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What we learned from the Office of the Child Advocate’s report on Harmony Montgomery

"By not putting her needs first, our system ultimately failed her."

Manchester Police provided these photos of missing Harmony Montgomery. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Harmony Montgomery

A new report from the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate released Wednesday found the state’s child protection services system failed Harmony Montgomery, a missing girl last known to be living in New Hampshire, primarily through failing to properly weigh and consider her needs against the rights of her parents to care for her.

The 101-page report from the independent agency found Harmony’s medical and special needs “were not central to the decision-making” in reuniting her with her parents, especially for the 2019 court decision to award custody to her father, Adam Montgomery, who is now charged with abusing the young girl.

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“Our central and most important finding in this investigation is that unfortunately, and with serious consequences, Harmony Montgomery’s individual needs, well being, and safety were not prioritized or considered on equal footing with the assertion of her parents’ rights to care for her in any aspect of the decision making by any state entity,” said Maria Mossaides, director of the OCA.

In short, Harmony was failed by a “series of decisions that did not place her at the center,” Mossaides told reporters at a press conference.

The report is the first in-depth probe of Harmony’s early years and her journey that led to her being placed with her father, who has an extensive criminal record.

According to Mossaides, the OCA found Adam Montgomery had “sporadic contact” with his daughter throughout the first four years of her life, as she moved around the Department of Children and Families system.

By the OCA’s estimate, Harmony spent only a total of 40 hours over the course of 20 supervised visits with her father before a juvenile court judge awarded Adam Montgomery custody. No objections were raised by attorneys on whether he was fit to parent, Mossaides said in detailing the report’s findings.

Moreso, the court did not order an Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children — an agreement that aims to ensure children are receiving proper care when living across state lines. Therefore, there was no requirement for Adam Montgomery or his wife and Harmony’s stepmother, Kayla Montgomery, to undergo a home study review when Harmony went to live with them in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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Mossaides underscored the sweeping OCA report does not intend to place blame on any individuals or agencies involved with Harmony’s case, as the OCA has the benefit of hindsight that the parties involved do not. Additionally, the OCA report only focused on actions in Harmony’s case that happened within Massachusetts, not those that occurred in New Hampshire.

Still, even as the report shone a new light on a complex and unusual case, Harmony’s whereabouts remained unknown on Wednesday.

Harmony was last seen alive in late 2019 when she was 5 years old, but her disappearance was not formally reported until December 2021, despite attempts by her mother, Crystal Sorey, to find her daughter after losing custody of her.

Manchester police have searched for months for the blue-eyed, blonde-hair girl, and rewards for information have ballooned well into six-digit sums, but there remains no answer to the question: Where is Harmony?

Here’s what we learned from the OCA’s report:

Harmony had ‘visual disabilities’ that required special attention.

What the OCA report describes about Harmony was gleaned “largely, if not exclusively” from court investigation reports completed as part of her juvenile court care and protection case.

Harmony, who police have often said may be wearing glass, if seen, was blind in her right eye.

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“What we know is that Harmony’s medical conditions were not completely clear to her medical providers at birth. Medical experts believed that Harmony would never be able to see or that she would be severely disabled,” the OCA report says. “Harmony defied expectations. Although blind in one eye, she grew stronger with each passing week….It was clear that although she had visual disabilities, she had developed superior coping mechanisms as well as a knack for overcoming challenges.”

Harmony received special education services when enrolled in Massachusetts schools, before leaving the state to live with her father, according to the OCA.

DCF received several reports alleging neglect of Harmony as a newborn, as her mother struggled with substance abuse, prompting the state to remove her from her home in August 2014, when Harmony was two months old, the report states.

She was ultimately reunified with her parents twice — decisions that contained a “lack of focus on her needs” and resulted in “significant placement instability” for Harmony, Mossaides said.

“The result was significant reported trauma and harm to Harmony’s well being in the early years of her life,” she said.

According to the OCA report, Harmony had approximately 40 hours, in her lifetime, with her father before he was awarded custody of her.

“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 OCA said in a statement released with the report on Wednesday. “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.”

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Additionally, DCF did not present “a strong legal case” for opposing placing Harmony in her father’s care, Mossaides said.

“Similarly, Harmony’s attorney did not present information on what might be in her best interest — no evidence on her needs, no statement about Harmony’s specific desired legal outcome, no argument about what she needed to be safe and to thrive,” Mossaides said.

In care and protection cases, children are appointed attorneys, who are overseen by the Committee for Public Counsel Services, according to the OCA.

Under the model used by Harmony’s attorney in the 2019 custody case, Harmony, then 4-and-a-half years old, explained to her legal representation she wanted to live with her father.

“Substituted judgement requires the attorney to determine what the child would decide, if they were capable of making a reasoned decision, and align the legal representation strategy accordingly,” the report states. “Harmony’s attorney used Harmony’s expressed preference to inform the attorney’s substituted judgement which was that Harmony should be placed in the custody of Mr. Montgomery.”

OCA also found nothing “requires the attorney for the child to indicate to the judge any concerns or advocate for the child’s best interest.”

Mossaides told reporters no attorneys present in the custody proceedings objected to placing Harmony in the care of her father, who made a “self-presentation” of his fitness to be a caregiver.

“If no one objects to what he is saying, [that] leaves a judge very little choice in this matter,” she said.

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Still, the OCA said the DCF’s clinical assessment and case management focused largely on Sorey and not Adam Montgomery.

“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,” the OCA said in its statement. “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 OCA says DCF should create a plan to make sure both parents are ‘adequately assessed’ in future cases, among other recommendations.

The OCA issued several recommendations in response to its report, including one that advises DCF should create a “comprehensive plan to ensure both parents are adequately assessed.”

Mossaides said fathers must be given the same level of attention and assessment as mothers.

Additionally, the report recommended the formation of a working group, containing members of the OCA, DCF, CPCS, and the Juvenile Court, to consider how a child’s best interests are presented in care and protection cases and what changes may be necessary to balance them with a parent’s rights.

CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti, in a statement Wednesday, said the committee agreed with some of the report’s recommendations, but added that the review had some shortcomings.

“Whenever the state intervenes in a family’s life, the goal should be keeping children safe and in a permanent home where their overall wellbeing is being promoted,” he said. “One critically important way to do that is to honor the rights of parents and children, including their constitutional right to be heard. That is what we do every day.”

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Benedetti said the 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. The report also misconstrues the scope of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, and it fails to consider the trauma and other harm that children often suffer in foster care.”

The 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,” he said.

“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,” he said.

The report also advised that the state should improve its cross-border communication and safety practices, including offering training on the ICPC to Juvenile Court judges, among other changes.

“We do not know Harmony Montgomery’s ultimate fate, and unfortunately, we may never,” Mossaides told reporters. “But we do know that this beautiful young child experienced many tragedies in her short life, and that by not putting her needs first, our system ultimately failed her.”

Read the full report:

Office of the Child Advocate Harmony Montgomery Investigative Report_May 2022 by Christopher Gavin on Scribd

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