Authorities kept getting warnings about the little house on Gilford Street.
The calls to Manchester police came in bursts in 2019, sometimes more than once a week. There were reports of loud fights, complaints about an aggressive pit bull named Mama, concerns about a child at a trash-strewn house that didn’t have electricity.
A New Hampshire child welfare case worker came out at one point and took note of Harmony Montgomery, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, partially blind, 5-year-old. Around this time, the state’s child welfare agency received another worrying report: Harmony’s uncle had seen her with a black eye.
As these warnings mounted in late 2019, and after being evicted from the house, Harmony’s father and stepmother moved the family into two cars. Soon after, the girl seemingly vanished, authorities said. And the state agency tasked with protecting children apparently never noticed.
“It’s a scandal,” said Michael Lewis, a lawyer who has taken on child welfare cases in the state. “Why didn’t you intervene earlier?”
Since last month, Harmony’s disappearance has confounded the country and cast scrutiny on New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth and Families, which historically has been one of the worst-performing agencies of its kind in the country. The state’s governor, Christopher Sununu, has castigated Massachusetts for its failings in safeguarding Harmony’s welfare; critics have pointed the finger closer to home.
The state lags behind other states in caseworkers per child, federal data show, despite recent efforts to improve staffing after budgets were slashed a decade ago. The agency has also been wracked by extraordinary turnover, and those who remain still face outsized caseloads that remain among the highest in the nation.
At its worst in 2016, New Hampshire’s child welfare workers juggled an average of 93 cases each — more than seven times the recommendation of the Child Welfare League of America, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
Many of these troubles were highlighted in 2016 and 2018, in federal and independent audits that slammed the state for a fraying child protection system, with a poorly paid workforce that too often failed those in need and let cases pile up. In response, lawmakers promised millions of dollars to fix what Sununu, the governor, admitted was a “disaster” of an agency.
More recently, administrators have begun to tout the increase in staffing and a downturn in caseloads, though the agency still lags behind many others on those measures. Meanwhile, Harmony’s case — and that of 5-year-old Elijah Lewis from Merrimack who went missing last fall and was found dead weeks later — have many questioning how much the agency has changed and how often vulnerable kids are overlooked.
“How many kids have to die before someone decides we need to kick it into high gear?” asked Anna Carrigan, a child welfare advocate and agency critic. “We’re prioritizing adult egos over children’s safety and children’s lives.”
Since Harmony’s disappearance came to light, her case has become the focus of internal reviews within child welfare agencies in two states, and the massive search to find her has drawn in three state and federal agencies. Her father, Adam Montgomery — who, despite a long and violent criminal record, was granted custody of her in 2019 — has been jailed on abuse and child endangerment charges while being eyed in her disappearance.
Agency administrators in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts have said little about the girl’s case, citing the confidentiality mandated in juvenile cases. Jake Leon, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, declined to answer specific questions about Harmony’s case this past week.
In a Sunday interview with WMUR-TV, Sununu called Harmony’s case “tragic” but insisted the state’s child welfare system had dramatically improved in the last few years, with more caseworkers and fewer cases among them.
“We’ve brought amazing change to the system,” he said. “We’ve been able to create more positions and staff more positions and, and take care of more kids at a much better rate than we ever have before.”
Sununu’s office did not respond to Globe requests for comment.
His state’s child welfare agency has 134 fully trained assessment caseworkers as of January, an improvement from some of its bleakest numbers in the recent past. As of Dec. 31, about 2,100 open cases were in the system, said Leon, the DHHS spokesman.
Critics of the agency acknowledge some progress, but say that the agency’s history of underfunding services is not so easily fixed. Its spending on child welfare plummeted by 54 percent between 2008 to 2018, according to the most recent data from Child Trends, a national nonprofit that surveys states on social services spending. In comparison, child welfare spending nationally inched up by 2 percent, while neighboring Massachusetts saw its own spending soar by almost a third, according to the nonprofit.
“They cut the heart out of DCYF funding,” said Lewis, who represented Carrigan, the advocate, in an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2020 challenging the state’s spending on such services.
