LAWRENCE — The 31-year-old mother of three clutched a binder to her chest and stepped through the doors of the Lawrence courthouse on a recent weekday, hoping for answers to the question that has consumed her.
What happened to her daughter? What happened to Harmony?
It had been more than two months since Crystal Sorey had alerted police that her daughter was missing — a month since they took her seriously enough to open an official investigation, and a few weeks since Harmony’s father, who had custody of the 7-year-old girl, was jailed on abuse charges while refusing to share details on her whereabouts.
Through it all, Sorey has pleaded, worried, and struggled, spending harried days battling her worst tendencies while trying to unspool the string of events that led to this point.
Her search has, as she recounts it, spanned three years, two states, and a collection of government agencies — and has been met, at times, with a bureaucratic indifference the mother can only attribute to her complicated past that includes a history of drug addiction.
“I’m always going to own the fact that I played my part in this,” she says now. “But I never gave up on her. I never just washed my hands. Never.”
And so she passed, on this afternoon, through a courthouse metal detector and made her way up to the juvenile clerk’s office, seeking details from a 2019 custody hearing that might explain a judge’s decision to place Harmony in the care of her troubled father. Within minutes, however, it became clear that she would be thwarted again, this time by a clerk who refused to turn over the documents and suggested she call her lawyer. Later, her lawyer said he was no longer involved in the case and that she needed to get the files from the court.
For Sorey, who, like her daughter, grew up amid familial chaos and cycled through every system imaginable — child welfare, social services, the court system — it was the latest indignity in a yearslong effort to right herself and find her daughter.
“I just can’t ... sit by the phone and hope,” she says. “Not as a mother.”
The past few weeks have been a blur.
Guilt and anger consume her. Sleep comes sporadically. Though authorities have all but cleared her as a suspect in her daughter’s disappearance — an assistant prosecutor said in court last month that Sorey had been thoroughly investigated by police — unfounded suspicions and personal attacks have lingered in some corners of the Internet.
“Like I’m not already hurting,” she says. “Like I’m not already dying inside.”
Meanwhile, the challenges and responsibilities of daily life press in. Twice a week, she attends group meetings to maintain her grip on sobriety; she has been clean, she says, for 2½ years. She is raising her 1-year-old son on her own, making lunches and arranging rides to doctor’s appointments while wondering if the next phone call she gets will be from police, asking her to identify her daughter’s body.
“I still have to be a mom,” she says on a recent night, from the modest Central Massachusetts apartment she shares with her son, “and focus on my recovery and function through all this.”
Long before her daughter’s disappearance was national news, Sorey rang a bell of increasing alarm about Harmony. The girl, then 5 years old, had been placed in her father’s custody in 2019 and went to live with him in Manchester, N.H.
But within months, Sorey says, the father had cut off contact between Sorey and the girl. By the spring of 2019, she’d alerted New Hampshire’s child welfare agency, she says. Later, she drove the streets of Manchester herself in search of the girl and turned to social media for help.
It wasn’t until late December, however — after Sorey sent a pleading e-mail to Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig — that authorities looking into Harmony’s whereabouts acknowledged a startling fact: No one had seen the girl in more than two years.
Now, as the search for her daughter enters its second month — and officials in Massachusetts and New Hampshire scramble to untangle the events leading up to her disappearance — Sorey refuses to lose hope that her daughter is alive, while bracing herself for the possibility that she isn’t.
“I try so hard not to go there in my head, but you also have to prepare yourself for the worst,” she says. “So that you know how to handle it. So that you know how to cope.”
Much like her daughter’s, Sorey’s early life was marked by tumult.
Her older brother, Tim Flanagan Jr., likens the siblings’ upbringing in Haverhill to that of the fictional Showtime series “Shameless,” about a dysfunctional and poverty-stricken family struggling to get by. As a young teenager, he often raised Sorey and her twin sister — toddlers at the time — as their parents cycled in and out of jail and treatment programs, deep into addiction.
As Sorey grew older, her parents’ cycle became her own: drugs, arrests, courtrooms, treatment programs. Some of her siblings would struggle with addiction; she lost a brother to an overdose.
Flanagan, who now lives in Florida, is careful not to make excuses for the family. Still, he can’t help but believe that the turbulent upbringing contributed to her struggles.
“[People] don’t understand that this is generational chaos,” he says. “How do you know how to deal with that if you’ve never been through it?”
