She was just a young child herself, but Harmony Montgomery often played the role of protector for her little brother, Jamison.
“She was my only hope until I found you,” Johnathon Bobbitt-Miller, one of Jamison’s adoptive fathers, recalled the young boy telling him.
Now, Bobbitt-Miller and his husband, Blair Miller, are left with the task of helping the 6-year-old understand why his sister is dead, the couple testified Tuesday before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.
Harmony’s father, Adam Montgomery, is charged with her murder, but it is past time, the couple said, for Massachusetts to also conduct a thorough, independent review of its child welfare system. They want to see changes to a system where numerous failures led to Harmony’s 2019 murder in New Hampshire when she was just 5 years old. The two men traveled from Arlington, Va., to urge the committee to support a proposed commission that would recommend improvements for the child welfare system.
“What’s been done in the last two years?” Bobbitt-Miller demanded of lawmakers, fighting tears. “What’s preventing another Harmony Montgomery today?”
The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families declined to comment on the legislation, a spokesperson said, but the agency did note several major policy changes it had implemented after its internal investigation following Harmony’s death. Those include hiring a coordinator to improve legal training for DCF staff, new parent assessments, and creating an agreement with New Hampshire to ensure better monitoring of children placed across state lines.
Bills to create the Harmony Commission exist in both the House and Senate and need the committee’s approval to move forward, said state Representative Carol Doherty, a Democrat from Taunton and an author of the House bill.
“We want to advocate for an early decision on this bill,” she said.
Harmony’s death marked the final tragedy in a series of missteps and systemic failures that led to her being placed with a father she barely knew, according to a review from the Office of the Child Advocate. She entered the child welfare system at just 2 months old, and by the time a judge granted her father custody, over a DCF lawyer’s objection, the two had spent only about 40 hours together.
DCF failed to fully investigate Montgomery’s background or ensure he was meeting his goals as a parent, according to the advocate office’s report. The judge handling the case, Mark Newman, didn’t request a mandated assessment of Montgomery’s fitness to raise Harmony, the report said.
Montgomery was charged in October 2022, accused of “repeatedly striking Harmony in the head with a closed fist.”
He pleaded not guilty.
The proposed commission’s members would include an array of legislators, representatives from government offices, former judges, and advocates, along with foster parents and former foster children. They would be charged with examining how children’s rights are handled in care and protection cases, which are court procedures initiated when there’s a petition claiming a child at risk of abuse or neglect. The committee would focus on the child welfare system’s impacts on children of color and children who are immigrants, queer, disabled, and victims of poverty or trauma.
By the start of the new year, according to the bills, the commission should publicly file a report of its findings and recommendations.
Miller and Bobbitt-Miller, the adoptive parents of Harmony’s brother, said the system should prioritize sibling visitations. Jamison adored Harmony, they said, and was desperate to see her. Before she disappeared, they said, they made efforts to reunite brother and sister but faced numerous roadblocks. The couple is tortured by the possibility they would have seen signs that Harmony was being mistreated, had there been guidance on sibling visits.
“Somebody would have,” said Miller. “Either we would have or a judge would have.”
Carol Erskine, a retired Worcester County family court judge, told lawmakers she is concerned that Massachusetts’ policy prioritizes a child’s wishes about their own placement, even in the face of evidence that another home might be safer. Through a state-appointed attorney, Harmony expressed that she wanted to stay with her father, but the court didn’t consider information that Montgomery would be ill-suited to caring for a child with complex medical needs, including blindness in one eye.
State law does not include an obligation that a lawyer representing a child to present a judge with information about a child’s disabilities or hardships, or raise alarms about a parent’s unfitness, said Erskine, who oversaw Jamison’s adoption and has become close with his adoptive family.
“It will without a doubt cause additional child fatalities in Massachusetts,” Erskine said.
When Jamison came to live with the men who would become his fathers, one of the few items he had with him was an Elmo doll his sister gave him.
That doll was with his parents Tuesday as they told the committee that Jamison has wondered if his sister can see him from heaven.
“That’s not fair,” said Bobbitt-Miller, “and that should never happen.”