Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Documentary filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein in his Harvard Square, Cambridge, offices, where he is preparing the film “Broken” for release. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The 2019 death of 5-year-old Harmony Montgomery inspired national headlines and raised questions of how Adam Montgomery, a felon with a violent history, was awarded custody of Harmony from the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families by a juvenile court. Harmony’s remains have yet to be found, and Montgomery is serving a 45-years-to-life sentence for her death. The unthinkable how and why such custody was granted is hard to discern, as the court holds sealed hearings and transcripts are “confidential and impounded,” as documentary filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein makes clear.

As part of his new film “Broken,” Lichtenstein has brought legal action against the DCF to get answers in the Harmony case and for other custody cases. Lichtenstein and his film’s subject, Brooke Lewitas, a graduate of the Boston University Department of Journalism, have won several access suits and hope to get the sealed documents in the Montgomery case.

Lichtenstein hails from the area, lives in Somerville and produces his films and radio documentaries out of an office suite abutting The Charles Hotel in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. His concern with the DCF and child welfare is nothing new. He wrote in Huffington Post in 2013 about the state of Massachusetts child care services and found that the state had one of the nation’s highest rates of abuse of foster children in the country, “nearly four times the national standard.” Doing research for “Broken,” Lichtenstein and Lewitas found that the problems remain.

Lichtenstein met Lewitas via a Facebook group set up to provide support for families affected by DCF cases. As Lewitas and Lichtenstein began to craft their project, a case unfolded before their eyes: Waltham’s Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins had their 4-month-old child Cal taken from them in the middle of the night by a social worker. “In Massachusetts,” Lichtenstein said, “if the court is closed, a social worker can remove a child from the home simply on their say. So they can do it without a court order, which seems counterintuitive to every constitutional right.” The case made national news and has become a centerpiece of “Broken.” Sabey, a filmmaker in his own right, filmed the traumatic extraction. Perkins is an English doctoral candidate at Brandeis University. The reason for the removal, Lichtenstein said, was that when Cal went to see a doctor for a fever, a chest X-ray found a rib contusion. Health care workers broke protocol to contact the state; after an investigation, Cal was allowed to go home – but the social worker later had second thoughts.

Lichtenstein and Brooke Lewitas, right, conduct an interview for the documentary. (Photo: Broken)

Lichtenstein, forever a Bostonian at heart, worked at the hip classic-rock radio station WBCN-FM as a teen before attending Brown University and later made the 2019 documentary “WBCN and the American Revolution.” He studied journalism at Columbia University and worked for many years in New York City as part of ABC’s “20/20” investigative journalism team.

“Broken” is in post-production pending the result of the Montgomery lawsuit, after which Lichtenstein plans to put the film on the festival circuit and is in conversations to have it air on public television. But it needs more backing to be ready for release.

The film gets a fundraiser Friday at the City Winery in Boston, where local legend Livingston Taylor will perform. Amusing to Lichtenstein is that Taylor was the voice behind a jingle for one of the first local ads that ran on WBCN when the young Lichtenstein toiled there. Now Taylor is staunchly behind the cause of the film.

“This has gone on for 50 years,” Lichtenstein says of the DCF and its “sealed” transcripts. “And no one really knows.The biggest contributing factor is that it’s all secret. There’s just no way to know. Every story that’s written has the requisite graph that says ’We called DCF,’ but they can’t even confirm it. You look at the Sabey case and you just know this is wrong and there’s zero accountability.”