Juvenile court judges handled more than 3,000 cases involving abused or neglected children in Massachusetts in 2019. One of them was that of Harmony Montgomery.
And we only know that now because the smiling face of the 7-year-old with the ponytail has been staring back at us from news stories and missing-person posters since her disappearance was acknowledged by Manchester, N.H., police on Dec. 31, 2021.
What followed was an interstate hissing contest between Massachusetts and New Hampshire about who is to blame for the bureaucratic nightmare that allowed a child to go missing for more than two years and how to prevent children like Harmony from slipping between the cracks of the child welfare systems in two states in the future.
Governor Charlie Baker has come up with one answer, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu another. They are both right, and the children of both states deserve to have far better treatment than current practice and law have provided.
The story begins in Massachusetts when an Essex County Juvenile Court judge awarded custody of Harmony to her biological father, Adam Montgomery, in February 2019 after her mother, Crystal Sorey, lost custody due to a history of drug addiction. Montgomery had a lengthy criminal record and had already served prison time in connection with a 2014 shooting during a drug deal in Haverhill.
Prior to that hearing, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families had filed a request with their New Hampshire counterparts, on Dec. 19, 2018, to conduct a home study — under the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children — of Adam Montgomery and his wife, Kayla, then living in Manchester, N.H. The next day, according to a report released Feb. 25 by Sununu’s office, New Hampshire officials e-mailed back saying the initial Massachusetts request “lacked the requisite information to initiate a home study.”
A few weeks later, though, “Harmony was sent to her father without the [Massachusetts] court requiring any further review of him or his home,” the New Hampshire report noted.
And so Baker, not surprisingly, is looking to do better on that piece of this debacle by proposing to mandate an additional investigation at the juvenile court level to be conducted by a guardian ad litem, an independent investigator named to represent the best interests of the child in “care and protection” cases.
Guardians ad litem are now used in about a third of all such cases. It’s safe to assume, given the focus of Baker’s bill, that Harmony’s case was not one of them. But the records of this, as of all juvenile cases, are not public.
According to a court spokesperson, in fiscal 2020, when the juvenile court handled some 2,764 care and protection cases, 810 of those had one or more guardians ad litem appointed to help “improve custody, visitation, and other outcomes for children.” In 2021 some 792 of the 2,702 care and protection cases handled in court involved GALs.
Baker is also proposing to put some $50 million in his latest supplementary budget behind the effort, which would include recruiting and training more potential guardians and raising their current $50-an-hour fee, putting them on a par with fees paid to the state’s public defenders. (Some of those currently serving as guardians ad litem are lawyers, but that is not a requirement.)
“Our view was [that] we should literally make this service and this representation available to every kid who’s going to court who’s part of the DCF system, and we filed the resources to pay for it,” Baker said last month. “This could be one more appropriate and important way to make sure that the interests of the child are best represented when they’re in court.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders acknowledged in a statement, “The Harmony Montgomery case makes clear the imperative need to improve and build upon supports for children that come before the courts.”
Sununu’s report picks up the action on the other side of the border, recommending among other things that it’s the interstate compact, passed in 1965, that is “not well suited for the modern day,” “provides no framework for dispute resolution should states disagree,” and “lacks clarity as to which types of child placements” the law applies to.
An update to the compact was drafted in 2007 but doesn’t become effective until 35 states ratify it. So far, only a dozen have. Neither Massachusetts nor New Hampshire is among them. Sununu is proposing that his state pass it this year or, alternatively, have the New England states enter into an “ICPC Border Agreement” rather than wait for national action.
All of this comes far too late for the still-missing Harmony Montgomery, whose father is being held on child endangerment and assault charges. But sadly, that’s often how government systems make long-overdue changes.
The state’s Supreme Judicial Court and the Office of the Child Advocate have also ordered up investigations into the handling of Harmony Montgomery’s custody case, which may produce further opportunities for reform.
But for now, the Baker and Sununu proposals would be a good place to start.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.