The tragedy of Harmony Montgomery: Why we must strengthen the federal permanency timeline, not repeal it

Source: NBC News

I write with heartbreak and rage about a child who was removed from her drug-abusing mother at the age of two months, placed with a loving family that wanted to adopt her, ripped from this family twice more to return to her mother in a fruitless attempt at reunification, and finally placed after over four years with a father and stepmother she hardly knew without any vetting to ensure their capacity to care for her. The case of Harmony Montgomery has made national news–but only because she is now missing after that last disastrous placement. The Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) has released its report on the tragic case of Harmony Montgomery. The OCA report reveals the extent of the disruption to which Massachusetts subjected this young child, but unfortunately it does not draw the needed conclusions about policy and practice to ensure timely permanency for children in foster care. No child should be subject to the treatment Harmony received in the child welfare system, let alone the abuse and neglect she certainly endured after leaving it, but policy shifts being considered now would make it more likely that other children will suffer similar fates.

Harmony’s child protection case began almost as soon as she was born in June 2014 to Crystal Sorey and Adam Montgomery, who were not married and were no longer together at the time of her birth. Montgomery was incarcerated at the time of Harmony’s birth for “a shooting that involved illicit substances,” according to the report. Harmony was diagnosed at birth with a visual disability and was blind in one eye. Due to her disability, she received early intervention services until age three and then special education services from her local school district until moving to New Hampshire.

Shortly after Harmony’s birth, the Haverhill Area Office of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) received three reports alleging that Sorey was using illegal substances and neglecting Harmony. DCF confirmed the allegation of neglect and opened a case to provide services to the family without removing Harmony. But two more reports were made in August 2014, and DCF concluded that Sorey continued to struggle with substance abuse, putting Harmony at risk. Two-month-old Harmony was removed and placed in foster care. (A chronology at the end of this commentary provides a summary of the case history).

In January 2015, seven-month-old Harmony was returned to the care of her mother. But the following April, at the age of 10 months, Harmony was removed from Sorey again due to neglect associated with her renewed substance abuse. In July 2015, Harmony’s permanency plan was changed from reunification to adoption. In September 2015 Adam Montgomery was released from prison and moved to New Hampshire, but he did not contact DCF for a year. In February 2017, the DCF team changed Harmony’s goal back to reunification with her mother. That March, Harmony was returned to her mother for the second time. She was almost three years old and had been in foster care for a total of 28 months, including approximately 23 consecutive months since her second removal from her mother.

In January 2018, at the age of three-and-a-half, Harmony was once again removed from Sorey due to the latter’s neglect associated with renewed substance abuse, and she was placed in the same foster home where she had lived during both of her previous stays in care. In August 2018, when Harmony was four years old and after eleven months without seeing her, her father resumed supervised visits. According to OCA, in December 2018 the team began working toward “reunification”1,2 with Montgomery instead of Sorey and requested that New Hampshire conduct a home study through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC).3 Nevertheless, Harmony’s goal was changed back to adoption in that same month.4

A hearing was held in February 2019 to consider both parents’ requests for immediate custody of Harmony, but Sorey was unable to attend because she was at a hearing about another of her children. New Hampshire had not yet acted on the home study request and the DCF attorney objected to the placement of Harmony with Montgomery in the absence of any information about the family. The attorneys for Montgomery, Sorey and Harmony5 all supported giving custody to Montgomery, and the judge awarded him full custody on the grounds that as a “fit parent” as defined by law, Montgomery’s right to parent his child could not be infringed by the ICPC. A week later, Montgomery brought Harmony to New Hampshire to join his household made up of his wife, Kayla Montgomery, and their two children, who were both under five years old. DCF’s involvement with Harmony was over and there was to be no agency or court oversight of the newly reunified family as there would be if Montgomery lived in Massachusetts.

A report from the Governor of New Hampshire provides a glimpse into Harmony’s troubled life after arriving in New Hampshire. On July 19, 2019, an anonymous call was made to the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) hotline stating that five-year-old Harmony was seen a week before with a black eye that Adam Montgomery admitted causing. In a visit conducted on August 7, 2019, a social worker found signs of a healing black eye, but Harmony and her father said the mark was caused by “horseplay” with a sibling. The allegation was ruled “unfounded,” but Harmony was deemed to be at high risk for future maltreatment.

