New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu last month was unequivocal: A Massachusetts judge’s decision to grant custody of Harmony Montgomery to her “monstrous” father had set the stage for the girl’s disappearance.
But as hope dwindles in the search for the 7-year-old, Sununu has now cast wider blame on the child welfare net that stretches between the states, suggesting that a communication breakdown contributed to Harmony’s tumble through the cracks of the system.
“My gut tells me right now that the biggest break of the system wasn’t just about Massachusetts or just about New Hampshire. It’s really about the transfer of information across states,” Sununu said Wednesday at a news conference about an unrelated issue.
Authorities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts have launched investigations and remained mum for weeks about the bureaucratic failings that allowed Harmony’s disappearance from her father’s care to go unnoticed for two years. In February 2019, a Massachusetts judge placed her with her father in New Hampshire, a move that triggered some back-and-forth between child welfare agencies in both states.
“At least, on a preliminary review, that’s clearly where the system had the most trouble. And that doesn’t put blame on one side or the other,” Sununu said Wednesday. “I think all 50 states really need to work better and develop better systems, in conjunction with one another, and in partnership, to ensure the welfare of the children that may be crossing borders.”
Sununu’s statements suggest broader bureaucratic missteps in New Hampshire’s child welfare system, which historically has been one of the most overworked and underfunded agencies of its kind in the country. The agency has come under increasing scrutiny since police announced in December that Harmony hadn’t been seen in two years. Records show child protection workers received several grim reports in 2019 about her father’s Manchester, N.H., home.
On Friday, a spokesman said Sununu views the communication issue as a national problem deserving of a federal review. The office of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The circumstances carry the hallmarks of another tragedy in which interstate communication failures played a major role. In 2019, seven motorcyclists were killed in Randolph, N.H., in a collision with a pickup truck driven by Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, a Massachusetts driver whose licenses should have been suspended weeks earlier, but weren’t due to communication lapses between states.
Harmony’s case has sparked a sharp public outcry and spurred several administrative investigations.
Sununu ordered the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families to review its handling of the case, and the agency said it plans to make some of the findings public in the next several weeks. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ordered a review of the child custody case. Meanwhile, child advocate offices in both states will examine the matter.
Officials will look at the circumstances of Adam Montgomery’s request to bring his daughter to New Hampshire, and what kind of oversight the move should have triggered. An agreement adopted by all 50 states, known as the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, outlines how oversight of children involved in protection services moves across state lines.
While the agreement “sets guidelines and procedures to protect a child’s best interest, it is not a uniform system established or overseen by the federal government,” said Massachusetts Child Advocate Maria Mossaides. And it has limitations.
“Every state is different,” she said in a statement. “They each have unique laws governing their own child welfare systems, and have varying prerequisites and qualifications for a child’s placement.”
As a result, Mossaides said, there are “consistent challenges” with the process.
“It’s difficult and cumbersome under the best of circumstances,” said Andrew Hoffman, a Massachusetts lawyer for family and child welfare issues. The compact’s language is highly prescriptive, further slowing down the process, he added. “It’s a morass.”
Different states’ child welfare systems run on antiquated and inconsistent software, making transferring information even more unwieldy, noted Sharon Vandivere, a senior research scientist with Child Trends, a group that studies youth welfare issues. The process is also managed by individual administrators in each state, she said.
Nine years ago, an electronic information sharing system was established to improve interstate communication, but not all states have signed on. As of last month, Massachusetts was in the process of joining the system, according to the organization that runs it. New Hampshire plans to sign on later this year, a spokesman said.
In Harmony’s case, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families in December 2018 asked its counterparts in New Hampshire to evaluate whether Adam Montgomery’s home was suitable for Harmony, according to a Jan. 18 letter Sununu wrote to the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
The New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families responded, telling the agency that before initiating any evaluation, it needed more information about how the couple were faring with services they were receiving from DCF in Massachusetts. While the request for more information was pending, a juvenile court judge in Massachusetts placed Harmony in the care of her father, who has a violent criminal past, Sununu’s letter noted.
The judge, Mark Newman, was then the first justice of the Essex Juvenile Court, according to two people with direct knowledge of Harmony’s case. Newman has repeatedly declined to comment, and authorities in Massachusetts have declined to release details about the proceedings, citing confidentiality laws.
According to Sununu, Newman’s decision deprived New Hampshire child welfare workers of the authority to monitor the girl once she moved into the state.
Officials have known about failings in interstate communication for years. The Office of the Child Advocate in Massachusetts has issued two reports since 2014 citing these lapses. One centered on the death of 14-year-old David Almond, the other on the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver.
In the case of Almond, the New York Family Court awarded full custody of three boys in September 2016 to their father, John, a Massachusetts resident, without contacting child welfare authorities in Massachusetts, the report said. The triplets were born in New York in 2006 and had been involved with child protection workers there since then, according to the report.
David Almond, who was intellectually disabled, died in 2020 in Fall River after he starved and ingested fentanyl.
In the Oliver case, a 2014 report by the child advocate found his family, who lived in Fitchburg, “had a history of serious child protective concerns in another state that did not follow the family to Massachusetts.” The boy’s body was found three months later along Interstate 190 in Sterling.
In a separate report published last year, the Office of the Child Advocate in New Hampshire examined a case involving a 2-year-old boy from a neighboring state who came to New Hampshire to live with his father. The father later struck him, causing the child to fall from a high chair and suffer massive head trauma.
The case was reviewed by child protection professionals from New Hampshire as well as the neighboring state, which wasn’t identified in the report. During the review, the team found “they were not well familiar with each other’s system and did not have established clear lines of communication.”
Harmony’s disappearance was first disclosed to the public in December when police in Manchester, N.H., announced the girl hadn’t been seen since late 2019 and her whereabouts were unknown. Harmony’s mother, Crystal Sorey, of Massachusetts, first notified police. Sorey lost custody of Harmony in 2018.
Sorey told authorities she last saw Harmony during a video call at about Easter 2019.
Shortly after launching an investigation in late December, investigators found Adam Montgomery living in a vehicle in Manchester. Initially, Montgomery said Harmony had been living with Sorey in Massachusetts for two years and gave conflicting accounts about when he last saw her, police said. When pressed for more information, Montgomery, 32, stopped talking, according to a police affidavit.
Four days later, officers arrested Montgomery and charged him with physically abusing Harmony in 2019 and endangering her welfare. He remains jailed while awaiting trial. His estranged wife, Kayla Montgomery, 31, has pleaded not guilty to accusations that she collected governmental assistance payments meant for Harmony.
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Elizabeth Koh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.