Meanwhile, children suffered. Preventive services were cut for lack of funding, while a backlog of cases piled up into the thousands. And though child welfare systems prioritize keeping kids in their homes where possible, the number of children who were put into out-of-home care soared by more than 75 percent from 2014 to 2018, one of the nation’s highest rates.
The agency also came under fire for a string of child injuries and deaths — including the high-profile killings of 3-year-old Brielle Gage in 2014 and toddler Sadee Willott in 2015 by their parents, each of whom had been the subject of multiple neglect and abuse investigations before they died.
After an independent audit in 2016 savaged the agency, lawmakers vowed to improve the system. The agency’s head retired amid a controversy over hundreds of abruptly closed cases. And a flurry of bills followed, leading to the creation of a child advocate’s office and millions more in funding for workers in the agency.
It’s unclear when and how Harmony first had contact with New Hampshire’s child safety net. But the little girl had already bounced in and out of Massachusetts’ child welfare system by the time her case came before a Massachusetts juvenile court judge in February 2019.
That judge was Mark Newman, according to two people with direct knowledge, and he ultimately gave custody to her father despite a long criminal record that included an attempted armed robbery and shooting a man in the face after a drug deal gone awry. Not long after Adam Montgomery moved Harmony to his home in Manchester, New Hampshire, the complaints began.
Police records show that the agency had a caseworker assigned at one point to the Montgomerys after Harmony arrived, and a possible case of abuse was investigated, according to authorities. In the charging of Harmony’s stepmother Monday, prosecutors said that shortly before Harmony disappeared, the family had been evicted and were living in two cars as winter loomed.
Harmony’s case is just one example of how, despite recent changes, the New Hampshire system has struggled to keep up, critics say.
Though the number of caseworker positions has doubled, filling them has been slow, stymied by comparatively low wages, a competitive market, and accelerating turnover in the ranks. DCYF now has 161 assessment caseworker positions compared with the 82 it had in 2017 — but in 2021 alone, about a quarter of the state’s child protection social workers were replaced, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The funding doesn’t help if you can’t fill the positions,” said Lawrence Shulman, a former DCYF advisory board member and retired professor of social work at the University of Buffalo.
It also takes an average of 68 days in New Hampshire — more than twice the national average — to start DCYF-funded services after a report is received, according to federal data.
Leon, the state’s health department spokesman, said services are usually started after a court has confirmed a finding of abuse or neglect, and that the data do not include families that are referred to community-based services “such as a community mental health center, a home visiting program, or a Family Resource Center.”
On the state’s struggles with hiring, he added, “Like virtually every sector, finding workers remains a challenge in today’s labor market.”
The average number cases per worker has also come down, in part due to a decrease in child welfare reports early in the pandemic. But caseloads hover in the high teens, above a nationally recommended standard of 12.
And former staffers said the agency still struggles with poor management supervision of those in the field and a culture of burnout. The average pay for caseworkers hovers behind neighbors like Massachusetts or Maine — meaning workers often leave to pursue the same work elsewhere. Without that institutional knowledge, new hires have less experience than those they replace, those employees say, and the tough work of discerning when to intervene becomes even tougher.
“I see this as a failure of the system writ large,” said state Senator Becky Whitley, Democrat of Hopkinton, N.H. “We didn’t do enough — as a system, as a state — to catch this family and catch this child.”
The Manchester office, where Harmony’s case was based, remains particularly overwhelmed, said Shulman. According to agency data, all but four of the office’s 21 assessment caseworker positions have turned over in the last two years, with three new positions added.
Overall, “It’s better now than it was,” he added. “But that’s because it was terrible at that point.”
In the WMUR interview, Sununu blamed Massachusetts officials for giving custody to her father and not sharing information needed to assess Montgomery’s home and fitness to take care of Harmony, he said.
“There was just such a limitation of information that could have been processed” after custody was granted to her father, Sununu said. “[It] does tie the hands of the system in terms of what they can and can’t do.”
But Lewis, the child welfare lawyer, said New Hampshire authorities shouldn’t abdicate responsibility for Harmony’s case.
“If this decision by this Massachusetts judge was so obviously terrible, why didn’t your government oppose it and raise the problems when this little girl was still here?” he asked. “You don’t just stop fighting for people.”
Elizabeth Koh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.