On January 8, 2020, another call was made to the hotline regarding another child or children in the home. When the investigating social worker asked about Harmony, Adam Montgomery said that she had been back in Massachusetts with her mother since about Thanksgiving of 2019. Kayla Montgomery later confirmed the story, stating that Montgomery told her he was taking Harmony to Sorey on the day after Thanksgiving in 2019. On January 13 and March 16, additional calls were received regarding the household, and Montgomery again stated that Harmony was with her mother and he had not seen her in a year. In September 2021, a person known to Sorey called the DCYF hotline to say that Sorey had not seen Harmony since 2019 and had not been able to reach Montgomery to schedule a visit. DCYF learned that Harmony had never been registered for public school in Manchester.

On December 31, 2021, the Manchester police located Montgomery, but he did not have Harmony in his care and gave “contradictory and unconvincing explanations” of her whereabouts. An exhaustive police search for Harmony began, making national headlines. On January 4, 2022, Adam Montgomery was arrested on charges of second degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child. On January 6, 2022, Manchester police arrested Kayla Montgomery on a charge of welfare fraud for obtaining over $1,500 in Food Stamp benefits for Harmony after she was no longer in their household. The search for Harmony continues.

The case history shared by OCA shows that DCF, the agency charged with protecting children, instead subjected Harmony to the trauma of repeated moves during her crucial infancy and early childhood, including ripping her from a loving home where she had resided for almost two years. After being removed from her mother at two months, returned to her at seven months, removed again at ten months, and then remaining another 23 months in foster care, Harmony deserved to stay with the only family who had provided a safe and stable home for her. This family had even facilitated Harmony’s contact with family members other than her parents, who visited her in the foster home and told OCA they appreciated the care Harmony received there. But DCF sent her back to her mother, only to remove her again 10 months later. There is no better evidence of the damage done by this ill-advised action than the following quote from the OCA report:

Although placed in the same foster home after each removal, each time Harmony returned she struggled with more challenging behavior and increasing feelings of insecurity. While the foster parents provided exceptional care and were committed to Harmony, with each subsequent placement the scope and depth of her behavioral and emotional needs grew. The foster family felt that after Harmony had been removed from Ms. Sorey’s care for the last time, they were no longer able to provide for her increased needs. Several months into her third placement, Harmony’s foster parents determined that it was in Harmony’s best interest to be placed in a therapeutic foster home where she would receive the specialized and dedicated attention she needed. It is evident in the record this was an extraordinarily difficult decision for the foster parents as they consistently expressed their love for Harmony. 

Office of the Child Advocate, A Multi System Investigation Regarding Harmony Montgomery, May 2022,

The harm to children of such repeated disruptions has been well documented, as Sarah Font and Lindsey Palmer explain. Humans have a fundamental need to know where and to whom they belong. Foster care sets up a “loyalty conflict” that is familiar to every social worker who has worked in the field, and the harmful impacts of repeated movement between the two families cannot be overstated. Secondly, children need predictability, and research consistently shows that unpredictable environments harm children’s development even more than harmful environments. Every member of Harmony’s case management team should have been aware of the harm that would be caused by the repeated disruptions in her living situation, the on-and-off visitation with her father and the continued uncertainty about her future.

In subjecting Harmony to over four years of uncertainty and disruption, DCF and the court also appear to have flouted both law and policy guidelines. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 119 Section 26 requires DCF to file a petition in court to “dispense with parental consent to adoption, custody, guardianship or other disposition” if the child has been in foster care in the custody of the state for 15 of the immediately preceding 22 months. This law is based on the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA), which requires states to observe this “15/22 rule” in order to receive Federal foster care funds. Federal and Massachusetts law provide three exceptions to the rule: if the child is being cared for by a relative, if there there is a “compelling reason” that filing such a petition would not be in the best interests of the child, and if the family has not been provided with the services that the department has deemed necessary for the child’s safe return home. DCF policy mirrors the provisions of the law by requiring that DCF review all cases of children who have been in placement 15 of the past 22 months and initiate a petition for TPR (termination of parental rights) unless one of the three exceptions described above apply.6 But there is no mention in the OCA report that such a review took place.

