It’s always a tragedy when a child goes missing. And it’s always a bigger tragedy once we learn of all the ways a missing-child case could have been prevented.
As more details emerge in the case of Harmony Montgomery, the 7-year-old girl who was last seen in 2019, it’s becoming apparent that several key institutional failures could have contributed to her disappearance. It’s unclear, for example, why her father — who is currently being held without bail on charges of assaulting and endangering her — was able to win custody of Harmony despite several clear red flags in his criminal record, including convictions for an armed robbery and shooting a man during a drug deal. It’s also strange that, given that Harmony was once enrolled at a Massachusetts school, no state agencies here or in New Hampshire, where she later lived with her father, picked up on her disappearance for over two years.
In order to better understand how to improve the safety net that protects children from harm and abusive parents, state authorities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have to understand what went wrong in Harmony’s case every step of the way. And while Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire has been dealing with the news by pointing fingers, it would be more productive if both he and Governor Charlie Baker, respectively, commission broad investigations of their states’ child welfare systems — from schools to protective services to foster care — and see where those systems are falling short.
It’s true that both states are undergoing reviews of potential failures. The Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate and the Supreme Judicial Court, for example, are investigating the juvenile court decision that awarded custody of Harmony to her father, Adam Montgomery. And the Division for Children, Youth, and Families in New Hampshire is conducting an internal review of Harmony’s case, according to Sununu. But both states have to do more if they want to prevent a child in a situation similar to Harmony’s from sharing her fate. That means understanding precisely why a child was missing for over two years without triggering child protective services from taking any action to check in on her.
There are plenty of areas for both states to investigate. Why did, as Sununu pointed out, the Massachusetts juvenile court award custody of Harmony to her father before the New Hampshire child welfare agency had a chance to conduct a home study of Adam Montgomery? Why did New Hampshire’s child welfare agency subsequently fail to check in on Harmony’s well-being, given that it was already made aware of her case? Was New Hampshire’s agency too understaffed to do its job? Why did Massachusetts agencies not follow up with New Hampshire to ensure that Harmony was being well taken care of?
Both states’ legislatures should pay attention to that last question in particular. When people move from state to state, information can often be lost because of a failure to efficiently or properly share data between states. Given that Harmony was enrolled in school in Massachusetts and then taken out, the school system should have made sure that she was eventually enrolled in another school, even if it was in another state, or homeschooled.
Compounding the difficulty in understanding what went wrong in Harmony’s case are the secrecy laws that shroud juvenile courts. While they exist for the reasonable and important purpose of protecting children, they also allow people in power to evade accountability. That’s why in its review of Harmony’s custody case, the Supreme Judicial Court should assess the impact of secrecy laws and make a recommendation to the Legislature as to if and how they ought to be changed.
It’s too early to enact new laws based on what happened to Harmony Montgomery, because so much is still unknown. And as lawmakers think about how to reform child welfare in order to better protect children like Harmony, they must also consider that overly surveilling parents can also do harm. And sometimes, states may divert resources from welfare spending — like cash assistance — to child protective agencies, and children end up getting taken away from their parents for reasons that could have been avoided.
So for now, Massachusetts and New Hampshire should focus on getting to the bottom of Harmony’s case by continuing to search for her and by the governors hiring outside investigators to study their welfare systems to understand what, exactly, went wrong. And once they do that, the state legislatures should be ready to act.
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