25 Investigates: Special commission to examine Mass. child welfare system is proposed

Just days after the release of an investigation report critical of the way Massachusetts’ handled Harmony Montgomery’s care and protection case, a state lawmaker is demanding reform and action.

State Senator Michael Moore filed an amendment Tuesday proposing the creation of the Montgomery Commission. The commission is named after Harmony Montgomery, who spent much of her young life in and out of foster care until February 2019 when a Massachusetts judge sent her to live in New Hampshire with her father, a man with a long criminal history who struggled with addiction. Harmony went missing in late 2019 but her disappearance went unnoticed and unreported for two years.

Moore’s proposal is part of an amendment to the Senate budget which was released today.

According to the text of the amendment, which 25 Investigates received a preview copy, the commission would study and make recommendations “regarding the welfare and best interest considerations of children” in care and protection cases. It would be charged with recommending " new, or changes to existing, statutes, interstate compacts, executive orders, judicial rules of court and standing orders, rules and regulations, intergovernmental or multi-state memoranda of understanding, policies and procedures, and trainings.” It will also study how children of color, immigrant children, and poor children are disproportionately impacted by cases.

“We don’t know how many children are going through this process that could be tragedies waiting to occur,” Moore told 25 Investigates’ Kerry Kavanaugh. “If a parent is not suitable to provide care and custody and protect that child, the child shouldn’t be there.”

Last week, the state’s Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) released the findings of its five month investigation into Harmony’s case. In it, the OCA criticized the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS, which provides legal representation in the state for people who can’t afford an attorney, for failing to argue effectively on behalf of Harmony and failing to prioritize her safety and special needs.

“The central and most important finding in this investigation and report is that Harmony’s individual needs, wellbeing, and safety were not prioritized or considered on an equal footing with the assertion of her parents’ rights to care for her in any aspect of the decision making by any state entity,” said Maria Mossaides, director of the Massachusetts OCA. “When children are not at the center of every aspect of the child protection system, then the system cannot truly protect them. This report describes the ripple effect of miscalculations of risk and an unequal weight placed on parents’ rights versus a child’s wellbeing.”

The OCA’s report also made several recommendations to keep another child like Harmony from falling through the cracks, such as forming a working group to examine how to better weigh a child’s best interest along with parental rights.

Harmony Montgomery was placed in the custody of DCF in 2014, when she was two months old. She remained in the custody of DCF until February 2019, when Harmony’s father, Adam Montgomery, was awarded custody by the Juvenile Court of Massachusetts. As 25 Investigates first reported in January, Harmony was sent to New Hampshire to live with her father without an Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC). An ICPC is an agreement between states to ensure that a child placed in care across state lines is safe and receiving proper services. It requires certain safeguards and regular check-ins.

When Harmony left Massachusetts with no ICPC in place, that effectively ended DCF’s involvement in her life and the department closed her case.

In January, Adam Montgomery was arrested and charged in New Hampshire with second-degree assault, interference with custody, and endangering the welfare of a child in connection with the disappearance of Harmony.

The amendment introduced by Senator Moore calls for the commission to be made up of 21 members, including representative from the OCA, DCF, CPCS, Juvenile Court, Attorney General’s Office and the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.

“You may have some members of the state agencies that are involved in a case dispute the findings. But by having this commission, it’s a time for them to present their information,” said Moore.

The commission would convene within 30 days of the bill’s approval by the legislature and would be expected to submit a report of its study and any recommendations, together with any draft legislation necessary to carry those recommendations, by September 30, 2023.

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