T he disappearance of a little girl from Manchester and the death of a little boy from Merrimack are prompting questions about who is looking out for the youngest Granite Staters.
No system exists to keep track of children before they enter school, and children fall off the radar as their families move from one town or state to another or grapple with homelessness, substance abuse or custody battles.
If a child does not enter school, or is not registered, no state system rings alarm bells or raises red flags, said outgoing New Hampshire Child Advocate Moira O’Neill.
Instead, O’Neill said, the responsibility for the safety of little kids in New Hampshire lies with all of us. O’Neill’s office provides oversight for the state’s child protection agency, the Division of Children, Youth and Families. The division receives 20,000 reports of abuse and neglect every year. They investigate about 8,000.
“Everyone is so outraged about this. How can this happen?” O’Neill said. “I really believe the only solution is relationships, people looking out for each other.”
In moments like this, when there is heightened interest in and scrutiny of the systems that exist to keep children safe, it’s easy to say there should be a way to make sure children, especially from at-risk families, are safe.
But cases like the death of Elijah Lewis and the disappearance of Harmony Montgomery are exceedingly rare.
The search for Harmony, last seen in Manchester in 2019 when she was 5, has gripped the state. The girl was not reported missing to police until two years after she was last seen.
The still-murky case already has led to child endangerment charges for her father, fraud charges for her stepmother and a nearly $100,000 reward for information — but still no sign of the little blond girl, who would be 7.
Elijah, 5, was reported missing in October, after relatives had not seen him for six months. The search for the little boy ended in a park in Massachusetts, where his body was found buried.
An autopsy found he died after violence and neglect, including injuries to his face and scalp, fentanyl intoxication, malnourishment and bed sores.
His mother and the mother’s boyfriend are being held on witness-tampering charges, but no one has been charged in what the medical examiner ruled a homicide.
Despite the concerns raised in these cases, families’ day-to-day right to privacy would certainly win out over any effort at tracking children to make sure they enroll in school or begin a homeschool program by the time state law requires them to around age 6.
“There’s nothing really guaranteed to track kids,” O’Neill said. “It’s really just hoping parents or guardians are hooking kids up with the health care and the schools they need, and neighbors and communities are keeping an eye on them.”
The safety nets
School is most often the place where abuse and neglect are noted, with more adults sharing responsibility for children. That means children too young to attend school can be at more risk of abuse and neglect. O’Neill said most of the injuries and deaths of children reported to the state are among pre-school-aged children.
“School is largely the safety net for kids,” she said.
As the pandemic began and children were sent home from schools, the Office of the Child Advocate publicized the need for people outside of school to keep an eye on children. Without regular interaction at school, more could be at risk, O’Neill said.
But even without a pandemic, it would not be hard for a child to fall off the radar, especially as families change towns or states.
School records don’t always follow a child who moves. Medical records don’t always get transferred, assuming the child is getting health care at all.
In some instances, records from Medicaid — the insurance program for low-income people and those with disabilities — might be one way to track a child through moves. But again, O’Neill said, that is assuming a family is taking a child to the doctor in the first place.
Substance-use disorders — not just the use of illicit drugs, she noted, but alcoholism — invite dysfunction into a family. Like any mental health disorder, O’Neill said, substance-use disorders make it more difficult for parents and caregivers to take care of themselves, let alone children.
Substance use is a major factor among the majority of families involved with DCYF, O’Neill said.
Not enough channels
Families working through custody disputes also often call the division or the Office of the Child Advocate. But O’Neill said custody issues go through the state court system, not DCYF.
For example, O’Neill said, if one parent lost custody because of a child safety issue, the court would outline steps toward visitation, shared custody or reunification of a parent and children.
But not all cases go through the formal channels. Some families or children find themselves couch-surfing — staying with relatives or friends in informal arrangements.
With all these factors at play, O’Neill said the best way to keep children safe is to build relationships in your neighborhood, on your block, in your town.
Meet your neighbors’ children, friends’ children, children of people you often encounter in your day-to-day life. Learn their names and get to know the little humans in your area, she advised. Ask how they are, how they’re doing in school.
She worries a cultural tendency toward isolation and guardedness is making these kinds of interactions more difficult and rare, O’Neill said, but that doesn’t mean people should turn their backs on their communities.
The benefits go far beyond preventing tragedy, she said. There’s plenty of research to show children do better in school and in life, O’Neill said, when they feel connected to their communities.
“The solution is in people caring about each other.”