Child Advocate says ‘system failed’ Harmony Montgomery
Report says DCF, court put parents’ rights over child’s wellbeing
THE DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES and the court system valued the rights of Harmony Montgomery’s parents more than Harmony’s wellbeing, according to a damning 101-page report issued Wednesday by the state Child Advocate Maria Mossaides. Harmony, a young girl who last lived with her father in New Hampshire, has been missing since 2019. Her father is facing criminal charges in connection with her disappearance.
“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,” Mossaides said during an hour-long press conference. “The system failed Harmony by not placing her needs at every decision point.”
“The [Office of the Child Advocate] is gravely concerned that all relevant parties in this case focused on the parents’ constitutional rights more heavily than Harmony’s safety and best interests,” Mossaides said in concluding her report.
DCF spokesperson Andrea Grossman said the 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,” Grossman said. “The Department continues to make meaningful and lasting reforms to addresses these complex issues when a case comes before the court.”
Harmony, as a child, was blind in one eye. She enjoyed books, playing with dolls, eating, and picking vegetables from a garden.
One of the report’s most critical findings is about the lack of attention DCF and the attorneys involved paid to Adam Montgomery before returning Harmony to his custody. Montgomery was in prison when DCF first took Harmony from her mother, Crystal Sorey, who had a substance use disorder.
Throughout her early life, Harmony was repeatedly moved between foster care and Sorey’s custody. Sorey was inconsistent when it came to adhering to DCF requirements, like remaining in treatment and attending supervised visits.
Montgomery, who was released from prison in September 2015, was in and out of Harmony’s life, and in sporadic communication with DCF. Sometimes he maintained monthly visits with Harmony and reached out to DCF, but often he was unresponsive, did not adhere to DCF plans, and would go for long stretches without seeing Harmony. In 2018, after a period where Montgomery appeared stable, and Sorey did not, DCF for the first time set a goal of reunifying Harmony with her father.
In February 2019, a judge awarded Montgomery custody – even though a home study had never been conducted, Montgomery never gave DCF requested information about his substance use treatment, and attorneys at the hearing never explored Montgomery’s parental capacity, housing or employment stability, or his knowledge of Harmony’s medical and special education needs. Harmony was four and a half and had spent only 40 hours of her life with her father at that point, all during supervised visits.
Mossaides said DCF focused primarily on Sorey’s parenting and had no understanding of Montgomery’s parenting capacity. Montgomery never went through a complete family assessment process, which should have been required, and was often uncooperative and failed to participate in services. His wife Kayla Montgomery was never evaluated.
The report said DCF also had too little understanding of Harmony’s medical, educational, and emotional needs.
Mossaides said at the press conference, “That the child spent her entire life in foster care is one of the real serious issues here.”
The report also faults the attorneys involved, finding that “the standard of advocacy by both the DCF attorney and the attorney for Harmony was not, in the OCA’s view, sufficient.” It says the DCF attorney, who opposed Harmony’s reunification with her father, presented a weak case and did not delve into Montgomery’s history, parenting capacity, and lack of knowledge of Harmony’s needs.
The private bar counsel appointed through the Committee for Public Counsel Services represented Harmony but, the report said, expressed her wish to live with her father without providing any evidence about what specifically Harmony needed to thrive. Mossaides said she finds it particularly concerning that attorneys for Montgomery, Harmony, and Sorey all agreed Harmony’s father should be granted custody, even though he never even had an overnight visit with her.
Mossaides said the problem is not with the individual attorney but the standards the Committee for Public Counsel Services uses in guiding attorneys, which she recommends reconsidering.
The report also recommends the creation of a working group to determine how best to consider children’s interests in court; a review of DCF’s legal advocacy; an improved focus on achieving permanent outcomes for children; a discussion on how DCF and the public counsel office can support children transitioning out of DCF care; and improvements in coordination when multiple states are involved.
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the report misconstrues certain legal issues and discounts the harms children face when taken into foster care. “This report disregards the constitutional rights of children and parents and the responsibilities of attorneys for children and parents,” Benedetti said.
In extensive comments given to Mossaides’ office, the Committee for Public Counsel Services wrote that parents and children have a constitutional right to family integrity, and there are legal problems with several of the recommendations, like requiring monitoring after reunification or suggesting an attorney for a child make a recommendation that is counter to the child’s express wishes.
“Too often it is the case that sad facts result in bad law, and that will be the situation here if the [Office of the Child Advocate] recommendations are adopted,” Benedetti said.
This is the second recent case where the child advocate has made detailed, systemic recommendations – the previous one involved the death of Fall River teenager David Almond, allegedly due to abuse and neglect by his father and father’s girlfriend. Mossaides said many recommendations she made in Almond’s case are relevant here. Both incidents occurred in 2019, and since Mossaides’ report on Almond’s case came out, many of the changes have been made at DCF.
The report’s release comes as lawmakers are considering a $50 million proposal made by Gov. Charlie Baker to have the court appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the child’s interest in any Juvenile Court abuse and neglect case. Grossman said this proposal would address some of the issues raised by Mossaides because it would “ensure all children have a voice that advocates singularly for their best interests during court proceedings.”The Committee for Public Counsel Services opposes the plan, arguing that it would reinforce the flaws of the current child welfare system by having guardians, who too often evaluate families based on white middle-class norms, likely subjecting more children to traumatic family separations. The public counsel agency argues DCF should be the party looking out for children’s interests, so a guardian ad litem would be redundant, and it says there also simply aren’t enough people to serve in that role.
Mossaides said Wednesday that she agrees with Baker’s proposal, and guardians ad litem could be used to conduct investigations to ensure a child is being placed in a safe place. She said guardians ad litem could be lawyers or social workers and would ideally come from diverse backgrounds so they speak the language and respect the culture of the families they work with. “This, I believe, is another opportunity for us to do a better job for the children of the commonwealth,” Mossaides said.