DCF policy includes other requirements to ensure the 15/22 rule is followed, mostly through the use of Permanency Planning Conferences (PPC’s). PPC’s are “the Department’s primary internal planning vehicle for reviewing the clinical and legal issues related to permanency decision-making.” PPC’s are required under certain circumstances, including within the first 9 months following the date of placement. At this conference, DCF policy states that:

For most families, based upon a well-reasoned prognosis about the probability of the child’s returning home given the family’s documented capacity to benefit from reunification services, the Department will decide whether to initiate a TPR action at the PPC held within 9 months after the child enters placement. In some of those cases, the Department will decide that one of the exceptions [described above] applies but will schedule another PPC for the 13th month after placement to determine whether initiating TPR is appropriate given the facts as they then exist. 

Harmony’s first PPC noted by OCA took place in July 2015, about 11 months after her placement, in apparent violation of the nine-month deadline. The result of that conference was a change of Harmony’s permanency goal to adoption, which presumably entailed “initiating a TPR action” as described by the policy. If for some reason that did not happen, another PPC should have been scheduled for the 13th month after placement. OCA does not cite another PPC until the one that took place in February 2017, which was about two-and-a-half years after placement and actually changed her goal back to reunification. So it is appears that the DCF Area Office was out of compliance with agency policy requiring it to either initiate the TPR or schedule another PPC for the 13th month after placement.

There are more safeguards in DCF policy to ensure timely permanency for children in foster care, but these did not save Harmony either. According to policy, “Any decision not to initiate [a TPR] when a child has been in placement for 15 of the previous 22 months must be the result of a Permanency Planning Conference and approved by the Director of Areas/designee.” Harmony had spent 15 of the past 22 months in care around February 2016. But there is no mention that such a PPC ever took place or that such approval was obtained. As noted above, the next PPC mentioned by OCA occurred after Harmony had been in care for two-and-a-half years.

The OCA report does not mention the 15/22 rule, even though it provides a link to the policy in which the rule is repeatedly mentioned. Presumably, the rule was not mentioned in the case records that OCA reviewed, and this may be typical. When the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied early state implementation of AFSA, they found that in the nine states that provided data on the use of the rule in FY 2000, “the number of children exempted from the provision greatly exceeded the number of children to whom it was applied.” This is not surprising because the exceptions can be easily interpreted so broadly as to apply to many or most cases. There is no update on the GAO survey, but available evidence suggests that application of this provision is not widespread. During child welfare monitoring visits conducted by the federal government between 2015 and 2018, practices related to timely termination of parental rights were rated as a strength in only seven of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and were rated as an “area needing improvement” in the other 44 jurisdictions, according to a federal study. Foster parents from around the country who completed a caregiver survey disseminated by the advocacy group iFoster reported that failure to observe the AFSA timeline resulted in stalled permanency for foster youth. Certainly, the intent of the law is not being fulfilled.

Whether social workers around the country are assessing cases to determine whether the exceptions apply or simply ignoring the 15/22 rule is not clear. In Harmony’s case, no discussion is noted in the OCA report of whether she was exempt from the rule. It certainly appears that her mother received more than enough services before and after her relapses; she was reported to have received both substance abuse treatment and mental health therapy. It might have been possible to argue that Harmony’s father needed more time because he was released from prison when she had already spent ten months in foster care, but since he did not contact DCF for a year after being released, such an argument seems weak.

Respect for the 15/22 rule is if anything decreasing because of the current ideological climate in child welfare that prioritizes the rights of parents over the needs of children. Indeed, there is a new movement to repeal ASFA altogether on the grounds that it is unfair to parents. Parents’ rights advocates argue that states are not providing parents with the services they need, and it is not fair to apply the timeline when parents have not been offered the services they need in time to meet the 15-month deadline. This is a valid point. Enforcement of the timeline needs to be accompanied by prompt assessment and appropriate services for both parents. But the burden should be on the parent to make use of the services offered. An agency should not be required to beg, persuade or repeatedly urge parent to pursue visits and services. if a parent falls out of touch and cannot be reached, the child should not be penalized by delays in permanency.

