State Rep. Eddie Armstrong of North Little Rock, leader of the Democratic minority in the House, held a news conference today to talk about his meetings with Department of Human Services officials about Rep. Justin Harris’ dealing with the agency in his now-controversial adoption of children.
He said recent Arkansas Times reporting suggested broader concerns about DHS and he said the Harris case had become a distraction to the legislature. He urged House Speaker Jeremy Gillam and Gov. Asa Hutchinson to have discussions about removing the “distraction from the body.” He said others in the House should talk about a Harris resignation.
Asked specifically if HE was calling for Harris’ resignation, he said he was only urging the speaker and governor and others to “talk through the opportunity of what’s best for Justin Harris” and his family. He said he didn’t want to personally judge Harris, whom he described as a “great colleague” who’d done good work on legislation on adoption and other family issues. But he said the matter was deterring discussion of these and other issues and he focused particularly on the need to address pre-K education.
Armstrong said he wasn’t calling Harris “guilty or innocent.” Did he think Harris has a conflict of interest in a leadership position on a children’s affairs committee, where he’s vice chairman? He said it was distraction. But after repeated questions, he finally said that he thought Harris should consider resigning. I’d asked House Speaker Gillam the same question about a conflict of interest as committee vice chair before the news conference. His response:
The House is reviewing all verified information and evidence in the matter. We will act responsibly and accordingly to house rules.
Armstrong said his concerns about DHS included a staff that might be overworked. But he said the agency might need an overhaul to prevent such cases from occurring. He said Harris didn’t attend a committee meeting this morning where reporters were on hand to ask Harris questions.
He said he didn’t want to appear “vindictive.” But he said the legislature has business to attend to that is being disrupted by attention to the affair.
Reporting by Benji Hardy has detailed how Harris placed two adopted children, then 3 and 5, in the home of a man who worked for Harris’ state-funded pre-school in West Fork. The man subsequently molested one of the children and is now serving a prison sentence.
Hardy’s reporting has touched on: 1) Rehoming, a controversial practice currently unregulated in Arkansas which a family can turn children over to another for adoption with little review process outside court approval, even children first adopted from the state following a lengthy review; 2) Harris’ pressure on DHS officials to complete the adoption; 3) resistance to the adoption by some DHS workers on account of the girls’ difficult history; 4) accounts from people close to the Harrises that they believed the girls were possessed by demons and the unusual ways they treated the children as a result (an account the Harris’ lawyer has disputed); 5) Harris continued position of authority on a legislative committee that controls child welfare legislation and reports that he held up a DHS budget while pressuring to get the adoption approved; 6) the review of his pre-school, Growing God’s Kingdom after Eric Francis, the school’s former head teacher, was arrested for molestation; 7) DHS’ knowledge in the home situation of Harris’ adopted children before a complaint was made to an abuse hotline.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has a news conference at 1 p.m. on his signing of a bill to end consolidation of school districts that fall below 350 enrollment. He’s expected to get questions there on this issue.
UPDATE: Governor says it wouldn’t be prudent to jump to conclusions about the Harris matter. Indeed not. But it might be a time to talk about ending the enormous conflict of interest presented by Harris presiding over a committee that handles children’s issues when he stands accused of applying pressure of his office to get an adoption opposed by case workers and, since, of accusing DHS of various sorts of wrongdoing in his own personal case.
Hutchinson said enough wasn’t known to form an opinion on whether Harris, who, like Hutchinson, is a Republican, should step down.
“It seems premature to make judgments when all the facts aren’t on the table,” he was quoted by Gavin Lesnick of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Hutchinson also said his fact-finding options were limited. He is just the governor and only in charge of DHS, whose leaders serve at his pleasure. Jeremy Gillam’s statement at least opens the door to some sort of review of Harris. Previously, he’d indicated he thought it was old history and that he saw no need to say anything further about Harris. You have to wonder if they’d be so reticent about a Democrat in the same position.
UPDATE FROM LESLIE PEACOCK AT THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE:
Asa says he is focusing on child welfare part of Harris story and does not plan to talk to Harris. He said if the state had the money it would be good to have oversight of DHS in form of an inspector general but would need subpoena power. He referred to the situation at DHS as “circumstances” that had been dropped in his lap by the previous administration.