This story of Arkansas state legislator Justin Harris’ adoption debacle has been a classic, slow-moving trainwreck, as the Arkansas press discovers disturbing new details on a near-daily basis that have launched what started as a local scandal into national headlines. It’s a story that touches on many hot-button issues—the evangelical enthusiasm for adoption, the disturbing practice of “rehoming,” child sexual abuse—but what has really sent this story to the next level are reports of children being subject to abuse due to the Harris’ alleged belief in demon possession.
The story first surfaced when the Arkansas Times discovered that a man named Eric Cameron Francis, who was arrested for raping a 6-year-old in his care, had previously worked for Harris and his wife, Marsha Harris, at their day care, named Growing God’s Kingdom. Harris copped to having hired and then fired Francis, but he didn’t admit to what the Times dug up: The only reason that Francis had the little girl in the first place was the Harrises gave her to him.* The victim and her sister had been adopted by the Harrises in 2013 and then, six months later, were rehomed with Francis and his wife, a practice that is apparently legal in Arkansas.
Harris went on the defensive, holding a press conference where he admitted to the rehoming the girls and blamed the Arkansas Department of Human Services for not telling him that the girls, ages 4 and 2, were violent and posed a threat to his older biological sons. However, the Times found plenty of people to dispute this story. The foster family who had the girls before claim that they warned the Harrises that they weren’t up for adopting these girls, who had behavioral issues due to extensive trauma, including sexual abuse, in their biological mother’s home. But the family suggested that the Harrises pulled strings to make it happen anyway. The girls’ new family says the girls have “adjusted beautifully and are thriving in our home with unconditional love and patience.”
All bad enough, but where it really gets weird is when the demon possession comes in:
Chelsey Goldsborough, who regularly babysat for the Harrises, said Mary was kept isolated from Annie and from the rest of the family. She was often confined for hours to her room, where she was monitored by a video camera. The reason: The Harrises believed the girls were possessed by demons and could communicate telepathically, Goldsborough said. Harris and his wife once hired specialists to perform an “exorcism” on the two sisters while she waited outside the house with the boys, she said.
The Times confirmed this account with multiple sources who know the family. The Harrises, through their attorney, deny believing in demon possession or exorcism. However, KNWA reports that a former employee, only going by the name Amber, saw the Harrises try to cast demons out of misbehaving kids at Growing God’s Kingdom day care. “If they got in too much trouble they would pray on the kids, do a circle around them, put their hands on their heads, saying, trying to rebuke demons,” she told the station.
All this may seem too outrageous to believe, but the sad fact of the matter is that there are many pockets of evangelical Christianity that believe that bad or sinful behavior is caused by demons literally possessing or oppressing people and therefore calls for an exorcism. There’s not a lot of information on how widespread this belief is, though it does seem to be fringe. The biggest proponent of it in evangelical circles is a man named Bob Larson, who can be seen, with his daughter and her “teen exorcist” friends, in this Vice video I posted at Slate in 2013. Larson is a classic charlatan—he even charges $295 for a demon exorcism via Skype—but it works because a lot of people really want to believe that destructive behavior is supernatural and can be done away with by praying. In 2001, Fordham sociologist Michael Cuneo even traveled the country and witnessed at least 50 exorcisms, most in evangelical circles, across the country, and published his findings in American Exorcism.
This belief has been endorsed from on high in fundamentalist circles. Pat Robertson of the 700 Club is forever warning viewers about the dangers of demonic possession and witchcraft. Some recent greatest hits include blaming homosexuality on demonic possession, warning that Dungeons & Dragons will cause demonic possession, and even buying used clothes could bring demons into your life. Also, don’t put your sonogram pictures up on Facebook, because witches will curse your child.
This stuff usually only gets attention from outsiders who want to point and laugh at it, but as this situation in Arkansas shows, this fear that demons haunt every corner and will pounce the second you let your guard down can have very serious consequences. The Harrises are disputing the claims that they subjected children in their care to abusive behavior under the guise of casting out demons, but if the various witnesses who say they saw it are telling the truth, then that’s very disturbing news indeed.
Correction, March 12, 2015: This post originally misstated that Eric Cameron Francis hired and then fired himself. Justin Harris hired and then fired Francis.