Sorey met Adam Montgomery when she was 20, through a mutual friend in New Hampshire. The relationship, she says now, was volatile. Both were using drugs heavily. By the time she became pregnant with the couple’s child, she says, Montgomery was physically abusing her.
But the birth of her first child in 2014, Sorey says, changed something in her. Here, finally, was something to care about, something to live for.
She named the girl Harmony, because it reminded her of music.
“Before I had her, I really didn’t have a reason to get clean,” she says now. “I hated myself, and I didn’t want to fight for myself. [Then] I gave birth to her, and I had someone to fight for.”
The relationship didn’t last; Montgomery was in jail at the time of his daughter’s birth, and not long after, Sorey says, the two split up.
“I just didn’t like him as a person once I got sober,” she says.
Their daughter grew into an adorable child, sassy and precocious. The little pig-tailed girl with glasses left an impression in the sober living programs where she lived for two years with her mother.
“Harmony was a little spitfire,” recalls a friend of Sorey’s, who lived with Sorey and her daughter at a sober house in Roxbury and asked not to be identified by name. “Very active, super fresh, very inquisitive and curious.”
But a relapse into addiction in 2018 cost Sorey custody of the girl, and the following year, a Lawrence juvenile court was tasked with deciding Harmony’s placement.
At the time, Sorey says, she pushed for the girl to remain with the Massachusetts foster mother she was living with, at least until Sorey could regain custody. Instead, a judge in February 2019 granted custody of the girl to Montgomery — despite his lengthy criminal history that included convictions for armed robbery and for shooting a man in the face during a drug deal. It is not known how much of his history was known by the judge, or what advice, if any, was given to the court by child welfare officials.
“I made a promise to her,” says the mother. “I promised mommy would get better, and I would stay better.”
Over the next three months, Sorey says she had three in-person visits with her daughter. But during a video call with Harmony shortly before Easter 2019, Sorey and Montgomery got into an argument. From that point forward, she says, Montgomery cut off all contact.
In the months that followed, Sorey says, she tried in vain to reach the little girl. She called New Hampshire’s child welfare agency, she says, only to be told she sounded like a scorned ex. Later, while living in Lowell, she drove past New Hampshire schools where she thought her daughter might’ve been enrolled, and paid for online search tools to access addresses associated with Montgomery.
Last July, she posted a photo montage of Harmony to the social media site TikTok, saying she’d never stop looking for her daughter.
“Is she missing?” someone asked in response.
“She’s not quite missing,” Sorey responded. “Her father has her and hasn’t let me see her or talk to her in two years!!! For no reason just to hurt me.”
Last November, unsure where else to turn, she called police in Manchester, the last place Harmony was known to be living.
When authorities eventually tracked down Montgomery, nearly six weeks after Sorey’s call, they found him sleeping in a car with a girlfriend. He initially claimed he’d returned Harmony to Sorey around Thanksgiving in 2019. Later, he refused to discuss his daughter’s whereabouts at all, police said.
“If I’m not under arrest,” he told officers, according to an affidavit, “I’m leaving.”
Authorities arrested him on a felony child abuse charge stemming from a 2019 incident involving Harmony. His estranged wife, Kayla Montgomery, was also arrested, charged with collecting government assistance funds meant for Harmony while the girl was no longer in the couple’s care.
Attorneys for Montgomery, who has pleaded not guilty, did not respond to messages from the Globe.
No charges have yet been filed in the girl’s disappearance, and state officials, citing privacy laws, have said little about the process that placed Harmony in the custody of her father. Child welfare officials in Massachusetts and New Hampshire also have declined to discuss any details about their engagement with Harmony, including Sorey’s attempts to locate the girl.
With little information to go on, Sorey has busied herself with keeping her daughter’s case in the public eye. She held a candlelight vigil last month in a park in Manchester. She recruited friends and family to hang posters throughout the city, turning to anyone she can for help in navigating this foreign world.
“How do we get Harmony on the billboards on I-93 North/South,” she asked in a text message to a Globe reporter.
Each day brings a barrage of new information to sort through. Not long ago, someone told her they remember seeing Adam Montgomery panhandling around Manchester, with Harmony on his lap. A psychic reached out, certain the girl was alive in Texas.
Nights are the hardest. She lies awake in her apartment — where an empty bed and small collection of toys await her daughter — and thinks about the girl: what she’s doing, whether she’s eaten that day. If she’s crying out for her mother.
“I think about every single thing that she could possibly be going through,” Sorey says. “And it breaks me, it really does.”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.