Child advocate says girl’s quiet disappearance points to ‘societal failure’

  • Harmony Montgomery

  • This undated booking photo provided by the Manchester Police Department shows Adam Montgomery, of Manchester, N.H. Montgomery, 31, father of the missing girl, Harmony Montgomery, has been arrested Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, on second-degree assault, custody and child endangerment charges regarding his daughter, but the search for her continues, authorities said Wednesday, Jan. 5. (Manchester Police Department via AP)

Monitor staff
Published: 1/15/2022 3:31:12 PM

The disappearance of Harmony Montgomery has captured local and national attention in recent weeks.

The young girl, age 5 at the time she was last seen, has been missing since 2019, but her disappearance was not reported until late 2021. She was in the legal custody of her father, Adam Montgomery, when she vanished. He has since been charged with several counts, including failing to have Harmony in his custody, and has pleaded not guilty.

For many Granite Staters, the case raises an alarming question: how does a child go missing for two years without authorities knowing?

More recent reports reveal that there was clear evidence of child abuse.

In an interview with police, Harmony’s great uncle told officers he saw her with a black eye in July 2019. He said Montgomery told him he hit her after he had seen his daughter holding her hand over her younger brother’s mouth to stop him from crying, according to the police documents.

Manchester police records show that the Division for Children, Youth and Families had repeated involvement in the case. Crystal Renee Sorey, Harmony’s mother, lost custody of her daughter after substance abuse struggles. She reported her daughter missing in November 2021 after not seeing her since Easter in 2019.

In an email to the office of Manchester’s mayor, she explained that DCYF had an open case on her daughter but hadn’t done anything to help her.

“DCYF failed my child 100%, and everyone in our family will vouch for that,” she wrote in the email.

Moira O’Neill, the director for the office of the Child Advocate, said Harmony’s disappearance isn’t necessarily a systemic failure.

She said before school age, there aren’t many avenues that would lead to an adult reporting abuse. While young children should regularly see pediatricians, missed appointments are not uncommon.

Especially in the “live free or die” state, O’Neill finds it hard to believe that parents would want any kind of surveillance system.

“A bureaucracy can only do so much in a state government,” she said. “The failure is at the level of community. It’s a societal failure that we don’t pay attention to kids around us.”

Though a child protective services worker may have been assigned to this case, she said DCYF employees have limited options — especially if the reported problems are “resolved” in the office’s eyes.

“It was only recently that DCYF has been able to get a court order to actually get in and see a child if they’re worried about the child,” she said. “Everyone thinks they can do everything, but they actually have pretty limited authority around going into people’s homes.”

DCYF has had a long, troubled reputation in the public eye.

Most publicly, the agency came under fire after the death of two children, Sadee Willott in 2014 and Brielle Gage in 2015.

Child protection workers were involved in Sadee Willott’s life just days after her birth. Over the first 21 months of her short life, caseworkers met with Sadee’s family 30 times to check whether the toddler was being physically abused and neglected. Every report was dismissed, except for the last – but by then it was far too late. When the ruling was made, Sadee had already been dead for more than a year.

In the year before Brielle Gage died, DCYF received at least five reports of abuse and neglect against the toddler or her four brothers, who ranged in age from nine months to 8 years old.

A 2017 Monitor investigation found that crushing caseloads, high staff turnover and a lack of thorough investigations were to blame for the oversights.

The articles revealed that New Hampshire had among the lowest number of child protection workers per capita nationwide and ranked top five in the country for highest worker caseloads, according to an analysis of the most recent available data from 2014.

Another Monitor investigation from November found that many of these problems still exist in DCYF offices, especially at the Manchester office which would have responded to reports surrounding Harmony Montgomery.

In a state that employs a total of 283 child protection workers, 196 have quit or transferred out of their positions since 2019, according to data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

The former and current workers said the high turnover rate leaves inexperienced, albeit well-intentioned, workers to handle some of the most complicated and high-stakes jobs in the state.

In the last three years alone, 30 child protective services workers left their positions at the Manchester office. The office employs a total of 44 child protection workers.

Amber Bennett, a former Manchester child protection worker, said when she left her position in the spring of 2019 she was working on cases for more than 200 children. She said she worked between 70 and 80 hours a week to keep up with her workload while caring for her own newborn.

“I even made a comment, and I was like, ‘I am telling you I cannot handle one more thing; otherwise all of these are going to be neglected, and I don’t want to do that,’ ” she said.

Bennett said her supervisors put more cases on her desk chair after she left for the day anyway.

Still, Gov. Chris Sununu stands by the division.

“No, the system is not in disarray,” he told WMUR. “We brought in a whole new team just a few years ago, revamped our quality assurance and control process, and they work very hard on all these cases all across the state.”

However, he has called on the agency to conduct an internal review of the Montgomery case.

Police are accepting text or call tips regarding the whereabouts of Harmony Montgomery at 603-203-6060.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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