’re going to see some amendments to these bills pretty quickly as the issues they raise are addressed,” Ferguson said. “A lot of what’s being enacted will put teeth into policies we already have.”
For instance, DHS has a clause in a contract with adoptive parents that they will not let the child be raised by others, but the state imposes no penalties for ignoring that provision, she said.
More: Bills on Adopted Children in Works