BOSTON (WPRI) — The Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) released a report Wednesday that cited a number of flaws in the handling of the case of Harmony Montgomery.
Harmony disappeared from her Manchester, New Hampshire, home in 2019 at the age of 5 and has not been seen since.
She was placed in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families in 2014, when she was two months old, and remained there until February 2019 when her father, 32-year-old Adam Montgomery, was awarded custody by the Juvenile Court of Massachusetts, according to the report.
In January, Adam Montgomery was arrested and charged with second-degree assault, interference with custody, and endangering the welfare of a child in connection with Harmony’s disappearance.
“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,” OCA Director Maria Mossaides said. “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 report found:
- Most of DCF’s case management primarily focused on her mother, Crystal Sorey, not her father who was in prison at the time. The DCF case management team had no understanding of Adam’s family or personal history to develop a plan where they could see if he could parent Harmony.
- Harmony’s medical and special needs were not central when her mother was given two reunifications. This resulted in significant placement instability for Harmony, as she was moved back and forth between her mother’s home and her foster parents’ home multiple times. This led to significant trauma in the early years of her life.
- Harmony’s care and protection were not prioritized by the judge or attorneys when making custody decisions. The OCA spent about 40 hours in her four-and-a-half years, yet there was no discussion on how she could safely transition into his care given the limited time they spent together.
- The DCF attorney didn’t present a strong legal case to oppose placing her with her father. DCF’s legal case couldn’t address her father’s parental capacity to her for Harmony’s unique needs.
- Harmony’s attorney didn’t present what her needs were, including her strengths and vulnerabilities. They also didn’t question or oppose the placement with her father.
- The court awarded cross-border custody, relying on New Hampshire case law and not Massachusetts’.
Watch: OCA discusses Harmony Montgomery case (story continues below)
The OCA has been working toward reform following a couple of high-profile cases where children died in recent years — including David Almond, a 14-year-old autistic boy from Fall River who died from starvation in October 2020.
Almond’s father and his father’s girlfriend were charged with second-degree murder and neglect. Reforms in the wake of his death included more support at DCF for children with disabilities or developmental delays.
In addition to the findings, the OCA offered 10 recommendations to improve policies and practices, primarily directed at the DCF, Juvenile Court, and Committee for Public Counsel Services.
Mossaides said there are similarities between these recommendations and others made following Almond’s death. Both children were returned to the custody of their respective fathers in 2019.
“Many of the OCA’s 26 recommendations from the Almond case could be applied to Harmony’s case,” Mossaides said.
Since the 2021 report on Almond, there have been extensive improvements to DCF and Juvenile Court policy and practice, according to OCA.
For this reason, OCA focused on a series of new recommendations based on the facts of the Montgomery case, including:
- DCF should develop a comprehensive plan to ensure both parents are adequately assessed and receive the support and access to services needed so that their child(ren) can achieve permanency.
- There should be a Working Group established – including, at a minimum, the Juvenile Court, DCF, CPCS, the OCA and members of the Legislature – to hold policy discussions that map how a child’s welfare and best interest considerations are currently presented in Care and Protection cases and what changes may be needed so that a parent’s rights are appropriately balanced with a child’s needs.
- DCF should conduct a comprehensive review of their legal advocacy, with a focus on a continuous quality improvement system for the training, on-going litigation support, and supervision of their attorneys.
- CPCS should conduct a comprehensive review of the suitability of the standards of advocacy provided to children in Care and Protection cases, and the adequacy of CPCS’s supervision over the quality of this representation.
- DCF and the Juvenile Court should identify and address persistent barriers to permanency.
- DCF should 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.
“The mission of the Office of the Child Advocate is to ensure that children receive appropriate, timely and quality services, with a particular focus on ensuring that the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable and at-risk children can thrive,” Mossaides added. “One way we accomplish this is through tireless advocacy for policy, practice, and legislative change that we believe will improve the state systems on behalf of all the Commonwealth’s children.”
Watch: OCA takes questions on Harmony Montgomery case