Missing children: NH doesn’t track pre-school kids; community has a role to play in protecting the vulnerable

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Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg, speaks with media during a Jan. 12, 2022 news conference with an update on the reward being offered for information, which has grown to $104,000. Also pictured, Assistant Chief Steve Mangone. Photo/MPD

MANCHESTER, NH – With a search for 7-year-old Harmony Montgomery ongoing for weeks now, the question still being asked, but for which the answer remains elusive, is how does a child go missing for more than two years and neither police nor child protection services know about it?

“The more provocative question would be who noticed the child when she wasn’t missing,” said Moira O’Neill,  Director of the New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate, which has oversight for the state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).  She is not seeking reappointment to her post which expires on Jan. 31, 2022.

She said it is easy to blame DCYF.  “But how can a state be responsible if they don’t know about the child,” O’Neill said.

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Elijah Lewis. Photo taken May of 2020. Via NHSP

Who Noticed the Children When They Weren’t Missing?’

The recent disappearance of two New Hampshire children whose families could not account for them made – and continue to make – headlines:  Elijah Lewis, 5, of Merrimack, and Harmony of Manchester.

Police opened an investigation into Elijah’s disappearance on Oct. 14, 2021, after family members reported they hadn’t seen him in six months.

Elijah’s mother, Danielle Dauphinais, 35, and her boyfriend, Joseph Stapf, 30, were arrested Oct. 18 in New York on warrants charging them with child endangerment and witness tampering.

Elijah’s remains were found Oct. 23 buried in Nowell State Park in Abington, Mass.  An autopsy determined his death was the result of “violence and neglect, including facial and scalp injuries, acute fentanyl intoxication, malnourishment and pressure ulcers,” according to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

Harmony has been missing for more than two years.  Police last saw her in September 2019 while DCYF caseworkers last saw her in October 2019, according to police.

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Crystal Sorey, mother of Harmony Montgomery, talks about her efforts to find her daughter during a vigil on Jan. 8, 2022. Image/Jeffrey Hastings

Police tried to find Harmony in November 2021 after her mother, Crystal Sorey, 31, of Devens, Mass., wrote to Mayor Joyce Craig begging for help in finding her daughter.  When police couldn’t find Harmony or her father, Adam Montgomery, after checking addresses they had for him, they referred the case to DCYF.  On Dec. 27, 2021, DCYF reported back to police that they couldn’t find the child, either, resulting in police opening a widespread missing child investigation involving 35 detectives.

Initially, Sorey said she hadn’t seen her daughter in six months but later told police she hadn’t seen her since a 2019 Easter Facetime chat.  She said Harmony’s father, Adam Montgomery, blocked her and family members from any communication with him and Harmony.  Court documents indicate he was granted custody of Harmony in February 2019, according to the Lawrence, Mass. Juvenile Court.

Sorey said she and other family members contacted DCYF concerning Harmony’s welfare during those two years to no avail.

Harmony’s father and stepmother, Kayla Montgomery, 31, the two people last to have seen her, are both under arrest.  Adam Montgomery is charged with second-degree assault, accused of blackening Harmony’s eye in July 2019, and child endangerment and interfering with child custody.  Kayla is charged with theft by deception and welfare fraud.  She is accused of obtaining food stamps for Harmony when the child was no longer living with the family.

Adam told police the day after Thanksgiving he dropped Harmony off with her mother; Kayla said that day he told her he was bringing Harmony to her mother and that she hasn’t seen the child since.

Without a Trace

O’Neill said it is extremely rare for a child to go missing for two years.  She said there is no tracking system for children prior to them entering school.  In Harmony’s case, while she was enrolled in school at one time in Massachusetts, she was never registered in New Hampshire.

O’Neill said a bill could be proposed saying as soon “as a child is 4 we are going to track that child but in the Live Free or Die State that is not going to happen.  That really is imposing.”

Each year, DCYF receives about 20,000 reports of suspected child abuse and/or neglect.  About 8,000 of them are investigated.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the number of reports of suspected child abuse in New Hampshire dropped.   

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New Hampshire’s Child Advocate Moira O’Neill, who is not seeking a second term. Her office has oversight of NH DCYF. Courtesy Photo

O’Neill said the lower number of cases was because schools, which provide a safety net with teachers who are among those professions considered mandatory reporters, were in remote learning.  However, she said when they looked more closely at the data, the majority of calls from teachers do not necessarily result in an assessment for abuse and neglect.

“A lot of what they are seeing is chronic poverty,” she said.  The abuse and neglect reports that remained at the usual level were those from law enforcement and medical personnel because they see the abuse when it happens, she said. 

“And it’s not to say they (teachers) shouldn’t call because it triggers something we call voluntary services,” she said.  

In New Hampshire, Waypoint provides those services, helping at-risk families with various issues including mental health and substance misuse, parenting, making ends meet, housing or employment instability, among others.  It helps prevent a family getting into a situation that results in a DCYF investigation and court involvement.

Once DCYF becomes involved in a family, she said it can have a long-term negative effect. She said that is why the community has to be counted on to ensure the well-being of all children.

It Takes a Village

In Harmony’s case, she said what happened to the child in the two years before she disappeared, in the first five years of her life. “Who was noticing her?  Who noticed she was in distress?  Who noticed that the family needed help?  Who was paying attention to her before she disappeared?” she asked.

Child protective service agencies in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire were in touch with the family.

O’Neill said she doesn’t know if social services in Massachusetts ended once the father was given custody.

