In an unsparing report, the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate declared Wednesday that the state’s child welfare system systematically overlooked the needs of Harmony Montgomery, who was last seen two years ago, just months after the 4-year-old girl was placed with her troubled father and moved to New Hampshire.
The first public accounting of the high-profile case by Massachusetts officials, the report documented failures at every turn by the Department of Children and Families and the juvenile court to safeguard the girl’s well-being. The missteps culminated in February 2019 when a juvenile court judge placed the child in the care of her father, Adam Montgomery, 32, a man with a violent criminal history who had only shown sporadic interest in his daughter.
“The system failed Harmony,” Maria Mossaides, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, said at a news conference in Boston about the report, which followed a similar review by New Hampshire officials in February.
In her 100-page review, Mossaides concluded that a host of adults and government agencies entrusted with protecting children had consistently failed to consider what was best for Harmony. The girl originally came under the care of the Department of Children and Families when she was 2 months old, after child welfare workers became concerned that her mother, Crystal Sorey, was struggling with substance use disorder.
When Harmony was born in 2014 in Massachusetts, Adam Montgomery was incarcerated, awaiting trial on charges that he shot a man in the head during a drug deal in Haverhill. He first met his daughter when she was 6 months old and was brought to the prison for a supervised visit, the report said. Sorey and Montgomery were never married and were no longer a couple when Harmony was born.
The child was declared missing in December, more than two years after she was last seen in the custody of Adam Montgomery in Manchester, N.H. Montgomery and his estranged wife, Kayla, who is Harmony’s stepmother, face criminal indictments related to her welfare but no charges have been brought in connection to her disappearance. Investigators continue to search for the girl, now 7, and there is a $150,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts.
“We do not know Harmony Montgomery’s ultimate fate. And unfortunately, we may never,” Mossaides said. “But we do know that this beautiful young child experienced many tragedies in her short life and that by not putting her and her needs first, our system ultimately failed her.”
The lapses by child welfare and judicial officials took place despite the girl’s substantial and well-documented needs. She was blind in her right eye and experienced other medical concerns as an infant and received early intervention and special education services while she lived in Massachusetts, the report said.
Between August 2014 and January 2018, DCF removed Harmony from her mother’s care three times over concerns about Sorey’s substance use and placed her in the custody of foster parents, who worried the girl was traumatized by frequent moves, the report said.
Sorey’s lawyer, Rus Rilee, said in a statement that child welfare workers in New Hampshire are ultimately responsible for Harmony’s disappearance because they didn’t remove her from Montgomery’s care following reports that he abused her.
In Massachusetts, the DCF team assigned to Harmony’s case didn’t delve into Adam Montgomery’s personal history, Mossaides’ report said, or hold him accountable for meeting goals they had set for him. He first expressed interest in being involved in Harmony’s upbringing in September 2016, more than one year after he was released from prison. While incarcerated, Montgomery had two visits with the girl, the report said.
By the time he was granted custody in February 2019, Montgomery had spent just 40 hours with her, the report said.
“The most shocking thing was what happened in the courtroom on February nineteenth,” the day a judge placed Harmony with her father, Mossaides said. “I was surprised that there was not more of a discussion of Harmony and Harmony’s needs, especially given the history of the case.”
The judge, Mark Newman, awarded custody of Harmony to her father, who lived in New Hampshire, over the objection of DCF’s lawyer and without requiring an assessment of his suitability to care for the girl, as mandated by DCF regulations and Massachusetts court decisions, the report said.
Both Harmony and Sorey had lawyers representing them in the hearing who supported the plan to place the girl with her father, Mossaides said. Neither they nor DCF appealed Newman’s decision to grant custody without a suitability assessment. Newman made his ruling after Montgomery’s lawyer argued that the assessment requirement didn’t apply in his client’s case, citing New Hampshire court decisions, the report said.
“No one focused on Harmony, this beautiful little girl, and what she needed,” Mossaides said.
Newman is not named in the report. He is retired but continues to hear cases on recall status.
“Judge Newman declines to comment,” a Trial Court spokeswoman said Wednesday.
In a statement, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu said he shared Mossaides’ “alarm over the MA Court System, which did not put the needs of Harmony first.”
A DCF spokeswoman said Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has proposed legislation that would assign a guardian ad litem to all children involved in court proceedings to advocate for their interests. Massachusetts and the five other New England states are also discussing ways to improve communication about children who are moving to other states, she said.
Some Massachusetts officials challenged the report’s findings. Anthony J. Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender office, said his agency provided feedback for a draft version of the report. Its lawyers represent children and parents who are involved with DCF, and one of their attorneys represented Adam Montgomery. Private lawyers certified by the agency represented Harmony and Sorey, the report said.
In a statement, Benedetti said the report “disregards the constitutional rights of children and parents,” “misconstrues the scope” of the interstate compact that could have been used to assess Montgomery’s suitability, and “fails to consider the trauma and other harm that children often suffer in foster care.”
Christopher Cook, president of SEIU/NAGE Local 282, a union that represents DCF lawyers, defended the attorney who represented the agency at the 2019 custody hearing.
The legal question before the court that day, Cook said, was Montgomery’s fitness to care for Harmony. But the report focused on whether the proceedings addressed the child’s best interests.
“The best-interest standard is a different trial all together” used when a court is considering a request to terminate parental rights, Cook said.
“No one was seeking to terminate parental rights,” he said. “Parents were asserting their rights to retain custody.”
Mossaides said she anticipated her report would be criticized. “I don’t want to be accused — as I expect I will be — that I’m interested in not returning children to their families,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
She acknowledged that her oversight authority is limited and does not extend to the judiciary. Still, she recommended the judiciary, including the juvenile court system and CPCS, establish a group to discuss ways to better balance children’s needs with parents’ rights.
In February, a report released by Sununu’s office found that child welfare workers in New Hampshire repeatedly checked in on Montgomery’s home after Harmony vanished in 2019 but did little to determine her whereabouts or verify the father’s claim that she was living in Massachusetts with Sorey, who didn’t have custody.
Despite Harmony’s absence, officials made just one attempt to verify the father’s claims: a single voicemail message left with Sorey on Jan. 21, 2020, that went unreturned, the report said.
On Wednesday, Manchester police Chief Allen Aldenberg said the failure by New Hampshire child welfare workers to follow up with Sorey haunts him more than any other revelation about Harmony’s life.
“Let’s bring this little girl home,” he said. “Let’s start treating a little 7-year-old girl with a little more dignity and respect.”
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.