The needs of a missing 5-year-old girl whom authorities began searching for two years after her last visit were not prioritized from when she was a baby in Massachusetts until her father was granted custody of her in New Hampshire, the head of the Massachusetts Children’s Advocate’s Office said in a report released Wednesday.
Harmony Montgomery, whose last known sighting was in 2019 while in her father’s care, suffered a ripple effect of “risk miscalculations and an unequal weight given to children’s rights.” parents in relation to a child’s well-being,” said Maria Mossaides, head of the Office of the Children’s Advocate.
Montgomery, who is still being sought, was born in Massachusetts in 2014 to unmarried parents who were no longer together and had a history of substance abuse, according to the independent agency’s report. Her father was in prison when she was born.
Harmony, who is blind in one eye and has behavioral needs, had been in the custody of Massachusetts Child Protective Services since she was 2 months old. She was moved between the homes of her mother and adoptive parents on several occasions, the report said, causing “significant trauma and harm” to her well-being.
In February 2019, her father, who lived in New Hampshire and had had little contact with her, won custody. She disappeared in late November or early December of this year.
“When children aren’t at the center of all aspects of the child protective services system, the system can’t really protect them,” Mossaides told a news conference.
“We don’t know the ultimate fate of Harmony Montgomery, and sadly, we may never do. But we do know that this beautiful, young child experienced many tragedies in her short life and that in no not putting her and her needs first, our system ultimately let her down,” she said.
A much-anticipated review into the case was promised earlier this year, shortly after police in Manchester, New Hampshire learned Harmony had been missing for two years and launched a massive investigation with a line 24-hour information and a reward fund that is increased to $150,000.
Her father, Adam Montgomery, and stepmother have pleaded not guilty to charges related to her welfare and remain in jail. Adam Montgomery said he brought Harmony with her mother to Massachusetts around Thanksgiving in 2019, but her mother hasn’t seen her since a video chat over Easter.
The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families released a statement Wednesday saying it “remains deeply concerned” about Harmony’s disappearance and the report “exemplifies the grave responsibility to balance safety and the best interests of the child and the legal rights of parents”.
The department said it agrees with the Office of the Children’s Advocate that the safety of children should be the “priority not only of DCF but of all participants in our child protection system”. .
“As the OCA report indicates, the Department continues to make meaningful and lasting reforms to address these complex issues when a case comes to court,” the statement said.
According to the report, the state’s Department of Children’s Services had focused primarily on Harmony’s mother, Crystal Sorey. Harmony was removed from her care on several occasions and sent to live with a foster family. The report states that although Adam Montgomery was “unresponsive for extended periods, during times when he appeared to be in communication with the DCF case management team, they were unable to engage, except to facilitate his supervised visits with Harmony.”
The report said Harmony was not a priority in her own legal case, saying neither the judge nor the attorneys placed her medical, behavioral and educational needs or her safety at the forefront of custody discussions. The report also says they failed to enforce the requirements that govern the placement of children from one state to another.
With the exception of the Massachusetts Children’s Services attorneys, all of the other attorneys in the case did not object to Harmony returning to her father without a home study and had no objection to the fact that he “never had an overnight visit with her that we are aware of,” Mossaides said. She said the child services attorney failed to present a case sufficiently solid and was hampered by the inability to effectively assess Montgomery.
“I was surprised there wasn’t a more thorough cross-examination of Mr. Montgomery regarding his own presentation of his fitness, but if no one objects to what he’s saying, it leaves the judge with very little choice in the matter,” she said.
The review was requested by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who had harshly criticized the Massachusetts judge for placing Harmony with her father and stepmother before the state could complete a study of their home. He called Adam Montgomery, who has a criminal record dating back to at least 2007, a “monster.”
Messages seeking comment on the report were left for Sununu’s spokesperson, as well as attorneys for Sorey and Adam Montgomery.
The report makes a number of recommendations to help state children’s services, the juvenile court and its Public Advocate Services Committee, such as Massachusetts’ work to improve cross-border communication and safety practices. . He notes that the department has already made reforms for when a case comes to court.
Massachusetts recently proposed legislation that would assign each child an ad litem guardian to ensure all children have a voice during court proceedings, a department spokesperson said in the statement Wednesday.
“The department remains committed to engaging with the court to increase permanency in a timely manner for children and to ensure safety and that the best interests of the child remain paramount,” the statement read.