The needs of a missing 5-year-old girl who authorities began looking for two years after she was last seen were not prioritized from the time she was an infant in Massachusetts until her father was awarded custody of her in New Hampshire, the head of Massachusetts’ Office of the Child Advocate said in a report released Wednesday.
Harmony Montgomery, who’s last known sighting was in 2019 while in the custody of her father, suffered from a ripple effect of “miscalculations of risk and unequal weight placed on parents’ rights versus a child’s wellbeing,” said Maria Mossaides, head of the Office of the Child Advocate.
Montgomery, still the subject of a search, was born in Massachusetts in 2014 to unmarried parents who were no longer together and had a history of substance abuse, according to the report by the independent agency. Her father was in prison when she was born.
Harmony, who is blind in one eye and has behavioral needs, was in the custody of child protective services in Massachusetts since she was 2 months old. She was moved between the homes of her mother and her foster parents multiple times, the report said, causing “significant trauma and harm” to her wellbeing.
By February 2019, her father, who was living in New Hampshire and had had little contact with her, was awarded custody. She disappeared in late November or early December of that year.
“When children are not at the center of every aspect of the child protection services system, then the system cannot truly protect them,” Mossaides said at a news conference.
“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,” she said.
A much-anticipated review of the case was promised earlier this year, not long after police in Manchester, New Hampshire, learned that Harmony had been missing for two years and began a massive investigation with a 24-hour tip line and a reward fund that’s grown to $150,000.
Her father, Adam Montgomery, and stepmother pleaded not guilty on charges related to her wellbeing and remain jailed. Adam Montgomery said he brought Harmony to be with her mother in Massachusetts around Thanksgiving in 2019, but her mother hasn’t seen her since a video conversation that Easter.
Massachusetts’ Department of Children and Families released a statement Wednesday saying it “remains deeply concerned” about Harmony’s disappearance and the report “illustrates the grave responsibility of balancing the child’s safety and best interest and a parents’ legal rights.”
The department said it agrees with the child advocate office that children safety should be the “priority not only of DCF but of all the participants in our child protection system.”
“As the OCA report states, the Department continues to make meaningful and lasting reforms to addresses these complex issues when a case comes before the court,” the statement reads.
The state’s child services department had focused primarily on Harmony’s mother, Crystal Sorey, according to the report. Harmony was removed from her care several times and sent to live with a foster family. The report said although Adam Montgomery was “non-responsive for long periods of time, during the times when he appeared to be in communication with the DCF case management team, they were not able to engage him, except to facilitate his supervised visits with Harmony.”
The report said Harmony wasn’t made a priority in her own legal case, saying neither the judge nor the attorneys put her medical, behavioral and educational needs or safety at the forefront of custody discussions. The report also said they did not enforce requirements that govern the placement of children from one state into another.
With the exception of the attorneys for Massachusetts’ child services, all of the other attorneys in the case did not object to Harmony being returned to her father without a home study and didn’t have objections to the fact that he “had never had an overnight visit with her that we are aware of,” Mossaides said. She said the child services’ attorney did not make a strong enough case, though, and was hampered by the inability to effectively assess Montgomery.
“I was surprised that there was not more robust cross-examination of Mr. Montgomery in terms of his self-presentation of his fitness, but if no one objects to what he is saying, that leaves a judge very little choice in this matter,” she said.
The review was requested by New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who had harshly criticized the Massachusetts judge for placing Harmony with her father and stepmother before the state could complete a study of their home. He called Adam Montgomery, who has a criminal record that goes back to at least 2007, a “monster.”
Messages seeking comment on the report were left with Sununu’s spokesperson, as well as lawyers for Sorey and Adam Montgomery.
The report makes a number of recommendations to help the state’s child services, juvenile court and its Committee for Public Counsel Services, such as having Massachusetts work to improve cross-border communication and safety practices. It notes that the department has already made reforms for when a case comes before the court.
Massachusetts recently proposed legislation that would assign every child a guardian ad Litem to ensure that all children have a voice during court proceedings, a department spokesperson said in the statement Wednesday.
“The department remains committed to engaging with the court to increase timely permanence for children and to assure safety and for the child’s best interest to remain paramount,” the statement said.
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