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OPINION

Massachusetts’ policies failed Harmony Montgomery

Why was this child, who was born to two parents who could not or would not care for her for over three years, not allowed to be adopted by the foster family who took her in?

A missing poster inside the Manchester Police Department. Police are asking the public to call the tip line if they have any information on Harmony Montgomery. Harmony’s father, Adam Montgomery, has been charged with murder in her death.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

It’s been a long time coming, but last week Adam Montgomery was charged in the murder of his daughter, who had been missing since 2019. That’s when police allege Montgomery beat 5-year-old Harmony to death. Investigators believe he disposed of her body and concealed the evidence. There were so many missteps by authorities in this long case and Harmony’s short life, but tragically policies in Massachusetts, where she was born and spent most of her time, could make outcomes like this more likely.

Harmony was placed in foster care almost immediately after her birth, according to the Department of Children and Families — her mother’s substance use disorder resulted in multiple reports of neglect. Harmony’s father was in prison at the time of her birth, convicted of a drug-related shooting. Harmony was returned and re-removed from her mother on two more occasions, such that at age 5 when placed with her father, she had already spent 41 months in care. She met her father only a couple of times while he was incarcerated. Primarily she was in the care of a foster family who looked after her for 28 months out of her first three years, including almost two years consecutively.

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Her father contacted the Department of Children and Families about having regular visits with the child only after he had been out of prison for an entire year. But then suddenly when Harmony was 4, her case changed from one in which the state’s goal was adoption by her foster parents to reunification with a father who had a violent criminal history and barely knew her. Massachusetts asked New Hampshire authorities to do a home study to determine if Adam Montgomery would be a good placement. They never did. Harmony was placed with him anyway. There was no oversight by either state. A report by the Office of the Child Advocate on everything Massachusetts did wrong runs about 100 pages.

But the real question is why this child, who was born to two parents who could not or would not care for her for over three years, was not allowed to be adopted by the foster family who took her in. According to federal law, if a child has been in care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state is supposed to start proceedings to terminate parental rights. Massachusetts blew past that deadline. Indeed, the report explained: “If Harmony had been adopted soon after she had spent 15 months in foster care, she would have found safety and stability in a loving home. The failure [to do so] did not just damage her emotionally; it resulted in her disappearance and … death.”

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Indeed, in recent years, the state seems more intent on letting children languish in foster care as they wait for parents who have proved themselves incapable to rehabilitate. Based on federal data, of all Massachusetts children entering foster care in infancy between 2015 and 2018, 1 in 4 remained in foster care for at least three years, not having been reunified or adopted, a rate 60 percent higher than the United States as a whole.

Such a strategy may seem as though it is an act of compassion for the parents, but as the report from Massachusetts found, “Harmony’s individual needs, well-being, and safety were not prioritized or considered on an equal footing with the assertion of her parents’ rights to care for her.”

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We often hear about the seemingly intractable problems of foster care in the United States, inherent flaws that can be resolved only through abolishing the system and leaving children at the mercy of their abusers. In fact, these flaws represent choices made by states and agencies — either to value children’s needs for permanency and work to make that happen, or to place the interests of children aside in favor of what is convenient for parents, agencies, and courts.

The choices made by Massachusetts also suggest that adoption is no longer considered a priority, let alone a matter of urgency, for children in the state’s foster care system. Of those who are not reunified, only 3 percent were adopted within 18 months and 40 percent were adopted within 3 years, versus 15 percent and 57 percent for the United States as a whole. Massachusetts also lags on termination of parental rights for infants lingering in care: Whereas 37 percent of infants nationally who were not reunified within 18 months were legally freed for adoption, only 27 percent of Massachusetts infants were.

These young children are the ones who are in the most danger from parental abuse and neglect (because they cannot protect themselves or tell other adults what is going wrong) and suffer the highest rate of maltreatment fatalities. But they are also the most adoptable. It is much harder to find families willing to take in teenagers than families willing to take in an infant or toddler. But child welfare authorities and courts are wasting these early years, allowing children to go back and forth from their biological family’s home to foster home, suffering repeated instances of maltreatment, and only then after years of trauma, allowing them to exit this system. Harmony never got the chance to leave the system.

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Sarah A. Font is an associate professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University. Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child.”