Two recent sex abuse cases involving the Duggar family and state Rep. Justin Harris -- politically connected Arkansas religious conservatives -- reveal serious problems in the state’s Department of Human Services.
A sexual molestation case involving Josh Duggar, the reality TV star and former high-ranking employee of the anti-LGBT Family Research Council, has dominated national news for more than a week as continuing revelations suggest the teen and his family may have received preferential treatment from authorities.
TLC has suspended airings of the family’s “19 Kids and Counting” program, but it has not yet been canceled despite the loss of several major advertisers.
As the Arkansas Times reported, Harris and his wife, Marsha Harris, have not faced any consequences since news broke in March that they gave away two adopted daughters to a man who later sexually assaulted one of the girls – although state legislators changed a state law to prevent others from doing the same thing.
The lawmaker continues to serve in the statehouse, where no fellow Republicans have called for his resignation or censure, and the couple still own and operate the Growing God’s Kingdom preschool – which receives 90 percent of its funding through the state and federal government.
The Harris case
The Harrises took in three girls in 2011 through the Department of Human Services, despite concerns by case workers and therapists that the couple was ill-equipped to care for the girls – who had suffered abuse before they were placed in foster care.
But the girls' previous foster parents said Harris used his political influence to pressure Cecile Blucker, the director of the DHS Division of Children and Family Services, to recommend their planned adoption to go forward.
The couple returned one of the girls to DHS within months due to behavioral problems, and they claim they were unable to return the other two girls in early 2013 without risking child abandonment charges.
The Harrises believed the girls were possessed by demons and had an exorcism performed, said a babysitter and others who knew them – but the lawmaker and his wife deny that.
They eventually “rehomed” the girls, ages 5 and 3, in October 2013 to a friend and preschool employee of theirs – Eric Francis – who is now serving a 40-year prison term for abusing one of the Harris’ adopted daughters and two other children.
The couple left their adopted daughters with Francis even after firing him over poor work attendance in January 2014 -- when court documents show he admitted to raping the girl while his wife was out of state.
Current and former employees at Growing God’s Kingdom said they remain concerned about possible tax violations, child mistreatment, improper use of foster children in campaign ads, and the lawmaker’s influence over DHS.
The agency is responsible for administering federal funds for preschool breakfast and lunch programs, which some employees said the Harrises abused by falsifying sign-in forms for absent children.
However, the agency has not investigated the alleged violations, and employees said the couple had asked them to sign affidavits disavowing the claims.
DHS changed a regulatory rule in response to a 2011 complaint filed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State over religious activity at the preschool – including Marsha Harris praying over a 2-year-old who engaged in typical toddler behavior such as biting and tantrums.
The agency changed its rules to allow private preschools to provide religious instruction outside the seven-hour program required by state regulations.
One employee said she and her co-workers were reluctant to report the Harrises’ behavior, which she described as “out of control,” because “Justin is so religious.”
The Duggar case
Jim Bob Duggar -- a former Republican state lawmaker, failed U.S. Senate candidate, and close friend of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – said last week that he had taken his then-teenage son in 2003 to meet with a state trooper acquaintance who did not report the abuse, which had happened about a year earlier.
Police investigated an anonymous tip in 2006 but declined to prosecute Duggar for molesting at least five girls, including some of his sisters, because the statute of limitations had run out.
The police report was published last week as part of a Freedom of Information Act request – although Judge Stacy Zimmerman, who also has ties to Huckabee, quickly ordered the original report to be destroyed and GOP state Rep. Bart Hester wants state police to investigate the legally mandated release of the document.
Springdale police referred Duggar’s case in 2006 to the Families in Need of Services, which monitors criminal cases against juveniles, and that agency then notified the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
It’s not clear what action – if any – was taken by DHS against Duggar at that time because he was a juvenile.
But nine months later, Duggar sued DHS and a trial was held Aug. 6, 2007, after TLC began working with the family for the reality show that would begin broadcasting the following year as “17 Kids and Counting.”
The results of the investigation and trial remain sealed, but DHS has the authority to restrict alleged abusers from contact with victims – who in this case would have shared the same home – and also allows appeals of those stipulations, and it appears Duggar challenged those findings.
His parents initially claimed the teen received counseling, which DHS can mandate for abusers and victims, but he instead went to work for several months with a family friend who remodeled buildings in the Little Rock area.
'Completely cracked open'
An online petition is seeking an investigation of authorities who failed to prosecute Josh Duggar and his parents in connection with the child sex abuse, but nothing official has been announced.
Lawmakers said the Harris case had prompted “numerous inquiries” into DHS practices, and ABC’s “20/20” is conducting its own investigation, but top Republicans said it would be too early to call for his resignation.
An employee of Growing God’s Kingdom told the Arkansas Times that DHS “needs to be completely cracked open.”
“If you're letting Justin have this much power, something is wrong," the employee said. “(He) can't hide behind being a Christian, being a Republican … I'm both of those, and what do people think when you say, 'Oh, I'm a Christian' all the time? It has to stop.”