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60-year-old man accused of 11-year-old's pregnancy

By LINDA GIBSON and GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


TAMPA -- She's 11 years old, 20 weeks pregnant and in state custody while child welfare workers determine where she should live and how she will finish the school year.

Willie Harris is married, 60 years old and a friend of the girl's mother, officials said.

On Wednesday, Harris turned himself in to face a capital sexual battery charge of having sex with the girl at her northwest Hillsborough home for the past seven months, beginning when she was 10 years old, sheriff's officials said.

Harris, an employee of a manufacturing company, is in jail without bail and could face life in prison if convicted.

The girl's mother had been leaving her two daughters in Harris' care, said Tom Jones, a spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families. He said the girl and her younger sisters have been taken from their mother and placed with relatives while the DCF investigates.

The department has arranged counseling for the girl, but authorities have not determined how she can continue school.

"It's a dilemma," said Jones. "She doesn't fit in the teen mothers programs. There's nothing designed for a child that age."

Harris' 19-year-old son, Jarret, said he was shocked when his father told him a few months ago that he'd gotten a girl pregnant. He was even more upset to learn Thursday that the charges involve an 11-year-old.

"That's sick. I've got nieces that age," he said.

Jones said he did not know whether the girl wants to keep the baby or have an abortion. The decision would be up to the girl and her mother, he said.

Babies born to young girls are often premature, experts said Thursday. But they said it is possible for an 11-year-old to deliver a healthy baby.

Dr. Bruce D. Shephard, a Tampa obstetrician and author of The Complete Guide to Women's Health, said it is possible the girl could give birth vaginally. Shephard remembers reading about a 9-year-old South American girl giving birth, though he has never helped with such a birth.

Besides the physical hurdles, early pregnancy comes with emotional and psychological problems, both for the girl and her family, said Susan Josephson, program director at the crisis pregnancy center, Alpha House.

The younger girls can't imagine the massive responsibility that goes along with child bearing and parenting, she said. They often think of the baby like they would think of a doll. They also miss many developmental stages on the way to adulthood.

Many 10- and 11-year-olds aren't capable of conception, or many more incidents of sexual abuse would result in pregnancy, said Josephson. Of the 91 women they helped last year, only two were under 14. None was as young as 11, although she has had experience with such cases in the past.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 602 girls under the age of 15 gave birth in Florida in 1998. Nationwide, 9,462 girls under 15 gave birth. Of those, 170 gave birth for the second or third time.

Harris lives on Hinsdale Drive with his wife of 24 years and their 17-year-old daughter. Jarret, their son, said he is on leave from the Navy.

Color family portraits dominate the walls of the living area of Harris' neatly kept house.

Jarret Harris said his mother is relying on her Christian faith to get her through this. After her husband's arrest Wednesday, she went to evening church services and prayed.

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