- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A national advocacy group has pledged $25,000 to pay for an independent review of Arkansas’ human services agency following revelations that a lawmaker gave his adopted daughter to a man who later sexually abused her, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office said Wednesday.

The donation from Casey Family Programs, a national foundation seeking to reduce the need for foster care, means that taxpayers will pay little if any of the costs associated with the review the governor ordered of the Department of Human Services, Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said.

The review, which is expected to take about two months, will be led by Paul Vincent of the Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group.

Hutchinson ordered the audit last week after reports that Republican Rep. Justin Harris of West Fork gave his adopted daughters to a longtime family friend and her husband in 2013. The husband later admitted to sexually abusing one of the girls.

Harris has said he adopted the 3- and 5-year-old girls after their mother approached him and his wife. Harris said he gave the children to the other couple about seven months later because they were a threat to his biological children and the move was recommended by medical professionals. The transfer, informally called “re-homing,” is legal in Arkansas, though lawmakers are considering plans to adjust the law.

Harris also said the Department of Human Services misinformed him about his options for dealing with the children - an allegation that an agency spokeswoman said she isn’t allowed to address.

A Senate panel on Tuesday advanced two bills to regulate the transfer of adopted children without state oversight. Davis has said Hutchinson would sign both bills as written.

Davis said a start date for the review hasn’t been set, but that Vincent will begin quickly. He said Hutchinson hopes the review will “identify the strengths of the system, any critical gaps in performance and opportunities for further improvement.”

Davis declined to say if the Harris situation influenced the move but said the focus of the review isn’t on any individual case.

Vincent told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the broad review will assess what is working and what could be improved upon at the department.

Department data from the last year will likely be analyzed, and Vincent said he expects to conduct interviews with department staff at all levels, as well as with other community members involved in child welfare. Vincent didn’t say if he talked with Hutchinson about Harris.

“The discussions with the governor have been pretty high-level in scope in looking at broader array than just the ‘re-homing’ issue alone,” Vincent said. “That may well get some interest in the process, but it’s premature to say if it will be an area that gets extra focus.”


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