Despite years of promises by the Baker administration to overhaul the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, the system massively failed yet again — this time in the case of 7-year-old Harmony Montgomery.
Harmony has been missing since November 2019, less than a year after she moved from Massachusetts, where she was involved with DCF for years. Her father was granted custody here and later moved her to New Hampshire. In January, two years after Harmony went missing, Adam Montgomery was charged in connection with her disappearance.
“We do not know Harmony Montgomery’s ultimate fate, and unfortunately, we may never, but we do know that this beautiful young child experienced many tragedies in her short life and that by not putting her and her needs first, our system ultimately failed her,” Office of the Child Advocate Director Maria Mossaides determined. “We owe it to her to make the changes necessary to allow our system to do better in the future.”
Those are familiar words.
In the summer of 2015, apologies were made for a 7-year-old boy finally taken into DCF custody after he was beaten and starved to 38 pounds. This time, a death was prevented, however, child protective services had been involved for some time, and it was later discovered the family’s social worker was not licensed.
That summer, too, there were apologies for 2-year-old Avalena Conway Coxon, who died in a foster home in Auburn. A second toddler was in a coma for weeks and left with long-term disabilities.
That was also the year “Baby Doe” — discovered to be 2-year-old Bella Bond — fell through the cracks and her body washed up in a plastic bag on a Boston Harbor beach.
In the wake of these and other high-profile cases, Gov. Charlie Baker outlined a series of reforms with a heavy focus on the intake process and reinstated DCF positions that were cut in 2009 state budget reductions.
“The work that will be done from this point forward will focus on one major objective: to keep kids safe,” Baker said.
That didn’t happen.
Baker unveiled another overhaul in May of 2019. DCF policies would undergo a complete review, and family recruiters and social workers hired.
But last year, DCF Commissioner Linda Spears acknowledged the state failed 14-year-old David Almond, an autistic boy who was abused, neglected and killed in his Fall River home.
Statistics show Massachusetts is unusually slow in placing children in permanent homes. They spend nearly 40 months on average in temporary placement. The federal — and Massachusetts — standard is 15 months.
To become a foster parent here, adults must have a safe home, space that can be dedicated to the child, and everyone must undergo background checks, among other requirements. They are reimbursed daily in the amount of $25.26 for children up to age 5; $28.63 for those ages 6 to 12; and $29.91 for teens aged 13 and older.
That’s about $10,000 a year to care for a child — a traumatized child — in your home. To put that in perspective, daycare centers that nurture children about nine hours a day, five days a week get an average of $21,000 a year for infants and $15,000 for a 4-year old.
While other financial resources are available, foster parents need to be capable of navigating a complicated system — or be in the unlikely circumstance that they have a social worker with the time to help. The stipend is not enough. Quality care demands adequate compensation. And while financial gain should never be a reason to foster, the Massachusetts cost of living is high and providing for a child the right way is expensive.
In February, Baker included $50 million in the supplemental budget to recruit, train and pay guardian ad litems, and introduced a policy proposal to mandate the appointment of a guardian ad litem in neglect or abuse cases identified in Juvenile Court.
“While all children in the custody of the Department of Children and Families are assigned an attorney by the court, the Harmony Montgomery case makes clear the imperative need to improve and build upon support for children that come before the courts,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said a week later at a press conference.
She added, “With this funding, we take a step in the right direction.”
But are we really? Or is this just another empty promise to the most at risk and vulnerable among us?