It would be so much easier if we could find the right person — in addition to the obvious, her violent menace of a father — to blame for whatever has befallen Harmony Montgomery.
No child is more lost than one for whom no one searches. Harmony appears to have gone missing from her father’s house in the fall of 2019, when she was 5. But the official search for her didn’t begin until two years later, after her frantic mother, who had lost custody because she struggled with drug addiction, finally raised the alarm.
Our sense of justice, and our need for order, compel us to pinpoint the exact moment this poor child was let down, and to hold somebody accountable for it. Otherwise, how can we understand what happened to her? How can we make sure it won’t happen again?
So here, as in every gut-wrenching case like it, the finger-pointing has begun. The governor of New Hampshire, where Harmony lived with her father, has blamed the Lawrence judge who awarded custody of the child to Adam Montgomery in February 2019 — even though the father had a history of violence, including a conviction for shooting a man in the head during a drug deal in 2014.
But we don’t yet know what happened in that courtroom, and what exactly the judge knew about Montgomery. In any case, the judge wasn’t the only person who could have made a difference here. Social workers in two states were involved with this child. Police were called to Montgomery’s home in New Hampshire many times. Child welfare workers there were clearly aware of her awful situation.
Based on what we know so far, we’re looking at not just one failure but a whole string of them, lined up in just the right — wrong — way to make the unthinkable possible. That bigger picture is more painful to confront, and harder to fix: The net a compassionate society builds to catch kids like Harmony is made of only slender threads. It is held together by an army of beleaguered people, almost always doing their best — judges, social workers, educators, police, and neighbors, among others. If enough of them make mistakes, the net shreds, and kids like Harmony fall through.
But the net held for her younger brother, Jamison. He’d been in and out of different foster homes with Harmony for the first few years of his life. But a few months after the judge gave custody of Harmony to her father, Jamison was matched with the couple who would become his adoptive parents.
Blair and Johnathon Miller, who had adopted two other boys, brought him into their loving family. Jamison talked about his sister all the time, and his fathers were prepared to adopt her, too. But they were told she was with her biological father, who is different from Jamison’s.
“As far as we knew, the system had taken care of [Harmony], and we trusted what we were told, and wanted to believe it was a good situation,” Blair Miller said.
The system had certainly worked for Jamison, who found parents who feel lucky to have him. The Millers wanted their kids to be connected to their birth families always, so they stayed in close touch with Jamison’s mother, and encouraged her to keep trying to find Harmony.
If not for the misfortune of being born to her particular father, Harmony could well have been part of her brother’s new family. She could have been among the little crew this past Friday morning, eating waffles and fruit for breakfast, then pulling on her hat for school in Arlington, Va.
Instead, the Millers are now trying to soften Jamison’s distress over his sister’s disappearance, trying to keep her name in the news in case it jars someone’s conscience, and brings her home.
“Right now we’re just trying to focus on what Jamison would want us to do,” Blair Miller said. “When he’s 15, 30, whatever, we want to be able to look him in the eye and say, ‘Son, we hope we did everything you would have done in that situation.’”
Will Harmony have the chance to make it to 15 or 30? Or did her luck run out long ago?
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.