Harmony Montgomery had tumbled through the Massachusetts child welfare system for most of her young life, when her custody case landed in a Lawrence courtroom in February 2019.
The blond-haired, blue-eyed 4-year-old had lived at one point in a Massachusetts shelter with her mother, who struggled with substance abuse and lost custody months earlier.
Harmony’s father, Adam Montgomery, a transient in New Hampshire with his own history of addiction, wanted custody. But he had a lengthy criminal record that included convictions for an armed attack on two women and for shooting a man in the head during a drug deal just six months before Harmony’s birth.
Still, that day, in a ruling shrouded by privacy laws meant to protect children and their families, a judge gave custody of Harmony to her father.
That decision — and the murky months after her father assumed custody — are now under intense scrutiny as authorities scramble to find the missing girl, more than two years after she was reportedly last seen.
Newly released records show police were repeatedly called to Montgomery’s home in Manchester after he received custody of Harmony in 2019, reports ranging from domestic disturbances to animal welfare, and depicting a disheveled, trash-filled home that was at times without electricity.
Since her disappearance became public, friends and relatives have expressed shock that authorities didn’t act sooner, and some experts have questioned if Montgomery’s criminal history — which included pleading guilty to assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and firearms offenses in 2014 — was sufficiently scrutinized.
“It is troubling,” said Margo Lindauer, director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University. “I think reasonable minds could agree that maybe that person isn’t a safe placement for a child.”
How Harmony’s custody case unfolded in court that day is unclear. The arguments made in support of the judge’s decision, the recommendations filed by state child welfare authorities, even the judge’s name are confidential in Massachusetts, shielded from public view, unknown to all but a few. Governor Charlie Baker’s office as well as child welfare and judicial officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about Harmony’s case.
How much time she and her parents spent in Massachusetts, and where, is similarly unclear. Months after Harmony’s birth in the state, her mother, Crystal Sorey, used a mailing address in Amesbury, records show. Meanwhile, Montgomery was in custody of the state Department of Correction in Roslindale. Years later, Sorey lived for a spell in Lowell, and Montgomery moved to New Hampshire.
What is evident is that Montgomery, 31, had an extensive — and public — criminal record. And documents newly obtained by the Globe show the breadth of that police record in New Hampshire, including charges of pointing a gun at two women in a robbery for which he pleaded guilty in 2010.
Records released Wednesday by Manchester police show officers were called 10 times, in less than a year, to the small Cape-style house at 77 Gilford St., where Harmony and her father lived before she disappeared in 2019. More than half of those calls, the records show, involved some kind of domestic disturbance or concern about living conditions on the property, and show that the state’s child welfare agency was involved.
Montgomery, who, according to a relative, admitted to striking his daughter in the past, is currently jailed on assault and child endangerment charges and has remained mum on her most recent whereabouts, police said. His wife, Kayla Montgomery, has been charged with welfare fraud for allegedly pocketing state benefit payments meant for Harmony, now 7.
Sorey, who after several stints in sober homes set out months ago to find her daughter, is pressing police and child welfare officials for answers.
Authorities prefer to reunite children with their family members, both as a matter of practice and principle — federal statutes encourage reunification when possible over other options like adoption. Roughly two-thirds of Massachusetts children who leave the Department of Children and Families’ care are reunited with a family member, according to agency data.
But those situations can vary wildly given the range of issues often at play, from past criminal records to substance abuse and mental health concerns, experts say. Custody decisions in cases where child welfare agencies are involved with the family are typically made by a juvenile judge, who can determine if a parent is fit to care for a child.
Making that determination is complex. Parents — even those with a criminal record — have a fundamental right to their children, and the burden would be on a state agency involved in the child’s case to prove they might not be fit caregivers, experts said.
In serious cases, when a parent’s history includes violent crimes and allegations about drug dealing, the risks of granting custody should be closely scrutinized, said Kim McLaurin, an associate dean of experiential learning at Suffolk Law School.
