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$50 million planned to better protect kids in state custody

Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, along with Gov. Charlie Baker, during a press conference at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Nov. 18, 2020. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, along with Gov. Charlie Baker, during a press conference at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Nov. 18, 2020. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders linked a $50 million outlay in the supplemental budget the Baker administration filed last week to the case of missing child Harmony Montgomery and other children who become involved with the state court system.

The $2.4 billion spending bill (H 4479) that Gov. Charlie Baker filed on Friday includes $50 million to recruit, train and pay guardian ad litems within the Massachusetts court system and a policy proposal to mandate the appointment of a guardian ad litem in every alleged child abuse or neglect case that works through the 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 supports for children that come before the courts," Sudders said in a statement after Baker filed the bill. "With this funding, we take a step in the right direction to ensuring children have a voice in the courtroom that is advocating singularly for their best interests and well-being at all times throughout the court proceedings."

Harmony Montgomery, who was last seen in 2019, was under DCF care when a Juvenile Court judge in February 2019 granted custody of her to her biological father, Adam Montgomery, a New Hampshire man with a long criminal record. That decision has become a flashpoint between Massachusetts and New Hampshire as child welfare and law enforcement officials in both states search for the young girl.

Bay State officials said that lawyers provided by the court for a child currently represent and advocate for the child's wishes. A guardian ad litem, however, is charged with investigating the case themselves and advocating for the child's best interests, which may not always align with what the child wants. Guardian ad litems are already in use in Massachusetts, but only in select cases when the court decides to appoint one.

"Our view was [that] we should literally make this service and this representation available to every kid who's going to court who's part of the DCF system and we filed the resources to pay for it. And we tied the rate those folks get paid to the same rate that the [Committee for Public Counsel Services] lawyers get paid," Baker said during an unrelated press conference Wednesday morning. "But I really hope the Legislature adopts this. I think we believe that this could be one more appropriate and important way to make sure that the interests of the child are best represented when they're in court."

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