The rush to tear families apart

Harmony Montgomery faced it in two states

WHO GAVE A DAMN about Harmony Montgomery?

I don’t mean now, as governors and other politicians fall all over themselves expressing shock and outrage.  I mean who gave a damn when no one else did?

Not the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and Massachusetts courts. They tore Harmony from her mother and placed her with her father Adam in New Hampshire,  — someone whose long criminal record included shooting a man in the face during a drug deal.

Not the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families, whose overloaded workers seem to have performed, at best, cursory investigations, and didn’t want to hear that the child was missing.

The one person who gave a damn is the person no one would listen to; the person who was written off from the start: Crystal Sorey — Harmony’s mother.

Sorey began searching for Harmony in 2019 after Adam and his wife cut her off from all contact with the child.  As the Boston Globe reports, Sorey “called schools in New Hampshire where she thought Harmony might be enrolled, paid for Internet search tools to obtain addresses linked to Adam Montgomery, and made repeated attempts to reach New Hampshire’s child welfare agency.”

Nobody listened until she sent a desperate plea to the mayor of Manchester.

That’s because Harmony Montgomery is a victim of two state “child welfare” agencies that are obsessed with tearing apart families.  Yet most of the solutions under discussion involve giving these agencies even more power and more money to do more of the same.

It was easy to write off Crystal Sorey. After all, everyone loves to smear poor parents who use drugs.  Didn’t they “choose” drugs over their children?  (Nobody ever says a parent chooses cancer over her child.)  In some states, such as Connecticut, she might have gotten intensive home-based drug treatment, and Harmony might never have been taken.  But Harmony lived in Massachusetts which, for decades, has torn apart families at a rate far above the national average – more than 50 percent above in 2020 – when rates of child poverty are factored in.

DCF and the courts persist in this approach despite all the research showing that, in typical cases, which are nothing like the horror stories and often revolve around poverty, children fare better in their own homes even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  And yes, that includes cases where the issue is substance use.

Indeed, the rush to tear apart such families reflects the same double standards involving race and class as is found in every other part of the system.  When First Lady Betty Ford was addicted to alcohol and pills, child protective services did not rush to the White House to check on her then-17-year-old daughter.  On the contrary, Betty Ford was hailed as a hero for confronting her addiction – and founded a celebrity rehab center.

No such indulgence was extended to Crystal Sorey – and Harmony Montgomery paid the price.

Only 13 states tear apart families at a higher rate than Massachusetts.  One of them is New Hampshire. (The national average for entries into foster care per thousand impoverished children in 2020 was 19.1 — Massachusetts was 31.5 and New Hampshire 39.8.)

That wasn’t always the case.  But after two children “known to the system” died in late 2014 and early 2015, there was a foster-care panic. Workers terrified of having the next such case on their caseloads rushed to tear apart families at astounding rates.  By 2017, the number of children torn from their homes in a year had nearly doubled – up 85 percent since 2014.

Yet in 2018, the state’s newly-appointed “child advocate” Moira O’Neill said New Hampshire still wasn’t taking enough children. In her very first report, she claimed that children are endangered because lawmakers and courts supposedly were making the “best interests of the child” subordinate to “parents’ rights.” But, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is showing us, “best interests of the child” often is a euphemism for imposing the prejudices of the powerful on the powerless.

The data from New Hampshire show O’Neill is wrong.  And so does what happened to Harmony Montgomery.  Because foster-care panic has another consequence: It overloads systems to the point that they don’t have time to investigate any case properly. So they do drive-by casework and make snap judgments.  The Concord Monitor found that in the very tragedies that led to the creation of O’Neill’s office “crushing caseloads, high staff turnover, and a lack of thorough investigations were to blame for the oversights.”  The foster-care panic made all that worse.

It’s much the same in Massachusetts.  O’Neil’s counterpart, Maria Mossaides, zeroes in on the most horrific cases and uses them to justify demanding a vast expansion of family surveillance. This was seen most recently in her failed attempts to manipulate a commission she chaired into recommending a further expansion of mandatory child abuse reporting laws – even though research shows mandatory reporting backfires by discouraging families from seeking help, and overloading systems with false reports.

Expanding the child welfare surveillance state won’t save the next child like Harmony Montgomery.  It will only send an ever-larger cadre of workers into an ever-larger number of homes, leaving us with the same lousy systems only bigger.

Meet the Author

Richard Wexler

Executive director, National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform
What would work?  Turning mandatory reporters into mandatory supporters – providing concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty, and drug treatment on demand.  That requires bolstering due process for families by providing high-quality defense counsel – not to get “bad parents” off, but so parents like Crystal Sorey can get the help they need, and the next child like Harmony Montgomery can be saved.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform,