Senate panel favors 2 bills on re-homing

Plans make its use a felony, require post-adoptive help

A state Senate panel unanimously signed off Tuesday on a pair of bills aimed at criminalizing the "re-homing" of adopted children in Arkansas.

But at least one senator expressed concern that House Bills 1648 and 1676 -- which were filed after a legislator "re-homed" his two adopted daughters to a sexual predator -- didn't go far enough.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, was concerned that HB1676, which allows for children to be re-homed with relatives, wouldn't require any kind of background checks for family members or any further intervention by officials from the state Department of Human Services.

"You place the child with Uncle Bob, who has been a pedophile the last 20 years, and there's nothing going to protect that?" Chesterfield asked. "Do we have, currently, a law to protect children who are re-placed with relatives who do untold things to children?"

DHS attorney Lisa McGee said there is no statute to address that situation but that people can call the child-abuse hotline if they are aware of any child who has been put at risk.

McGee said the legislation is a good first step in tackling a matter that many, including most lawmakers, didn't even know existed until this year.

Re-homing entered the legislative vernacular several weeks ago with media reports that state Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, had re-homed his two adopted girls, ages 3 and 5, to Eric Cameron Francis, who had worked as a teacher at Harris' West Fork daycare center, Growing God's Kingdom.

Months after taking the girls into his care, Francis was arrested and pleaded guilty late last year to sexual-assault charges that included molestation of the older of the two girls. He received a 40-year sentence.

HB1676 would make re-homing an unclassified felony that's punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The bill doesn't apply to biological children. It allows children to be sent to summer camp or to stay with non-family members for extended periods during emergencies -- if the parent has a serious illness or is recovering from serious injuries, for example.

Democrats and Republicans have said the Harris case exposed problems in the current system.

Harris has said the two preschool-age girls had been scarred by past abuse and were too difficult for him and his wife to raise, turning his life into a "nightmare" and a "living hell." Harris said DHS fought to prevent him from adopting the girls, then threatened to go after him for child abandonment when he decided to relinquish custody of them. He said DHS misled him about the mental and emotional disorders that the children suffered.

The third-term lawmaker has said he had no other option but to give the girls away. Francis and his wife were raising three children who had been adopted from abroad, Harris has said, adding that he thought giving the girls to the Francis family was a "perfect" solution to his problem.

Harris said he had no idea that Francis posed a threat to children.

HB1676, by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, would also require that DHS provide post-adoptive services for foster and adoptive parents struggling with a child.

DHS already had a policy of providing post-adoption support, but it's not mandated by state law.

The companion legislation, HB1648, has similar requirements for DHS to provide post-adoptive services. It would also make it a misdemeanor for an adoptive parent to continue to accept a state adoption subsidy once the child is no longer in his care.

In the Harris case, Harris continued to collect state subsidies of more than $800 a month after giving the girls to the Francis family. He has provided copies of checks showing that he forwarded that money to Francis and another family that also cared for the girls.

On Tuesday, Chesterfield said she supported both bills and their aims but worried that they don't go far enough.

Another DHS attorney, Mischa Martin, informed Chesterfield that if a family member is to become a guardian or adopt a child through the court, then a background check would have to be performed.

"My concern is this: We have seen this atrocious thing happen to a child, which is why we responded," Chesterfield said. "And at some point in time we've got to be proactive and not reactive. And what we're talking about once again is being reactive."

McGee said the primary problem her agency has seen is one like the Harris case in which a family re-homed children to an unrelated family. According to DHS officials, they are aware of nine similar cases in the past two years.

If the legislation as proposed is found to not be tough enough, McGee said, it can be revisited in the future.

Despite her concerns, Chesterfield, a former schoolteacher, backed both bills.

The legislation, which passed in the House late last week, now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

The discussion of re-homing has prompted Gov. Asa Hutchinson to initiate an "independent review" of child-welfare services provided by DHS, as well as other policies and practices in the large state agency.

On Monday, he named a social service consultant and former head of state social services in Alabama, Paul Vincent, to head the review.

Officials with the governor's office expect the review to be broad and take about 60 days.

Metro on 03/25/2015