Amid a groundswell of criticism, Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday that he feels a “tremendous amount of pain” around the disappearance of Harmony Montgomery, but urged patience with the state’s ongoing review of its handling of the missing 7-year-old’s custody case.
Baker said he wants answers about the child welfare system’s oversight of Harmony, and shared some of the same concerns raised a day earlier in a scathing letter from New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. But Baker stopped shy of criticizing the Massachusetts juvenile court judge who in 2019 placed Harmony in the care of her father, a troubled New Hampshire man now eyed in her disappearance.
“I think we should wait until the Office of the Child Advocate finishes their review,” Baker said when asked about Sununu’s criticism following a briefing on COVID-19 testing in Boston.
“I felt his pain in that letter. I did. And like everybody else, I feel a tremendous amount of pain associated with what happened to Harmony.”
Baker’s comments were the state’s first direct response to Sununu, who suggested Tuesday that Massachusetts courts had failed the girl by putting her in her father’s custody.
Officials in both states have faced growing scrutiny and criticism over the case. The girl spent time in Massachusetts’ child welfare system before her father moved her to New Hampshire, and police were called multiple times to her Manchester home before she vanished in late 2019.
Harmony’s father, Adam Montgomery, who is currently being held without bail in New Hampshire on a charge that he assaulted his daughter in 2019, is also a suspect in the murder of 28-year-old Darlin Guzman in Lynn in 2008, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation.
Boston 25 News was first to report Wednesday that Montgomery is a suspect in the case.
Guzman was shot to death in a parking lot outside a convenience at 10:55 p.m. on Feb. 10, 2008. Guzman, a computer repairman, was born in the Dominican Republic and had lived in Lynn for 13 years, according to his obituary.
Since Harmony’s disappearance became known to authorities in November, she’s become the focus of a major search — and questions about how her case could have been overlooked for so long.
Sununu released a letter to Kimberly S. Budd, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, asking for more information about the circumstances that led to the juvenile judge’s February 2019 custody decision.
That decision, Sununu contended, was reached before Massachusetts’ Department of Children and Families shared information that would have permitted New Hampshire officials to study the home and care of Adam Montgomery — and could have meant more oversight of the child’s well-being.
“Harmony’s father Adam Montgomery is a monstrous drug dealer with previous convictions including shooting someone in the head and a separate armed attack on two women in Massachusetts,” Sununu wrote.
Baker declined to specify if Massachusetts officials planned to share information directly with New Hampshire, but said he sympathized with Sununu’s position.
“I totally get where Governor Sununu is coming from, and we are cooperating to the fullest extent possible that we can with the Office of the Child Advocate here in Massachusetts that is reviewing the case,” Baker said.
Baker said he had faith that the Office of the Child Advocate, which provides oversight of the state’s services for children, would complete an independent review.
The office “does not cherry pick” during probes, but “covers the whole show, and they usually move forward quickly,” he said.
Juvenile judicial records are sealed under Massachusetts law, meaning many of the most basic details of that decision — the name of the judge, the evidence presented, the recommendation of state child welfare authorities — is shielded from public view.
But child welfare advocates in both states said they were surprised that a judge would grant custody to Harmony’s father given what would have been publicly known about his record.
Christopher Cook, president of SEIU/NAGE Local 282, which represents lawyers at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, said the judge who made the decision “clearly saw the facts in a light most favorable to the father.”
“I can’t imagine a set of facts that would justify returning custody to the father,” Cook added, noting he had not been briefed about the case.
New Hampshire Executive Councilor Theodore L. Gatsas said the judicial actions in Massachusetts clearly merit further scrutiny. “Somebody needs to address what happened in Massachusetts,” he said. “If that was the last place to have charge of her, then somebody there needs to say something.”
Massachusetts officials have shared little about the girl’s past interactions with the child welfare system, though she was involved with the agency before her father gained custody and moved with her to Manchester.
New Hampshire officials began searching for Harmony in December after her mother, Crystal Sorey, reported to police in November that she hadn’t seen her daughter since spring 2019.
Adam Montgomery was arrested this month after not cooperating with police. He faces charges of assault and child endangerment in New Hampshire related to Harmony, though he has not been charged in her disappearance. His wife, Kayla Montgomery, the girl’s stepmother, has also been charged with welfare fraud for allegedly pocketing state benefit payments meant for the child.
Though Manchester police records show New Hampshire’s Department of Children, Youth and Families interacted multiple times with the Montgomery family in the months before Harmony’s disappearance, state child welfare officials there have declined to elaborate on how involved they were with the case.
Moira K. O’Neill, the child advocate in New Hampshire, said her office is reviewing child welfare records and monitoring the search for the girl. The agency, she said in an e-mail, will also review the case with staff from the state’s Division of Children, Youth and Families.
Child welfare records, she noted, are protected by state and federal confidentiality laws and getting to the bottom of what happened will require patience.
Sununu didn’t consult with her office before releasing his letter to the Massachusetts judicial system, O’Neill said, adding that “we can understand that many people, including the governor, feel helpless to end the mystery and find out what happened.
Later Wednesday, Sununu said that he had talked with Baker about the case and that his counterpart “shares my anger.” But what happened in Harmony’s judicial process, he added, “does have to be opened up.”
“It was what I would call a single point decision made in February of 2019. And it isn’t just a decision we go, ‘Hmm, I wonder why.’ There’s no logic to it,” he said.
Separately Wednesday, Manchester police announced that a reward for information leading to the girl’s whereabouts has grown to $144,000. Tipsters should call 603-203-6060.
Globe Correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.
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