Parent advocates also argue that it often takes longer than 15 months to correct deep-seated problems. In particular, it is well-known that most substance abusers (like Harmony’s mother) relapse more than once before shaking their addiction. But young children simply don’t have the time to wait for such a parent to be cured without incurring irreversible developmental damage.

In this time when parents’ rights advocates have all but monopolized the current conversation, few seem to be speaking for the rights of children. But in its recent report, Voice of the Foster Care Community, the advocacy group iFoster concluded that greater efforts are needed to support parents before their children are removed, and to help them regain their children quickly once placed in foster care. But if that quick reunification does not happen, caregivers, workers and advocates surveyed stated the need to prioritize the needs of the child over the needs of the parent to avoid delays in termination of parental rights. As one Pennsylvania foster parent put it,

….if parents are unable to work their case plan, then the 15 of 22 months rule must be followed so kids don’t languish in care for years. This is a way-too-common occurrence. Parents are given many chances to work their case plan while their children languish in care, being passed back and forth between families and living in instability.”

Advocates for children in foster care should be asking Congress to strengthen the 15/22 rule, not repeal it. Perhaps there could be different timelines for children of different ages, as has been suggested by Cassie Statuto Bevan, who helped draft ASFA. Children who come into care as teens may not want their bonds with their parents to be disrupted. But the youngest children need to achieve permanency even faster than what is prescribed by ASFA. Infants and young children placed in foster care should not spend their most crucial developmental period in limbo awaiting a parent’s eventual cure.

OCA’s central finding was that “Harmony’s individual needs, wellbeing, and safety were not prioritized or considered on an equal footing with the assertion of her parents’ rights to care for her in any aspect of the decision making by any state entity.” This finding certainly encompasses DCF’s failure to seek timely permanency for Harmony. But OCA’s specific findings and recommendations regarding time to permanency are not as well-developed as they could have been. OCA has one finding regarding permanency as it relates to DCF, but it is quite weak, stating that “the delay in achieving permanency for Harmony impacted her well-being.” OCA goes on to explain that the delay caused trauma for Harmony, which in turn resulted in the disruption of her pre-adoptive placement. In reality, If Harmony had been adopted soon after she had spent 15 months in foster care, she would have found safety and stability in a loving home. The failure to pursue adoption within 15 months of Harmony’s placement in foster care did not just damage her emotionally; it resulted in her disappearance and possible death.

Strangely, OCA made no recommendation to DCF regarding reducing the time to it takes to achieve permanency for children in foster care. There was no mention of the 15/22 rule and the failure to enforce it or follow the procedures designed to ensure its observance. It is only in the section on the legal process that OCA stated (but did not label as a “Recommendation”) that “For children whose parents will not accept services or to whom children cannot be safely returned to their home within the first two years of their removal, DCF should expeditiously move toward another permanency plan.”7

OCA had a number of other findings and recommendations. The Office rightly highlighted DCF’s exclusive focus on Sorey as a potential caregiver for Harmony throughout most of the life of the case, resulting in the failure to complete an assessment of Montgomery and his wife and develop an appropriate service plan for them. This was particularly important in light of Harmony’s disabilities, which required that a caregiver be able to provide adequate care. Clearly, DCF should have done more to engage Montgomery during the first 15 months of the case. If he and his wife had been assessed and provided with an appropriate service plan, perhaps they would have been ruled out as as caregivers long before the fateful hearing. This failure to engage Montgomery resulted in OCA’s only recommendation directed at DCF, which was that “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.”

OCA devoted the bulk of its findings and recommendations to the legal process, and specifically to the many problems with the February 2019 hearing that resulted in Harmony’s placement with her father. Clearly, the placement of Harmony with her father in the absence of any assessment of him or his wife or any examination of their home was the immediate cause of the the tragic outcome. But that hearing, conducted over four years from Harmony’s entry into foster care, should have never taken place. OCA’s findings regarding the process are certainly worth consideration, but there should have been much more attention given to the need to ensure permanency for children much earlier.

