West Fork
West Fork, Arkansas, is represented in state government by Republican Rep. Justin Harris. The legislator adopted three girls and turned them over to a man who abused one of them. Reuters

An Arkansas state legislator who sent his adopted daughters to live at the home of a former employee, who in turn later sexually abused one of the girls, has defended his decision. State Rep. Justin Harris claimed that the state Department of Human Services (DHS) threatened to charge him with child abandonment and take away his biological children, according to a report Thursday in the Arkansas Times.

Harris, a Republican representing West Fork, Arkansas, said he was overwhelmed in caring for the three girls, ages 6, 4 and 2, who he said were violent and killed a family pet. The story first surfaced in April 2013.

"We care deeply for the girls but we were failed by DHS," Harris said at a news conference last week. "Despite what you may have read, we reached out to DHS numerous times and were met with nothing but hostility. … We were threatened with possible abandonment charges and potentially losing our own boys as well if we returned the girls to DHS custody. In fact, a past DHS employee at the time came to us and confirmed that the plan at DHS was to seek abandonment charges if we returned the girls."

Meanwhile, a babysitter claimed Harris and his wife confined two of the adopted girls for hours at a time in their room because the couple believed they were possessed by demons. Harris denied those accusations.

"Exorcisms and telepathy are not part of the Harrises' religious practice. They followed the techniques in a book called 'When Love Is Not Enough: A Parent's Guide to Reactive Attachment Disorder,' by Nancy Thomas, who is a recognized expert on therapeutic parenting techniques,” said Jennifer Wells, the couple’s attorney.

Harris said the girls suffered from reactive attachment disorder, which led them to have social and emotional problems and become violent, according to the Times. But the girls’ foster parents said they didn’t experience those kinds of issues with the girls.

"If they were violent [in the Harris home], they were taught violence. We had a dog, a little Bichon, that they were around all the time and there was never once any issue with her abusing an animal. ... They thrived in our home," said Cheryl Hart, who briefly cared for the children with her husband, Craig Hart.

Harris said he was only interested in taking the two youngest girls, but was pressured by DHS into taking all three. He then said he and his wife became overwhelmed in caring for them, so he arranged for them to live with Eric Cameron Francis and his wife, Stacey Francis, after the state didn’t agree with his request to take them back. Eric Francis was later convicted of sexually abusing the 6-year-old and other girls and was given a 40-year prison sentence.