LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — From coffee shops in rural Arkansas to the state capitol, Arkansans cannot stop talking about Republican state Rep. Justin Harris.
The saga of Harris began with him and his wife adopting two girls in the state’s care. Then they subsequently “rehomed,” or gave them, to another family—the Francises—because the girls had severe behavioral issues. Both girls had previously been sexually abused in their birth family. Ultimately, one of the girls was sexually molested by Eric Cameron Francis, who had previously worked for Harris at the preschool he owned called Growing God’s Kingdom Inc.
Francis is now in prison for the crime.
Last week, The Arkansas Times broke the story, which continues to unravel. This week it came to light that Harris, who was first elected to office in 2010, also believed, according to sources interviewed by the newspaper, that one of the girls was possessed by demons and capable of communicating telepathically with her sister. As a result, he had a “specialist” perform an exorcism to rid the girl of any evil spirits.
Needless to say, the unfolding drama has distracted attention from the current legislative session, the first for GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the first time since Reconstruction that Republicans have controlled the governor’s office and the statehouse simultaneously. Some Democrats are calling for the resignation of Harris, who is vice chairman of the House Committee on Children, Aging, and Youth, which deals with such adoption issues.
But the legislator’s party remains solidly behind him.
State Rep. David Meeks wrote on his personal Facebook page: “I know this might anger some people, but I don’t throw someone I consider a friend under the bus. Yes, I am speaking of Rep Harris. He is someone I have gotten to know and has built up credibility with me. The tabloid that is doing most of the reporting on this has no credibility with me whatsoever. The experience that I have had with this tabloid is that they are out to destroy Conservatives, Christians and are willing to spin, lie, or make up stuff to do it.”
Hutchinson’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast. But at a press conference Wednesday, Hutchinson said: “I don’t think anyone in this audience knows all the facts, and I can assure you as governor I do not know all the facts. So it seems premature to start making judgments when all the facts are not on the table.”
He added, “I don’t have an inspector general’s office. I don’t have a budget that will cover hiring independent investigators, and if we did, they don’t have subpoena authority.”
Meeks told The Daily Beast on Thursday that the governor was right when he said no one knows all the facts. He also said the drama wasn’t a distraction and that if anything, the legislature should work to improve the foster care and adoption system in Arkansas.
“To me this is not a distraction from what we are doing,” Meeks said. “I was already focused on strengthening the foster care/adoption system in our state and will continue to do so. We need to make sure that families have the resources and support they need to make an adoption successful. In the rare event an adoption doesn’t work out, we need to make sure the child finds a loving, stable home.”
At a press conference Wednesday, a week after Democratic Party of Arkansas called for Harris to resign, Minority Leader Eddie Armstrong reiterated his party’s call.
“Many members and my colleagues within our caucus and within the entire legislative body have said that this has become a distraction to our day-to-day work,” he said. “I think if it’s a distraction and he cannot focus on the things that are most important back in his hometown, he should consider resigning to take distraction off other members in our body.”
Other high-ranking Republicans, who don’t want to be identified publicly, blame the Department of Human Services for failing Harris and his wife. Harris has said he reached out to the state agency repeatedly for help in dealing with the children to no avail. That should be the focus of any investigation, not the Harris family, some Republicans said Thursday.
A group of concerned citizens has started a social media campaign to ask Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, also a Republican, to force Harris to resign. The Facebook group says on its site, “Arkansas is lesser in leadership with him [Harris] at the helm of anything! His documented errors in judgment plainly reveal him to be legislatively unreliable. He persistently & arrogantly walks the path of deception and half-truths to his own self-serving agenda.”
But Judd Deere, a spokesman for the attorney general, said the office had not received any such calls.
Still, Democrats are adamant. Mariah Hatta, a political consultant and former executive director of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said Harris is a distraction, especially given his position as vice chairman of the very committee that hears legislation about DHS.
“I support the call for Harris to strongly consider resigning,” she said. “This has become a horrific circus and while the full truth is not completely known, it is past time for the Harrises to take responsibility for what we know was wrong.”