BOSTON — A new critical report from the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate details the state’s mishandling of the Harmony Montgomery case and “the ripple effect of miscalculations of risk and an unequal weight placed on parents’ rights versus a child’s wellbeing.”
The 7-year-old New Hampshire girl has been missing since 2019.
The OCA is an independent agency that works to ensure Massachusetts state agencies provide children with quality services and that “children receiving services are protected from harm.”
The agency began investigating Harmony’s case in January and as 25 Investigates first reported an Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children was not in place. Such an agreement protects a child placed in care across state lines. It requires certain safeguards and regular check-ins to ensure a child is safe and receiving proper services.
The new report released Wednesday by the Child Advocate cites failures by the Department of Children and Families to argue effectively on behalf of Harmony.
“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, Office of the Child Advocate. “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.”
Harmony Montgomery was placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Families 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.
On January 3, 2022, Mr. 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.
Key Findings of the OCA report:
-The DCF case management team had no understanding of Adam Montgomery’s family or personal history with which to develop an action plan and from which they could assess his capacity to parent Harmony.
-The OCA estimates that Harmony spent a total of approximately 40 hours over the course of 20 supervised visits with her father from her birth to age four and a half, yet there was no discussion on how Harmony could safely transition to Mr. Montgomery’s care.
-A DCF attorney did not present a strong legal case for opposing placing Harmony in Adam Montgomery’s care.
-Harmony’s attorney did not present any evidence of Harmony’s needs, including her strengths and vulnerabilities. Harmony’s attorney agreed with Harmony being placed in Mr. Montgomery’s custody and did not present any evidence or question Adam Montgomery on Harmony’s specific medical needs, her educational needs, her behavioral needs, or Harmony’s daily routine or support system.
Terry Craven, a retired justice juvenile court from Suffolk County, analyzed the OCA report for Boston 25 News.
Craven told anchor and investigate reporter Kerry Kavanaugh, who has followed the case closely since news of Harmony’s disappearance broke in late December, she was stunned by the DCF’s “lack of evidence presented to the judge regarding Harmony’s needs, and regarding her disabilities.”
“The judge is left with only the evidence that was presented before him, which is, in my mind, was insufficient for the judge to make a determination as to her needs or sufficient enough to make a determination of fitness or unfitness as to Mr. Montgomery,” said Craven.
The OCA report indicates that Harmony expressed a desire to live with her father. But while DCF wanted an ICPC, no other party involved in the legal proceedings presented information about Adam Montgomery’s ability to care for her. The report also points out that Montgomery had not completed the steps DCF required of him to assess his ability to parent.
Craven added that Harmony’s case exposes the need for a stronger safety net for the state’s most vulnerable kids.
“I see the vacuum that existed in this case as to her needs and that concerns me for every case going forward,” she said.
According to the report Harmony spent most of her short life in and out of foster care without a permanent home, with a few brief stays with her mother Crystal Sorey, and occasional visits with Adam Montgomery along the way.
At today’s press conference Kavanaugh asked the Child Advocate if there are more kids who might be languishing in Massachusetts foster care for undetermined periods of time.
“Our recommendations do address DCF really looking at children who have been in care for a long time, where it does not appear that there is a short path to permanency,” Mossaides said.
The OCA’s recommendation urges DCF to “review a statistically significant sampling of children who have been in the custody of DCF for more than two and a half years who have not achieved permanency to determine the barriers to permanency that can be addressed through policy, practice, or legal advocacy.”
In a statement to Boston 25, DCF said it remains “deeply concerned” about Harmony’s disappearance.
“The Office of the Child Advocate report illustrates the grave responsibility of balancing the child’s safety and best interest and a parents’ legal rights to have custody of their child. The Baker-Polito Administration agrees with the OCA that the safety of the kids in DCF care, and servicing their needs, should be the priority not only of DCF but of all the participants in our child protection system,” according to a DCH spokesperson.
DCF says the Baker administration has proposed legislation to assign every child a Guardian ad Litem to ensure all children have a voice that advocates for the child’s best interests.
“DCF policy reforms dating back to the administration’s sweeping system wide reforms begun in 2015 are responsive to the case practice issues raised in the OCA ‘s report,” said the DCF spokesperson. “The Department remains committed to engaging with the court to increase timely permanence for children and to assure safety and for the child’s best interest to remain paramount.”
The Committee for Public Counsel Services is also weighing in on the report from the Office of the Child Advocate, which was critical of the work of a CPSC attorney who represented Harmony. The CPSC provides legal representation in the state for people who can’t afford an attorney.
In a statement, the CPSC said “We agree with some of the recommendations made by the OCA in its report regarding Harmony. Unfortunately, on balance, this report disregards the constitutional rights of children and parents and the responsibilities of attorneys for children and parents under the Supreme Judicial Court’s Rules of Professional Conduct.”
“Too often it is the case that sad facts result in bad law, and that will be the situation here if the OCA recommendations are adopted. This report calls for fundamental changes to the legal system in a way that fails to consider the constitutional rights of our clients, our responsibilities and obligations as attorneys, and the existing law,” according to the CPSC statement. “These changes would pay a disservice to Miss Montgomery, and the thousands of children who are entitled to an attorney during the hardest moments of their childhood.”
A separate comprehensive review of the New Hampshire Department of Children, Youth, and Families was released in February. It found an ICPC would have put proper safety checks in place, like home study.
“Harmony was sent to her father without the court requiring any further review of him or his home, such as through a home study under the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children. No calls were made to New Hampshire’s Central Intake raising concerns regarding this Massachusetts court placement,” the report said.
Harmony Montgomery was sent to live with her father Adam in Manchester, N.H. in February 2019. Adam Montgomery was awarded custody of the 4-year-old, who had spent time in the Massachusetts foster care system, despite a lengthy criminal record and history of addiction.
Both Adam Montgomery and his estranged wife, Kayla, are facing charges related to Harmony’s care.
Download the FREE Boston 25 News app for breaking news alerts.
©2022 Cox Media Group