She explained that there are various ways a parent can gain custody of a child:  Through a court order; through a divorce or parenting plan, or a child protective service reunifying a child with a biological parent.

O’Neill said people are jumping to the conclusion that the state is at fault and “we don’t even know what’s happened to her.”  She said it is a disturbance to all the supervisors and caseworkers “because it looks as though the agency has to be defensive when we don’t even know what happened.  We really need to buckle down and wait for police to do their work.”

She said when it is known what happened to Harmony, “we’re going to look at what the state could have done to prevent whatever happened.  But until then we can’t go on the assumption that DCYF did something wrong.  We can’t do that.  We don’t know that.”

Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg, at a news conference Wednesday announcing the reward for information leading to Harmony Montgomery has grown to $104,000, said it is only natural for people or the family to blame someone or DCYF. 

Sorey clearly faults child protection services in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  

“I’m not going to go there,” Aldenberg said of where to place blame.  He said he was “extremely confident” in the work done by the MPD in its involvement in calls involving the family prior to the missing child investigation being opened on Dec. 27, 2021.

Police, between Feb. 25, 2018, and Jan. 12, 2020, received more than a dozen calls concerning residents – not always Kayla and Adam Montgomery – at 77 Gilford St., the last known address where Harmony lived.

In an Aug. 21, 2019 incident report, Officer Madden A. Healy performed a security check of the house.  A caller complained there were squatters in the building and that the home was up for auction.   

Notes on the incident indicated there was a generator running and trash all over the place.  Police said they were getting numerous calls about it and the tenant, Adam Montgomery, was in the process of being evicted.  DCYF, the report noted, was involved as well.

The last time police saw Harmony was on Sept. 11, 2019, when police were called to the house for a non-criminal, domestic disturbance. DCYF personnel would later see her in October, police said.

On that day in September, Kevin Montgomery, Adam’s uncle, and Helen Montgomery, Adam’s grandmother, tried to retrieve personal items from the house. Adam told police he had paid rent for several months to his grandmother while she was living in Florida recovering from heart surgery. Adam was upset that they tried to “barge their way in without his permission,” according to the police report.

Kevin told Officer Travis J. Koeppel that Adam and his family had taken over the house when they originally lived only in the upstairs.   He and Helen wanted to retrieve some personal items before Adam and his family were evicted at the end of the month.

The officer noted that there was clutter in every room consisting of clothing and empty food containers.  Adam told the officer the power had been turned off several months earlier due to nonpayment.  He had a portable generator in the driveway which powered the refrigerator.  The officer said there was food in the cupboards and refrigerator, and the home had running water as well.

The officer had contact with Kayla Montgomery, Adam’s wife, and the three children (their youngest child wasn’t born yet) who he said appeared to be clean and fed and were wearing appropriate clothing for the current conditions.

“Although this area was highly disheveled, it did not appear to be unsafe,” he wrote. The case was referred to DCYF.

Above: Harmony Montgomery’s case has captured the attention of armchair detectives, missing person advocates and out-of-state media outlets alike, including this Tweet shared on Jan. 12, 2022 which shows images of police reports and photographs, recently released under Freedom of Information Act requests.

On Jan. 12, 2020, police were called for the last time concerning the front door being opened; the caller thought it had been kicked in. Police said the door was not kicked in and noted that it looked like someone moved out and left the door open.  The report has one or two words blacked out followed by Adam Montgomery’s name.  “They were just airing it out,” the incident report says. “There was a very bad odor.”

O’Neill said in general, and not speaking to Harmony’s case, that when Massachusetts has an open child protection case on a child who moves to New Hampshire, the agency will contact DCYF and ask them to keep an eye on the child.

She said she has not seen the Mass. case file for Harmony so she does not know if the case remained open or not.

Harmony and her younger brother Jamieson were in foster care for a time before Jamieson was adopted by a couple in Massachusetts.  They asked about adopting Harmony but were told by  Mass. protective services she was reunified with her father.

Sorey, in an internet broadcast, said the day her son was adopted, custody was awarded to Adam.  She said she has been sober for two years and has been trying to reunite with Harmony ever since.  She said she and other family members contacted DCYF numerous times concerning Harmony’s welfare without anything happening.

At the time Adam was granted custody, O’Neill said Massachusetts could have reviewed Adam’s situation and found he was in rehab or sober; had a place to live; had a job. In that moment in time, she said things could have been going right for Montgomery, who was then married to Kayla Montgomery and had two other children.

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A digital billboard as of Jan. 9, 2022, on Elm Street continues to reflect the outpouring from the community. As of Jan. 13 police reported the reward had increased to $112,000 for information leading to Harmony Montgomery’s whereabouts. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

It could be, O’Neill said, that once Harmony was back with her dad, that the Massachusetts child protection agency closed its case.  If that happened, she said New Hampshire would not have been asked to oversee Harmony.

 O’Neill said the majority of cases referred to DCYF are “kids living in chronic poverty, dealing with substance abuse issues and in need of support from the community.”

She said it is up to everyone in New Hampshire to look out for its children.

  “If neighbors are saying hello every morning, someone may notice that someone is in distress, either the child or the parent, or notice a child is difficult to care for and say to the parent, ‘Wow, you really are doing a great job.  It’s not easy, is it?’ Those little, small, almost micro-interactions let a parent know they are appreciated, and also that they’re seen and if they do something different, people will notice.  But they might just ask for help.”


About this Author

Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.