The most depressing thing about reading the 100-page report detailing how so many people and systems failed Harmony Montgomery, the 7-year-old girl who disappeared in a vortex of malign neglect on either side of the Massachusetts and New Hampshire border, is the sinking feeling that this nation stands on the cusp of producing the conditions that could lead to more cases like hers.
The report, prepared by Maria Mossaides, director of the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate, documented how the state’s child welfare system failed Harmony at every level, something that had to be true if a 7-year-old is allowed to simply fall off the face of the earth, not seen by anyone with an ounce of responsibility or conscience for two years.
Perhaps the most shocking detail in the report is that a Massachusetts judge awarded custody of the then 4-year-old Harmony to her father after he had spent a grand total of 40 hours with her in those previous years during supervised visits, some in prison where he doing time for shooting a guy.
Harmony was a beautiful, loving child who deserved every right to be born, to be cared for, to be allowed to grow up and go to school and and live a healthy, productive life. That she was not allowed such a life is scandalous, an indictment of government and civil society in two states.
She had the misfortune of being born to parents who had two of the risk factors for raising children who are neglected. First, they were poor. Second, they had histories of substance abuse. On top of that, her father had a violent criminal history.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, abortion will be outlawed in 21 states, most of which have among the worst economic and health outcomes for children. So the states that do the lousiest job in providing for kids after they’re born will have a lot more kids.
The draft opinion that suggests the Supreme Court is about to overturn 50 years of precedent that protected a woman’s right to abortion hinges on a case out of Mississippi. Mississippi has the highest rate of child poverty and overall poverty in the nation. If there is one way to make child poverty worse, it would be to force more poor women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, and it will be poor and vulnerable women who bear the brunt of outlawing abortion.
Poverty, it should be stressed, is only a risk factor for neglect. Poor people typically take care of their children with the same love and attention as parents of means. But poverty increases the risk for child neglect, especially when it’s combined with depression, social isolation, and substance abuse. Some researchers have found that the burdens of poverty, such as homelessness or living in a motel, can even be mistaken for and unfairly labeled as neglect.
Poverty is not the only reason vulnerable children disappear in so-called care systems. While the Massachusetts child welfare system failed Harmony Montgomery miserably, she disappeared from New Hampshire, which has the lowest overall poverty rate in the United States. Both New Hampshire and Massachusetts have among the lowest rates of child poverty in the country.
So it’s not just about poverty but about what we do as a civil society to make sure a parent is able to provide for their child, and to find safe alternatives when they can’t. Mississippi is hardly leading the way on those fronts, and it is maddening to think it is leading the country to outlaw a right that the vast majority of Americans support.
Many of those who believe life begins at the moment of conception support politicians who act as if their responsibility for ensuring that life has reasonable prospects ends at the moment of birth.
If the Supreme Court outlaws abortion, it will all but guarantee that situations like that which befell Harmony Montgomery will become more common, and not remain the horrible aberrations they should always be.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]