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EDITORIAL

Harmony still missing while adults play blame game

Child advocate faults lawyers for putting parents’ rights ahead of a child’s welfare.

A man walks past the "missing child" poster for Harmony Montgomery on May 5, 2022, in Manchester, N.H. The five-year-old girl went missing in 2019.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Harmony Montgomery was born with some medical challenges but grew into an “independent toddler” who liked books and dolls and picking cherry tomatoes off the vine in a vegetable garden. She was also born to parents who both suffered from substance use disorder; her father was in prison at the time of her birth.

She was 4 in February of 2019, when a Massachusetts judge granted custody to that father, Adam Montgomery, and she was shipped off to New Hampshire.

Today, the world knows Harmony Montgomery largely from the posters seeking information on her disappearance more than two years ago.

“We do not know Harmony Montgomery’s ultimate fate, and unfortunately we may never, 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,” Maria Mossaides, director of the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, told reporters Wednesday after releasing a 101-page report on the case.

“We owe it to her to make the changes necessary to allow our system to do better in the future,” she added.

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And “doing better” may well mean adding a layer of independent legal protection for children in cases involving the Department of Children and Families or at the very least requiring lawyers assigned to represent such children to be more zealous advocates for their young clients than they have proven in both the Montgomery case and in the tragic death of David Almond, reported on a year ago by OCA. Almond was a Fall River teen with autism who was found malnourished and abused while in his father’s custody but under DCF supervision.

The OCA report and Mossaides at her news conference were particularly tough — and rightly so — on DCF’s attorney in the case and on the lawyers from the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provided lawyers for Harmony, her father, and her mother.

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“One of our concerns is that children’s attorneys do not appear to take a robust role in presenting the needs of the child and that they are more likely to defer to what advocacy of the parent’s attorneys [says] rather than providing independent advocacy, which is why we hope the Committee for Public Counsel services will take a hard look at their current standards,” Mossaides said.

In the world of social services the pendulum between the rights of parents to maintain custody and the rights of children to grow up free from abuse and neglect swings back and forth, often in reaction to the latest horror story in the news.

Clearly Mossaides thinks at the moment the pendulum has swung a little too far in the direction of parents while ignoring the needs of children — again with tragic results.

What is disappointing is that most of those on the pointed end of OCA criticism have retreated to their safe spaces and old arguments.

“On balance, this report disregards the constitutional rights of children and parents and the responsibilities of attorneys for children and parents under the Supreme Judicial Court’s Rules of Professional Conduct,” CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti wrote in response to the report.

The union representing DCF lawyers was similarly defensive.

All of which goes to the report’s conclusion that without “next steps” there is a real fear “that the errors in Harmony’s case will be repeated and children’s well-being will not be elevated to be on equal footing to the consideration” a parent’s current fitness.

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One of those next steps, supported by OCA, was Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal, filed as part of a budget bill to require the appointment of a guardian ad litem — a neutral professional assigned to report to the court on the best interests of the child — in every case involving care and protection orders. The $50 million to implement the policy and the policy language itself were cut from the bill by the House.

And how ill-advised that looks in the wake of this report.

The cross-border nature of the transfer of Harmony’s custody to her father has caused a good deal of soul searching by governors on both sides of that border over the need for an updated Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children and an effort to at least come up with a workable regional compact.

But OCA also faults the Massachusetts judge involved noting, “In December 2018 a Juvenile Court Judge issued an order requesting an expedited ICPC to evaluate the potential placement of Harmony with her father in New Hampshire. In February 2019, however, a different Juvenile Court Judge determined that the ICPC would not apply. . .

“The record does not reflect why one Juvenile Court Judge determined that the ICPC applied, and another determined that it did not apply in this case.”

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It is one of many “what-ifs” along the way.

The fact remains that a child is still missing and a host of adults who were charged with assuring her well-being did not live up to that responsibility. They will have to live with their choices. But at least those flaws in the system of child protection that cry out for reform can and should be changed.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.