Tragic Harmony Montgomery case casts long shadow on New Hampshire's child welfare system

The disappearance of partially blind five-year-old is simply the latest example of the state's failing system, which even Governor called a 'disaster'


                            Tragic Harmony Montgomery case casts long shadow on New Hampshire's child welfare system
Photos of harmony Montgomery (Manchester NH Police)
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It's now been over two years since five-year-old Harmony Montgomery went missing, and so far, the police are barely close to locating her. As fears mount she could be dead, the story has put the spotlight on not just Montgomery's family, but also New Hampshire's welfare system. A stunning new report indicates that it's not the first time the state has failed its children and is unlikely to be the last. 

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On January 7, police arrested Harmony's biological father Kevin Montgomery on charges of child abuse but failed to make any progress on actually locating Harmony. Police also arrested Harmony's stepmother Kayla Montgomery, with whom she was placed after Harmony's biological mother lost custody of her. The tragic tale of two moms just goes to show the extent to which her world was turned upside-down and rumored to play a significant role in her disappearance. 

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Could it have been avoided? According to a new report by The Boston Globe, it seems so. The Globe dived deep into New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth, and Families, and noted it was " one of the worst-performing agencies" of its kind all over the US. It's a crisis GOP Governor Chris Sununu is well aware of but apparently has done nothing to fix. 

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A child is viewed at a thrift store on March 27, 2015, in Gonzales, Texas. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

 

New Hampshire's broken welfare system

At the heart of the criticism is a broken, overworked, and understaffed department in New Hampshire. The nonprofit Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) noted that caseworkers in the state juggle an average of 93 cases each, around eight times the recommended number. That is in fact attributed to the extremely high turnover at the department. In September 2021, Concord Monitor reported that 30 workers quit in the Manchester office since 2019, where there were only 44 to begin with.

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 It's symbolic of what's playing around all over the state. "Turnover is endemic in offices across New Hampshire," the publication reported, noting that a total of 196 of 283 child protection workers have quit since 2019. In contrast, only 63 workers have been employed. One person described the situation as a "revolving door". It seems even the federal government has noticed, calling out NH in 2016 and 2018 audits. That led Sununu to agree it was a "disaster" of an agency. 

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Beyond words, there have been some actions as well. The state promised to increase spending on the department, but those promises feel hollow after years of cuts. NH cut its spending on child welfare by 54% between 2008 and 2018, The Globe noted. The effect was almost instantaneous, with the number of children in out-of-home care soaring 75% between 2014 and 2018. Harmony became just one of the many children caught in that net and slipped through the cracks.

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Harmony Montogomery (Twitter)

 

Harmony's case, and the role of the system

It's unclear when exactly Harmony was first entered into the system, but by the time her case came before a Massachusetts juvenile court judge in February 2019, she had already "bounced" in and out several times. Harmony's mother had substance abuse issues, and her father had a long rap sheet including attempted armed robbery and gun violence. Yet, the judge decided to let Harmony stay with her father, resulting in a move to New Hampshire that would prove to be deadly. 

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Before Harmony disappeared, caseworkers investigated possible abuse, but let Kevin and Kayla off the hook. Then, the family was evicted from their homes and living in cars, but this time no caseworker came to check-in or move Harmony. In the end, she vanished, and it would be two years before her disappearance was even reported. "I see this as a failure of the system writ large. We didn’t do enough — as a system, as a state — to catch this family and catch this child," one state senator said. 

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Governor Sununu has been quick to slam Massachusetts as responsible, noting it was a judge there that decided to give custody of Harmony to her father. But that's a narrative not everyone is buying. "If this decision by this Massachusetts judge was so obviously terrible, why didn’t your government oppose it and raise the problems when this little girl was still here?" slammed Michael Lewis, a lawyer dedicated to fighting child welfare cases. Any answer though will be too little too late for Harmony, but hopefully not for the thousands of other kids in the system.

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