Arkansas is one of a handful of states to enact laws criminalizing the "re-homing" of adoptive children, a practice that is pervasive, but difficult to track, according to federal officials.
Earlier this week, the federal Government Accountability Office issued a 53-page study at the request of lawmakers concerned about unregulated child-custody transfers, more commonly known as "re-homing."
According to the federal report, Arkansas is just one of seven states to bar re-homing, while eight other states had legislation proposed to address the matter as of July.
Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, was the sponsor of Act 1092, which made the unauthorized transfer of children to anyone other than close family members a felony that can lead to a five-year prison sentence as well as a $5,000 fine.
Meeks said the state couldn't afford to ignore the problem.
"Arkansas needs to be proactive in what it's doing," Meeks said. "I'm OK with Arkansas leading the way when we have an issue. Let's not wait and see what other states are going to do or are doing. If it's important, let's go ahead and tackle it. Let's be a leader and not a follower."
Act 1092, along with a companion law, Act 1018, increased oversight over adoption subsidies and required families receiving the funds to sign an affidavit stating the children will remain in their care. It also requires the Department of Human Services to expand services to parents dealing with difficult adoptions.
Lawmakers quickly drafted and approved both measures after media reports detailed how the re-homing of children by a state legislator resulted in a sexual assault.
Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, adopted two girls, ages 5 and 3, then re-homed them to an employee at his day care center, Eric Cameron Francis, who sexually abused the oldest child.
Harris said DHS officials had initially opposed allowing his family to adopt the children and the lawmaker also said department officials resisted his attempts to give the girls up.
Life with the girls was a "living hell," according to Harris, who said the children were too damaged from past abuse to adjust to his family's home. He said he gave the girls to Francis because he was worried that DHS would sue him or even take away his biological children if he returned the girls to the agency's care.
A child-abandonment investigation led Arkansas State Police to learn of the abuse by Francis. Francis was convicted of two counts of sexual assault and is serving a 40-year prison sentence.
The Government Accountability Office report said the federal government doesn't track the number of children who are re-homed, adding that the report relied a great deal on media accounts of the problem.
Given the nature of re-homing, the report said, it is difficult to track and, thus, assess where it is most prevalent.
DHS spokesman Amy Webb said the report was encouraging because it focused additional attention on re-homing.
"The conversation needs to be had at a national level in terms of legislation to get some national perspective into what states should be doing," Webb said. "There are a lot of states that don't have laws about it."
Meeks said it's good that the problem is drawing attention in the nation's capital. Arkansas has plenty of work to do, both in providing more services to families that may be struggling with an adoption, and by increasing public education about re-homing.
"Now we have the law in place, the focus needs to be on awareness about it," Meeks said. "Ultimately, you want to keep it from happening in the first place."
Metro on 09/18/2015