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Mass. lawmakers considering 'Harmony Commission' to examine child welfare reforms

Manchster, N.H., police at a news conference earlier this year about missing child Harmony Montgomery.
Manchester Police Department
File Photo
Harmony Montgomery was placed in DCF care in 2014 at the age of two months, released into the custody of her father, Adam Montgomery, in 2019, and declared missing in 2021. Adam Montgomery currently faces multiple charges in connection with her death.

At a sprawling, fiery State House hearing Tuesday, critics of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families backed an array of proposals aimed at reforming a system they say is failing too many children and young people.

Several attendees at the hearing of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities spoke in favor of legislation that would create a commission named for Harmony Montgomery. Montgomery was placed in DCF care in 2014 at the age of two months, released into the custody of her father, Adam Montgomery, in 2019, and declared missing in 2021. Adam Montgomery currently faces multiple charges in connection with her death.

The Harmony Commission would examine the weight currently given to children’s rights, welfare and best interests in such cases, and make recommendations for how children in state care could be better protected in the future.

Blair Miller, one of the adoptive fathers of Harmony Montgomery’s biological brother, Jamison, brought an Elmo doll Jamison had been given by Harmony to the hearing. Miller described trying to adopt Harmony as well and being rebuffed. He said he attempted to connect the siblings before Harmony’s disappearance, but it never happened.

“Jamison wanted to know how she was doing,” said Miller. “He wanted to hear her voice. Never did anyone here in Massachusetts ever help Jamison deal with this relationship. Never did anyone ever give us the tools to help connect us, or provide a sibling visitation between Jamison and Harmony."

Miller added, that there could have been communication between Harmony and her brother, if there had been supports in place.

“There could have been FaceTime calls, maybe. There could have been in person visits. There could have been opportunities to see how Harmony was doing … We could have seen that Harmony was surrounded by trouble.”

There was also impassioned support for legislation that would allow minors in DCF care to retain access to Social Security and other federal benefits they receive while in the system. Right now, multiple speakers testified, DCF routinely directs just 10% of those benefits to children and youth, while steering 90% into the state’s General Fund.

Several other states have recently moved to end comparable practices, which critics say deprive youth of crucial resources when they age out of the system.

“They leave foster care without the basic resources to support themselves and be successful,” said Amy Karp of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents Massachusetts children and youth living in foster care.

“By the age of 21, well over a quarter will not have completed high school or gotten a GED,” Karp added. “Half will have neither part or full time employment. More than a third will have experienced a period of homelessness. Almost a quarter will be incarcerated. And almost 20% will be parents themselves.”

Children and youth of color, LGBTQ+ children and youth, and children and youth with disabilities are overrepresented in foster care, Karp noted.

Other pieces of legislation also drew enthusiastic backing over several hours of testimony, including a proposal to limit the removal of newborns from the care of mothers who show evidence of substance abuse. Supporters said current requirements can lead to babies being separated from mothers who’ve been prescribed medication as treatment for substance abuse, thereby discouraging people who need treatment from actually seeking it.

House and Senate bills have also been filed aimed at limiting the use of Child Requiring Assistance cases, in which parents, guardians and school officials seek court assistance in supervising a minor. Multiple speakers said families, especially families of color, often take that step with limited information in hopes of getting needed assistance for the child in question, thereby involving them in the court system at an early age in a way that is ultimately destructive.

Proposals to create a bill of rights for children living in foster care and to increase the power of the Office of the Child Advocate to supervise DCF also drew significant backing.

This story was originally published by GBH. It was shared as part of the New England News Collaborative.

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