Despite the flaws in its findings and recommendations, the OCA report is invaluable for its revelation of the problems in social work and legal practice that led to the disappearance and probable murder of Harmony Montgomery. Harmony’s story should be a cautionary tale for anyone supporting, or considering the value of, proposals to repeal the Adoption and Safe Families Act, or at least the requirement that states initiate a termination of parental rights after a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months. Rather than eliminated, that provision needs to be strengthened by reducing the scope of the exemptions that make it toothless and perhaps by adjusting it according to the age of the child. No other child should be subjected–by a system designed to protect children– to the suffering that Harmony underwent while in the system and after leaving it.

Timeline of Harmony’s case based on the OCA report

DateMonths in Foster CareEvent/Activity
June 2014Harmony is born. DCF receives three reports of substance abuse and neglect by her mother. A case is opened
August 2014DCF receives two more reports. Harmony is removed.
January 20155Harmony meets her father for the first time, in prison, and is returned to her mother
April 2015Harmony is removed from her mother again due to substance abuse
July 20158Harmony meets her father for the second time, in prison; Harmony’s permanency plan changed to adoption
September 201510Harmony’s father is released from prison and moves to New Hampshire
February 201615Harmony has spent 15 months in foster care out of the last 22 months
September 201622Adam Montgomery contacts DCF for the first time since his release from prison a year earlier
October 201623Harmony meets Adam Montgomery for the third time.
February 201727Harmony’s permanency plan is changed back to reunification. After visiting with Harmony once a month for five months, Adam Montgomery stops responding to DCF’s efforts to schedule further supervised visits.
March 201728Harmony is returned to her mother for the third time. Over the next few months she has unsupervised weekend visits with her father.
September 201728Adam Montgomery contacts DCF after a seven-month lapse, and has one supervised visit with Harmony.
January 201828Harmony is removed from her mother for the third time due to substance abuse.
August 201835Adam Montgomery resumes supervised visits after a lapse of 11 months.
December 201839Harmony’s goal is changed back to adoption.
February 201941A Juvenile Court Judge awards custody of Harmony to Adam Montgomery. One week later, Montgomery takes her to New Hampshire and DCF involvement ends.
September 2021A person known to Crystal Sorey contacts the New Hampshire child ause hotline to report that she has not seen Harmony since April 2019.
December 2021Manchester police announce Harmony’s disappearance and their search for her. She has not yet been found.
Notes to Table: For purposes of calculating months in foster care, All dates assumed to be the first of the month

This commentary was updated on June 8, 2022 to incorporate the results of a federal study entitled Freeing Children for Adoption within the Adoption and Safe Families Act Timeline.

Notes

1. Child welfare law and policy refer to “reunification” with a parent even if the child has never lived with that parent.

2. According to OCA, “the Foster Care Review panel kept a permanency goal of reunification for Harmony but for the first time changed their focus of reuniting Harmony with Ms. Sorey to placing her with Mr. Montgomery.” But OCA explained in an earlier text box, foster care review panels make recommendations, not decisions. Therefore this statement appears to be inaccurate.

3. The ICPC is an agreement between the states that allows a state considering placement of a child in another state to request a home study of the family with whom the child will be placed.

4. This goal change raises many questions which are not addressed in the OCA report. It is not clear why the goal was changed so soon after the team reportedly agreed to continue the goal of reunification with a new focus on Adam Montgomery. This discrepancy could be related to OCA’s confusing statement that a Foster Care Review panel made the decision to continue the goal of reunification but shift the focus to Adam Montgomery. Perhaps that panel only recommended this new focus. According to OCA, the panel also recommended convening a Permanency Planning Conference (PPC), which is the body empowered to change the goal and which indeed did change the goal to adoption.

5. According to OCA, Harmony’s attorney supported custody for Montgomery because she was bound to advocate for the expressed wishes of the four-and-a-half-year old, not her best interests.

6. While federal law and DCF policy speak of initiating a TPR petition, Massachusetts law prescribes “dispensing with parental consent,” as described in the previous note. Some jurisdictions, in order to avoid creating “legal orphans” through a TPR, take this approach of dispensing with parental consent to an adoption or guardianship. The practical result would be the same, ending parental rights.

7. In its list of recommendations for the courts, OCA strangely includes a recommendation for the agency, stating that “DCF 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 in order to ensure that the case achieves a safe and expedient resolution.” In addition to being misplaced, this is a very weak statement of what needs to be done.