The briefly adopted daughters of state Rep. Justin Harris will appear Friday night on a television news program to repudiate the Arkansas Republican’s claims that they are demonically violent.
The lawmaker took in three sisters in 2011 despite concerns that he and his wife were ill-equipped to care for the girls — who had been abused — but Harris apparently used his political influence to push through the planned adoption.
However, Harris and his wife believed the girls were possessed by demons and “rehomed” them less than two years later to an employee who is now serving a 40-year prison term for abusing one of the girls and two other children.
ABC’s “20/20” will air a one-hour report on the story, including interviews with Harris and his wife, the couple who are now caring for the girls and the girls themselves.
“They’re so full of life,” said “20/20” anchor Elizabeth Vargus during an interview with the Arkansas Times, which initially broke the story.
“They were putting on princess costumes and wanted to sing songs for me and show me their rooms and show me their drawings,” Vargas said. “They’re very outgoing — they’re girly girls, definitely.”
The anchor said she and her colleagues spent a full day with the girls and their foster family, and they never witnessed “any of this destructive, violent behavior that the Harrises allege.”
Vargas said the adoptive family experienced difficulties in their first year caring for the girls, whose mother had a history of drug abuse and lived with a string of abusive men before she was deemed unfit to care for her children and asked Harris for help.
The girls’ temporary foster family, caseworkers and others unanimously opposed Harris and his wife adopting the children because they were not trained to care for victims of sexual abuse, but the lawmaker claims his religious views were the real reason.
“They felt like we were a fanatical couple,” Harris told “20/20.” “That was their number one issue.”
A judge granted the adoption, anyway, and the oldest, most seriously troubled girl moved into the Harris home in June 2012 while her younger sisters transitioned into the family over a six-month period.
The couple said the older girl, who was 6 at the time, threatened to kill people with knives, lashed out at her brothers and crushed a guinea pig to death.
“It never stopped — just screaming — and there were no tears,” Marsha Harris said. “Just rage, screaming nonstop. This is what I’m dealing with eight to 12 hours a day.”
A former babysitter told “20/20” the couple locked the middle girl in her bedroom for hours and blasted Christian music at the doorway to ward off demons, and she said the Harrises kept the younger girls separated because they believed they could telepathically communicate.
They even brought a group from Alabama to perform an exorcism over the girls, the former babysitter claimed — although Harris disputes that.
“We are Southern Baptist,” the lawmaker said. “We do not do exorcism, I’ll be very clear about that. Period.”
After reaching their “wits’ end,” Harris and his wife used a legal loophole to turn over the foster children to Eric Francis, an employee at their Christian day care, in October 2013.
“We’ve done all this counseling, and nothing is getting better, and I just said, ‘God, I can’t do it anymore — we’ve done everything,” Harris said.
Francis was later convicted of molesting the middle girl, who had been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, while his wife was out of town.
The two younger girls now 7 and 5, have been adopted by one family, who spoke to “20/20,” and the oldest girl was adopted by another family and did not participate in the news program.
“These girls are not monsters, and they don’t like that people are calling them monsters,” said Vargas, the anchor.
Vargas said the girls’ first adoptive family and their new family did not experience the same behavior the Harrises claim, but she cautions viewers not to draw conclusions against the couple because “we can’t say what did or did not go on inside that house, because we weren’t there.”
She said reporters and producers gave Harris an opportunity to address claims made by others during the news-gathering operation, but she was irritated that the lawmaker posted a photo on Twitter that gave the impression that “20/20” would vindicate his claims.
“I can’t speak for what Justin Harris believed,” Vargas told the Arkansas Times. “When I posed for that picture with him … he did not tell me he planned to tweet that picture. That is not something we were particularly pleased with, but that happens. I don’t know his motives. He would have to speak to that.”
The anchor did tell Harris that she had never seen a reaction to any news story quite like the response to the rehoming story.
“In all of my career of doing stories, many of them very controversial – and we went in and we spent days and days reading and watching all the commentary in response, largely, to your stories, (the Arkansas Times) reporting — I told him, ‘I’ve never in my career seen a story where 100 percent of the comments that I have read thus far are negative — about you, Justin Harris,'” Vargas said. “It was extraordinary, the backlash.”