25 Investigates: Nearly a dozen kids in DCF custody are missing or unaccounted for, data shows

Some have been missing for more than a year

The chief’s voice trembled as he announced the disappearance of little Harmony Montgomery, a sign of just how heartbreaking and shocking her story is.

“Somewhere out there this little girl is in need of help,” he told a roomful of reporters, pointed to a picture of a little girl with blue eyes and blonde hair.

Harmony was last seen in late 2019 in Manchester, NH but no one noticed or reported her disappearance to police until late 2021.

Manchester Police declared the now 7-year old missing on December 31st and three days later Chief Allen Aldenberg issued a desperate plea to the community during a press conference. “Help us find this little girl,” Aldenberg said, fighting back tears.

He fielded and answered many questions that night. But there was one question he simply could not answer – How does a 7-year old girl’s absence go unnoticed for more than two years?

That question is all the more significant when one considers that Harmony was known to child protection agencies in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Harmony was in the care of MA Department of Children and Families (DCF) until February 2019 when a juvenile court judge granted custody to her father, a man with a violent criminal record, and allowed her to live with him in NH. Massachusetts DCF quickly closed her case.

But police records obtained by 25 Investigates show NH authorities became aware of Harmony and her family soon after she arrived in Manchester. As 25 Investigates reported, Manchester PD visited the home Harmony shared with her father, step mother and their two kids about a dozen times during a five month period in 2019. Social workers of NH’s Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) accompanied police on at least two of those visits.

25 Investigates wanted to know how many other kids like Harmony - who spent much of her young life in an out of foster care in Massachusetts - have fallen off the radar and what’s being done to locate them?

Our team requested data from DCF and the MA Trial Court. We found kids go missing even when the courts are involved and some have been unaccounted for nearly two years.

We shared our findings with Terry Craven, a retired chief justice of the Suffolk County Juvenile Court. She says DCF is regularly filing precepts on missing kids.

A precept is a court order for law enforcement or DCF to go out and search for a missing kid and bring that child before a judge to be identified, explained Craven. She also said most precepts get resolved fairly quickly.

According to the data provided to 25 Investigates by the Trial Court, a total of 612 precepts were issued between 2019 and 2021. In 2019, there were 256; the following year, 170 precepts were issued; and in 2021 there were 186.

Of those, 11 are still outstanding – 4 from 2020 and 7 from 2021. All of the outstanding precepts are for teenagers – 3 are 16-years-old and 8 are 17-years-old.

Judge Craven says that while the number of missing kids may seem low, the danger those youngsters may face is great.

“If I read that a child had been on the run for a year and the precept is outstanding for a year, I’d want to know what the department [DCF] was doing to find them,” she said.

Craven says there are a number of immediate steps DCF takes to locate missing kids.

“They’ve looked to see if the child re-enrolled [in school], they’ve looked with relatives. They don’t give up searching, they ought not to,” she added.

In addition, DCF has a team of social workers dedicated to locating missing or absent children, an agency spokeswoman told 25 Investigates.

In 2018, the agency established a unit of 10 full time staff to locate and engage youth who are on the run or who are at risk of running. Those social workers also provide direct support to children when they return to a placement or home to a family, said the agency.

But a source familiar with the 11 outstanding precepts told 25 Investigates, in some cases, those kids are off the radar and DCF does not know where they are.

Kathleen Byrne, a juvenile court attorney from the Worcester area, says that even if DCF doesn’t know where they are “they are still looking for those kids.”

Based on her experience, Byrne says, DCF staff work around the clock to track missing kids, including runaway teens who often don’t want to be found.

“They will find kids camping in the woods, they will track social media,” she said. “The whole point is to make sure that they’re healthy and that they’re safe.”

Locating those kids who are missing is and should remain an active priority given the dangers vulnerable teens face, she said.

“There’s drugs, trafficking, homelessness and, you know, rising crime and being crime involved. There’s all these things that come together that make it a really scary idea that these kids are out on their own,” said Byrne.

At a recent press conference, 25 Investigates’ Kerry Kavanaugh asked Governor Baker if DCF is doing enough to locate children in state custody who are missing and, in some cases, off the radar.

“There’s a lot of work that gets done with law enforcement and with agencies in other states,” he said. “But, obviously, it’s one of the biggest and most challenging aspects of the department’s operation,” said Gov. Baker adding that when it comes to the safety and protection of vulnerable children there is always more work to be done.

As 25 Investigates first reported, the Baker administration wants to make sure every child whose abuse or neglect case goes before a Massachusetts court is appointed a Guardian Ad Litem, a representative who solely advocates for that child.

To that end, he filed for funding and a policy change in his supplemental budget, which is now before the state legislature.

“This could be one more appropriate and important way to make sure that the interests of a child are best represented when they’re in court,” he said.

DCF told 25 Investigates that a precept is considered outstanding until a child physically appears in court. The agency adds that in some cases a child’s location is known, but the youngster either refuses or has not been able to appear before a judge.

On Monday, DCF announced that it was working to improve communications related to child welfare cases across state lines. In an emailed statement, an agency spokesperson wrote:

“As the tragic circumstances of the Harmony Montgomery case unfold, it is clear that the communication processes across state lines should be improved in child welfare cases. The New England state child welfare commissioners are in the early stages of developing an information sharing agreement to improve communication and collaboration concerning child welfare cases that cross New England state lines. This case has also made clear that better supports are needed for children that come before the courts, and the Baker-Polito Administration has proposed $50 million to ensure that every child is appointed a guardian ad litem to advocate singularly for their best interests and well-being at all times throughout court permanency proceedings.”

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