Massachusetts officials did not consider the well-being of Harmony Montgomery "on an equal footing" with her parents' rights before releasing her into the custody of her father, who has since been arrested in relation to her disappearance, a new report concluded.
In the results of its investigation published Wednesday, the state Office of the Child Advocate said a lack of focus on Montgomery's needs compared to the rights of her parents, Adam Montgomery and Crystal Sorey, resulted in "significant placement instability for Harmony."
"The system failed Harmony," Maria Mossaides, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, said at a press conference Wednesday. "No one focused on Harmony and what she needed. It wasn't one decision, it was a series of decisions that did not place her at the center and therefore made poor decisions about the risk she was going to be facing."
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Harmony was last seen in late 2019, when she was 5, but wasn't reported missing until about two years later. Harmony was placed in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families in 2014, when she was two months old. She remained in the custody of the DCF until February 2019, when a judge granted custody to her father, Adam Montgomery, despite his extensive criminal history.
The report says the Department of Children and Families focused mostly on Sorey in its case management, failing to complete an assessment on Adam Montgomery, who was incarcerated when the department's involvement with Harmony began. DCF's attorney did not present a strong legal case to oppose placing Harmony into her father's care, while Harmony's attorney fell short of highlighting her best interests and welfare to a judge, the OCA said.
"The OCA estimates that Harmony spent a total of approximately 40 hours over the course of 20 supervised visits with her father from her birth to age four and a half, yet there was no discussion on how Harmony could safely transition to Mr. Montgomery's care, given the limited time he had spent with her," the report said. "This lack of a focus on Harmony resulted in a miscalculation of the risks to Harmony when she was placed in Mr. Montgomery's custody, and there was no planning to ensure that the custody arrangement would be successful."
You can read the full report below:
Key findings from the report
- DCF’s clinical assessment and case management focused primarily on Harmony’s mother, Crystal Sorey. Harmony’s father, Adam Montgomery, was in prison when DCF’s involvement with Harmony began. Although he 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. No assessment was ever completed on Mr. Montgomery, and he was not held accountable for starting and completing the tasks on his action plan. The DCF case management team had no understanding of his family or personal history with which to develop an action plan and from which they could assess his capacity to parent Harmony.
- Harmony’s individual medical and special needs were not central to the decision-making in her two reunifications with Ms. Sorey. The lack of focus on her needs, and the insufficient balancing of her well-being with Ms. Sorey and Mr. Montgomery’s rights, resulted in significant placement instability for Harmony, as she was moved back and forth between Ms. Sorey’s home and the home of her foster parents’ multiple times. The result was reported significant trauma and harm to Harmony’s well-being in the early years of her life.
- Harmony was also not prioritized in the legal case regarding her own care and protection, as neither the judge in that case nor the attorneys put Harmony’s needs, safety, or wellbeing at the center of the discussion of custody. The OCA estimates that Harmony spent a total of approximately 40 hours over the course of 20 supervised visits with her father from her birth to age four and a half, yet there was no discussion on how Harmony could safely transition to Mr. Montgomery’s care, given the limited time he had spent with her. This lack of a focus on Harmony resulted in a miscalculation of the risks to Harmony when she was placed in Mr. Montgomery’s custody, and there was no planning to ensure that the custody arrangement would be successful.
- The DCF attorney did not present a strong legal case for opposing placing Harmony in Mr. Montgomery’s care. Due to the inability of DCF to fully assess Mr. Montgomery, DCF’s legal case could not address Mr. Montgomery’s parental capacity to care for Harmony in the context of Harmony’s unique needs. The DCF attorney also did not effectively argue for the application of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children to this case, nor was the ICPC linked to any protective concerns.