“I would suspect that a drug deal and gun violence during a drug deal would open up more questions and more concerns about the father,” McLaurin said. “Was it a lack of information, which is a problem? Or is it a loophole in the statutory construct in how we look at these cases, which is also something that should probably be addressed?”
A national interstate compact also governs child welfare cases that cross state lines, and requires a receiving state to inspect the home of a child in another state and monitor them after a move. But those kinds of agreements don’t necessarily apply when a child’s custody is granted to a biological parent, and it’s unclear in Harmony’s case if state officials sought such a compact at all.
Montgomery’s prior history with law enforcement — which stretched back years — involved several spates of violence.
In 2008, Montgomery was charged with breaking into a Malden apartment and demanding money from two women at gunpoint, at one point holding the weapon to one of their necks, according to a Malden police report. When officers detained Montgomery and another man who was with him, Montgomery pointed the gun — later determined to be a pellet gun — at one of the officers before being wrestled to the ground.
Montgomery later pleaded guilty to armed robbery and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
Montgomery would be prosecuted — and sentenced — at least twice more: In the 2014 shooting, he received an 18-month suspended sentence in Massachusetts to be served concurrently with an unrelated criminal case in New Hampshire. He was also prosecuted in Manchester last year on several charges, including stalking his estranged wife, Kayla, and her three children and resisting arrest. He was given a one-year sentence that was suspended for two years and was ordered to undergo mental health counseling, records show.
In an interview with the Globe over the weekend, Sorey, 31, also accused Montgomery of choking her while she was pregnant with Harmony.
While Montgomery’s record paints a chilling past, it remains unclear whether authorities weighing his parental custody rights knew of, or didn’t see a problem with, his crimes.
His own family members, including his brother and uncle, said they became increasingly concerned after seeing Montgomery’s behavior toward the girl in the months after her father gained custody. The uncle, Kevin Montgomery, told police he notified New Hampshire’s child protection agency with his concerns.
Manchester police records show officers were called by several people to the address on Gilford Street in 2019, including once from a neighbor concerned about “a young child” on the property.
Multiple reports referenced the state’s child welfare agency: in one instance that summer, the police said they had helped the agency with a condition check; in September, police referred the home to the agency after another disturbance. “We’ve dealt with this address quite a bit in the last couple of months,” a report that month stated.
The calls stopped in early 2020, after Adam Montgomery was evicted from the home. When he was found sleeping in a car on New Year’s Eve 2021, he said he had not seen Harmony since November 2019 and refused to cooperate with police.
New Hampshire child welfare officials have declined to answer questions about the involvement the agency had with Harmony and her father before her disappearance that November, citing confidentiality issues. Authorities continue to investigate her disappearance, and last weekend scoured the Gilford Street house, though they did not disclose the nature of their search.
During a press conference Wednesday, Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg praised the response of his department. He declined to comment when asked about the actions of the state’s child welfare agency.
”I’m not going to point fingers at any other agency,” he said, “because I don’t think it’s going to do the investigation any good.”
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu also defended the state’s handling of Harmony’s disappearance, adding that DCYF had already started an internal review of the case.
”As soon as we found out that this child may not have been showing up for school for quite some time, it was reported up to us,” he said, noting the agency had been working with Manchester police since November. “The team got right on it. It wasn’t a delay. It didn’t sit in a file on somebody’s desk.”
Some Massachusetts lawmakers said they intend to look more closely at what might have happened while Harmony’s case was being monitored by DCF.
Representative Michael Finn, Democrat of West Springfield and the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Children and Families, said he and other lawmakers have already discussed Harmony with each other and with the Office of the Child Advocate, which is reviewing the agency’s handling of the case.
“It’s important the right investigation is allowed to happen so we can hone in on what if anything the Commonwealth failed to do, and what, if anything, our response to that should be,” he said. Pulling the case files alone, he said, is likely to take another two to three weeks.
“This is on the permanent agenda until we get the answers we think we need,” he added.
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @lauracrimaldi. Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com. Elizabeth Koh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @elizabethrkoh.