THE APPARENT DEATH of Harmony Montgomery following her placement with her father in New Hampshire has fueled emotionally charged discussions regarding what happened in court, legal questions about the Interstate Compact on Children, the role of the state Department of Children and Families, and recommendations regarding systemic reform in the pursuit of preventing this kind of tragedy.
Issues related to the case were raised last week during a State House hearing before the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons With Disabilities. The hearing addressed a range of initiatives, some of which included proposals to reform child welfare practices and Juvenile Court procedure.
Although some of those who testified referred to the Harmony Montgomery case, the public doesn’t really know happened in the closed juvenile session when the father was deemed to be fit and was given custody of his daughter. For the public and the Legislature to have an informed opinion and to avoid reactive and retributive responses, now is the time for the Legislature to revisit the policy of closed juvenile courtrooms and allow access to the record.
This is not a radical proposal. Opening the doors to inform the public about the complexity of child welfare cases was recommended in 2005 by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and over 20 states have followed this suggestion to some degree. This is not a binary either-or proposition. We can have transparency while still protecting confidentiality and access to records or closing proceedings as many states have done.
As Harvard historian Jill Lepore observed several years ago in The New Yorker in an insightful account of the Massachusetts child welfare system, in the aftermath of baby Bella Bond’s body being found in 2015 on Deer Island, “The loss of a child is an unbearable grief, the murder of a child an unthinkable atrocity. Thinking the unthinkable tends to have dreadful consequences.”
As in the Montgomery case, the tragedy was the subject of intense media coverage. Lepore’s article, a must-read for all concerned with protecting children, notes that “Historically, crusades begun in response to the murders of children have had terrible results.” When you have a high-profile death of a child. the pendulum swings radically in the direction of what is known as “foster care panic” — the tendency to lean heavily on removing children from their homes in large numbers, assuming that is the way to prevent future deaths.
Lepore quotes Maria Mossiades, director of the state Office of the Child Advocate. “Pull every kid,” is what she suspects Department of Children and Families workers were being told after Baby Bella was found. This reactive tendency focuses on removing more poor children from poor families — a war on poverty versus a war on abuse. Lepore says this approach is driven by this nation’s historical view of what is considered appropriate child rearing, a white middle-class model that is revealed in the extreme disparities of race and economic status of those who are removed from their homes.
The reports from Mossiades’s office on what happened in the Montgomery case, as in the case of another recent child fatality, David Almond, have included recommendations about fundamental changes to the way juvenile courts hear care and protection cases. Given her role, Mossiades has been uniquely positioned to do what the public cannot — have access to the court proceedings — and her narratives have understandably informed public and legislative perceptions and recommendations regarding the way cases are heard in court. The Legislature is in the process of creating a Harmony Montgomery Commission to consider reform ideas.
Should we dramatically change court practice to respond to the relatively few cases when a child dies, or should we adopt a public health model which encourages social workers to provide services and engage with families in their homes and communities? Courts are not designed to fix complicated social problems. By focusing on reactive responses, we are failing to participate in the important nationwide conversation regarding searing racial, ethnic, and income disparities that have been the foundation of what we euphemistically call child protection. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree, but we must first have access to the same sources of information to promote productive dialogue.
Testimony at last week’s legislative hearing included recommendations to blow up the way state intervention cases in Juvenile Court are heard. Those recommendations include moving away from client-directed advocacy for children, promoting the argument that parents’ rights are being elevated over children, and considering expanding mandatory reporting, which already disproportionately affects the poor and Black and brown families in allegations of neglect.
DCF is considering the use of empirically-based risk assessment tools, which may not be race neutral and pose the threat of making poverty a reason to lose custody of your children. Instead of focusing on court process and reporting why are we not discussing how provide resources to support children and families to avoid state intervention? Why, for example, has Massachusetts deferred participating in the federal Family First initiative, which would provide significant funding for supporting children and families in their homes?
Only 10 percent of DCF’s budget is allotted to family stabilization and support; the rest focuses on spending for out of home placement.
Hearings between private parties in Family and Probate Court regarding custody are different than state intervention cases in Juvenile Court. When the state seeks to take custody of a child in the Juvenile Court proceedings are necessarily adversarial. Some of the proposals to radically change Juvenile Court practice do not address the reality of constitutionally protected family liberty right. The state, represented by the Department of Children and Families, must prove by clear and convincing evidence that a legal guardian is unfit to parent prior to the court making any permanent custody order or terminating parental rights.
One of the more questionable ideas to reform Juvenile Court process would allow the Office of the Child Advocate to intervene at any stage of a care and protection proceeding (H. 156). It is DCF’s role to prove the case, and conferring this vague and unlimited authority in the Child Advocate is profoundly concerning. It is the judge’s responsibility, provided the burden of proof has been met, to decide what is in the child’s best interest. Role definition is important. If we are all focused on “best interest,” who gives voice to a child’s point of view?
Presumptively opening the doors to juvenile court as New York has done, while limiting access to sensitive material and records, allows judges to craft appropriate relief, balancing the public’s right to know with the privacy interests of children and others. This can include closing sessions and precluding access to sensitive material and the identities and records of parties.
Should we dramatically change court processes to respond to the relatively few cases when a child dies, or should we allow more access to thousands of cases that include mothers struggling to do everything they can to regain custody of their children? If the court were open, it would help the public understand the much broader scope of the actual issues facing children and families and, perhaps, understand the need for a new model of a proactive public health model of child protection.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s maxim that sunlight is the greatest disinfectant is apt. From his lips to the Legislature’s ears.
Jay Blitzman is a retired first justice of the Middlesex Division of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court.