“We do not know Harmony Montgomery’s ultimate fate and, unfortunately, we may never,” Maria Mossaides, the OCA director, said during a news conference Wednesday. “But we do know that this beautiful young child experienced many tragedies in her short life. ”
CNN left messages with New Hampshire’s public defender office, which represents Montgomery, but no one there has returned the calls.
The police department in Manchester, New Hampshire, continues to investigate the child’s disappearance.
The report, Mossaides said, highlights the ripple effects of state officials’ miscalculations of the young girl’s safety and the “unequal weight” that was placed on her parents’ rights versus the child’s well-being.
“By not putting her and her needs first, our system ultimately failed her,” Mossaides said. “We owe it to her to make the changes necessary to allow our system to do better in the future.”
The Office of the Child Advocate has oversight and ombudsperson responsibilities to ensure children in Massachusetts “receive appropriate, timely and quality state services,” with a particular focus on vulnerable and at-risk children.
What the report found
Harmony, born in June 2014, was blind in one eye and had other medical concerns, according to the report.
That summer, a Department of Children and Families (DCF) office received reports of neglect while the baby was living with her mother, Crystal Sorey, who was struggling with substance abuse, according to the report. The father was incarcerated at the time of her birth and “not involved in Harmony’s life,” the report said.
CNN called and emailed Sorey on Wednesday for comment but did not receive a response.
Harmony was legally removed from her mother’s care and placed in a foster home shortly after the reports of neglect, the report said. She remained under DCF custody but was returned to her mother’s care twice. By January 2018, Harmony was removed from her mother’s care “due to parental substance abuse,” and returned to a foster home, according to the report.
“Shortly after this placement, the foster parents expressed concern … about the impact to Harmony of the repeated reunification attempts with Ms. Sorey,” the report said. “The foster parents believed Harmony was experiencing trauma from the repeated return and removal from Ms. Sorey’s care.”
In the meantime, DCF officials had been communicating with the father who reached out in September 2016 — more than a year after he was released from prison — and said he wanted to be a part of Harmony’s life, according to the report.
Montgomery had inconsistent contact and supervised visits with his daughter over the next couple of years, the report said. However, in October 2018, he asked for Harmony to be placed in his care, according to the report.
The February 2019 hearing that approved Montgomery’s custody of Harmony was “the most shocking thing” in the child’s case, Mossaides said, because there was not more discussion of the child’s needs.
A judge awarded full custody and ruled that a home study about Montgomery under the Interstate Compact of the Placement of Children (ICPS) — an agreement between all states governing the placement of children across borders — did not apply for constitutional reasons because he had been found to be a fit parent.
“Courts in other states have also determined that the ICPC cannot be constitutionally applied to a fit parent. This approach is not in line with Massachusetts caselaw,” the report said.
A DCF attorney opposed that placement but did not present why the home study was needed and why it was a risk to move Harmony without evaluating Montgomery’s parental abilities and did not adequately communicate the child’s needs, the report said.
“The factual circumstances of Mr. Montgomery’s parental capacity were not adequately explored, nor was the link to Harmony’s needs and his ability to provide for them,” the report said, adding that Montgomery’s housing and employment stability were not confirmed, nor was the physical safety of his home for Harmony’s impairments.
Montgomery took his daughter to New Hampshire roughly a week after the hearing and DCF involvement ended, the report said. Sorey reported Harmony missing in November 2021, telling Manchester police she hadn’t seen the girl since April 2019. Manchester police announced Harmony’s disappearance in December 2021 but estimated she disappeared in early December 2019, the report said.
In a statement to CNN on Wednesday, the DCF said it remained “deeply concerned” about the girl’s disappearance and added the 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 agency said it has already initiated “significant reforms,” including policies to work with children with disabilities, a multi-level review of reunifications, greater supervision of staff and implementing guidance for assessing whether a parent has the ability to safely care for a child .
Among the recommendations
Following a review of all available court filings and documents, the OCA “determined that Harmony was … not prioritized in the legal case regarding her own care and protection,” Mossaides said.
“When children are not at the center of every aspect of the child protective service system, then the system cannot truly protect them,” she said.
The OCA found that information on Harmony’s family was not complete and centered primarily on her mother. Among other recommendations, the OCA recommended that DCF “must make sure that fathers are provided the same level of attention as mothers,” Mossaides said, and that both parents are adequately assessed.
“We also recommend that DCF work to improve the quality of its legal advocacy, with a focus on improving training, ongoing litigation support and supervision of their attorneys,” Mossaides said.
If the agency had presented a comprehensive picture of the father’s parental capacity and a fuller picture of Harmony’s strengths and vulnerability, “there may have been more of an opportunity to advocate for a transition period” for Harmony to ensure her safety, the report added.
The DCF attorney was “hampered by the inability to effectively assess Mr. Montgomery,” Mossaides said, adding that was partly because Montgomery was not cooperative when in contact with DCF.
And though DCF opposed Harmony’s placement with her father and pushed for a home study, it could have provided “stronger information” to support their opposition, Mossaides said.
In its statement to CNN, the DCF pointed to recently proposed legislation that would help advocate for children’s interests in court.
It said that the agency “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.”
CNN’s Jennifer Selva contributed to this report.
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