LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas lawmaker who gave away his adopted daughters to a man who later sexually assaulted one of them voted Friday to make such transfers a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Rep. Justin Harris didn't speak as the House passed two laws without opposition that sponsors said are a direct response to the Republican lawmaker giving away his 3- and 5-year-old adopted daughters to Eric Cameron Francis, who later abused the older child.
The case is sensitive enough that none of the lawmakers who spoke during debate Friday mentioned Harris by name as he sat in the chamber, and neither Harris nor his attorney, Jennifer Wells, responded to requests for comment after the vote.
In his only public comment two days after the Arkansas Times newspaper published the story earlier this month, Harris said he gave the girls to Francis because they were a threat to his three biological children and that a psychiatrist, pediatrician and therapist all recommended the move. Francis had worked at Harris' family-owned preschool, Growing God's Kingdom, and had been approved for international adoptions.
Francis, 39, pleaded guilty in November to three counts of sexual assault in the second degree, which involved one of the girls Harris gave him, then 6 years old, and two other underage girls Francis knew through church. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison with an additional 20 years suspended.
Democratic leaders have called on Harris, a Republican, to resign for giving the girls away and Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been peppered with questions about what the state should do in response.
One bill approved Friday 88-0 would make so-called "re-homing" an unclassified felony punishable by prison and a $5,000 fine. The law would affect only children adopted internationally or domestically, meaning biological children could still be transferred to non-relatives. Parents would also still be able to give adopted children to family members. A second bill requires the state to create new services for parents after they adopt.
"Basically, what we're wanting to do is to prohibit a parent from just finding somebody and giving the child away and then not having anything else to do with the child," said Republican Rep. David Meeks of Conway, who sponsored the criminalization bill.
Arkansas would become the sixth state in the nation to regulate the transfer of adoptive children, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The state would join Louisiana, which provided inspiration for the Arkansas law, as having some of the toughest laws in the nation.
A Department of Human Services spokeswoman said the agency is aware of nine adopted children who were given to different parents during the past two years but doesn't actively track or police the practice.
No one spoke against the bills and both sponsors have indicated that Harris supports the changes. Hutchinson has called on the state human services department to review its adoption practices and announced a review of the agency by his office. A Hutchinson spokesman said Friday that the governor would sign both bills as written.
Both bills now advance to the state Senate. The two girls Harris gave away have since been adopted by another family.
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