- Harmony’s best interests and welfare were not presented to the Juvenile Court judge by her attorney. Harmony’s attorney did not present any evidence of Harmony’s needs, including her strengths and vulnerabilities. Harmony’s attorney agreed with Harmony being placed in Mr. Montgomery’s custody, and therefore did not present any evidence or question Mr. Montgomery on Harmony’s specific medical needs, her educational needs, her behavioral needs, nor Harmony’s daily routine or support system. The attorney also did not state any opposition to proceeding with custody without an ICPC, knowing that DCF was never able to conduct a proper assessment of the Montgomery family, and did not advocate for any type of transition plan to ensure a safe and successful transition from Harmony’s foster parents’ home to the home of Mr. Montgomery in New Hampshire. The OCA recognizes that Harmony’s attorney was not required to do any of this under the current CPCS standards of representation, but believes that Harmony’s interests and safety would have been better represented if they had. Accordingly, the OCA’s recommendation, as described further below, recommends CPCS review the suitability of its current standards of representation.
- The court awarded cross-border custody without the compliance with the requirements of the ICPC, relying on New Hampshire caselaw over Massachusetts caselaw. The OCA believes that the procedures outlined in the ICPC, if applied in Harmony’s case, would have helped to address safety and risk concerns for Harmony in Mr. Montgomery’s care. This would have included confirming the family’s living situation and Mrs. Montgomery’s sobriety, continued oversight of the placement by New Hampshire DCYF, and ensuring that Harmony was connected to services and resources in New Hampshire, including school.
The Office of the Child Advocate also made the following recommendations aimed at improving the Department of Children and Families to better promote child safety and family success:
- DCF should develop a comprehensive plan to ensure both parents are adequately assessed and receive the support and access to services needed so that their child(ren) can achieve permanency.
- There should be a working group established – including, at a minimum, the Juvenile Court, DCF, CPCS, the OCA and members of the Legislature – to hold policy discussions that map how a child’s welfare and best interest considerations are currently presented in Care and Protection cases and what changes may be needed so that a parent’s rights are appropriately balanced with a child’s needs.
- DCF should conduct a comprehensive review of their legal advocacy, with a focus on a continuous quality improvement system for the training, on-going litigation support, and supervision of their attorneys.
- CPCS should conduct a comprehensive review of the suitability of the standards of advocacy provided to children in Care and Protection cases, and the adequacy of CPCS’s supervision over the quality of this representation.
- DCF and the Juvenile Court should identify and address persistent barriers to permanency.
- DCF should review a statistically significant sampling of children who have been in the custody of DCF for more than two and a half years who have not achieved permanency to determine the barriers to permanency that can be addressed through policy, practice, or legal advocacy.
- The Juvenile Court should review and determine the length of time from permanent custody to a final adjudication of adoption, guardianship or return to parent for a child, to ensure that the case achieves a safe and expedient resolution.
- Massachusetts should work to improve cross-border communication and safety practices, including offering training on the ICPC to the Juvenile Court judges and all attorneys who practice in Care and Protection cases, continuing to engage with our neighboring New England states to determine where there are gaps in information sharing across borders that could be rectified by a multi-state Memorandum of Understanding, and considering adopting the NEW Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.
“The mission of the Office of the Child Advocate is to ensure that children receive appropriate, timely and quality services, with a particular focus on ensuring that the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable and at-risk children can thrive. One way we accomplish this is through tireless advocacy for policy, practice, and legislative change that we believe will improve the state systems on behalf of all the Commonwealth’s children,” Mossaides said in her statement. “This report asks that every Commonwealth agency take steps to ensure that the safety and wellbeing of every child that comes to the attention of the child protective service system is the primary focus of our efforts. Every citizen of the Commonwealth bears the responsibility to ensure that our children have the opportunity to grow into healthy adults.”
DCF, public defender's office respond
The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families issued a statement Wednesday after the report's release.
“Harmony Montgomery was last seen in New Hampshire in October 2019 and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) remains deeply concerned about her disappearance," a DCF spokesperson said. "The Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) report illustrates the grave responsibility of balancing the child’s safety and best interest and a parents’ legal rights to have custody of their child. The Baker-Polito Administration agrees with the OCA that the safety of the kids in DCF care, and servicing their needs, should be the priority not only of DCF but of all the participants in our child protection system."
The agency added that even before the release of Wednesday's report, DCF had initiated "significant reforms" in response to an earlier report.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services also issued a statement, saying it agrees with some of the recommendations in the report but ultimately feels the report disregards the rights of childrens and parents and the responsibilities of their attorneys and fails to consider the trauma and other harm that children often suffer in foster care.
"Our job as public defenders is to pursue the objectives of our clients, consistent with the law," Chief Sounsel Anthony Benedetti said. "Every day across the commonwealth, our attorneys stand next to mothers, fathers and children who are pulled into the family regulation system, and we fight to make sure their voices are heard and their rights are protected. We witness the daily pain and suffering surrounding our clients and their families, and we carry that weight with us. That is part of our profession, and when tragedy befalls children like Harmony Montgomery, it is devastating to everyone involved."
"Too often it is the case that sad facts result in bad law, and that will be the situation here if the OCA recommendations are adopted," he added. "This report calls for fundamental changes to the legal system in a way that fails to consider the constitutional rights of our clients, our responsibilities and obligations as attorneys and the existing law. These changes would pay a disservice to Miss Montgomery, and the thousands of children who are entitled to an attorney during the hardest moments of their childhood."
You can read the CPCS's full response to the OCA report below:
New Hampshire's Office of the Child Advocate Response
“The key finding of the investigation into Massachusetts’ actions in the case – that Harmony’s unique needs and wellbeing were not prioritized on the same level as her parents’ rights is one that New Hampshire should consider carefully,” said NH Child Advocate, Cassandra Sanchez wrote in the statement.
She went on to note that New Hampshire has recently amended its Child Protection Act, and recommendations her office has already made in New Hampshire to improve relations between child protection agencies state to state.
“New Hampshire and the neighboring states need to come together and prioritize this need to reform policies and procedures to better protect children and support families by working more collaboratively and sharing vital information. The NH OCA stands ready to work with the NH administration to make this happen."
See the full statement below.
Harmony's father, stepmother remain in custody
Adam Montgomery, 32, of Manchester, was arrested last month for eight charges related to a firearms theft in September or October of 2019. Prosecutors allege that between Sept. 29, and Oct. 3, 2019, Montgomery stole a rifle and shotgun from another person.
Harmony's stepmother, Kayla Montgomery, is also facing gun charges for allegedly receiving or retaining the rifle and shotgun knowing or at least believing that they had probably been stolen.
Authorities said there is no evidence of any connection between the stolen firearms and the disappearance of Harmony Montgomery. Her father is already in jail facing assault charges for injuring the girl.
Montgomery had already been indicted on a charge of second degree assault for allegedly knowingly causing bodily injury to Harmony by striking her in the face. He was arrested Jan. 4 on a warrant charging him with felony second-degree assault arising from 2019 conduct against Harmony, as well as one misdemeanor charge of interference with custody and two misdemeanor charges of endangering the welfare of a child pertaining to his daughter.
Kayla Montgomery had also already been indicted on one charge of theft by deception, alleging that she lied last year that Harmony was in her household to claim food stamp benefits exceeding $1,500. She was originally arrested on Jan. 5. She pleaded not guilty to that charge and is being held at the Hillsborough County House of Corrections. The State of New Hampshire offered Kayla Montgomery a plea last month.
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What happened to Harmony Montgomery?
Police continue to investigate Harmony’s disappearance, which they believe occurred between Nov. 28 and Dec. 10 of 2019. She was last seen in Manchester.
In September of 2021, someone known to be a “close contact” of Harmony’s mother, Crystal Sorey, contacted the division and “raised concerns” that Sorey hadn’t seen her daughter since 2019 and hadn’t been able to contact Adam Montgomery, the review said. The division confirmed that Harmony had never been registered for school in the public school system.
The division attempted to find the Montgomery family and speak with Sorey, who later told police she hadn’t seen her daughter since a Facetime call around Easter 2019.
Last month, Crystal Sorey helped organize a search in Manchester. Dozens of volunteers gathered early Saturday morning to search a wooded area off of Second Street, an area known to Harmony's father.
“Not knowing is really the hardest part of all of this," Sorey said, "so we just really want to find anything at this point.”
Anyone with information about Harmony's disappearance or current whereabouts is asked to call the Manchester Police Department's 24-hour tip line at 603-203-6060.
The reward for information that helps lead to Harmony being found has increased to $150,000.