WINTER 2019: Dealing with DCF- Understanding the Basics and Interplay of DCF with Family Law (Part 1)

By Alissa E. Brill, Esq.

Your client receives the dreaded call or letter from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) that he/she or another caregiver for their child is being investigated for abuse or neglect. What does this mean? What comes next? How, as attorneys, can we assist our clients in navigating the DCF maze? Can a supported decision be appealed? How, if at all, is this going to affect their case in Probate & Family Court?

While no one case is the same, DCF workers must follow a set of extensive policies and regulations (all of which can be found online)1 in how they go about doing their job. While reading hundreds of pages of dry, legalese might not be your idea of a fun afternoon, the following is a summary- based off of the regulations/policies themselves and experience working on behalf of clients with DCF- that can hopefully make the letters D-C-F seem less daunting when next uttered by your client.

In this two-part series, Part I will walk through the initial intake, DCF investigation, and DCF decision/requesting reports from DCF. Part II, in the next newsletter, will discuss the grievance process/fair hearing process and the interplay of DCF with Family & Probate Court.

Setting the Scene: 51A Intake

M.G.L. c. 119, §51A and 110 CMR 4.20-4.28 govern the initial report received by DCF, more commonly called a “51A,” as well as the intake screening process.

If a mandated reporter has reasonable cause to believe a child under the age of 18 is suffering from abuse and/or neglect, they must make an oral report to DCF.2 Mandated reporters include doctors, nurses, social workers, mental health professionals, police officers, teachers and clergy. Within 48 hours of making the oral report, a mandated reporter must complete and send a written report to the applicable local DCF Area Office.3

Anyone, including mandated reporters, can place a call to report abuse and/or neglect during regular business hours (8:45am to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday) to the appropriate DCF area office that services the city/town where the child lives and can place a call after hours to the statewide Child-At-Risk Hotline (1-800-792-5200).

The DCF screener will ask a series of questions to gather information for the 51A intake report. Based upon the allegation(s) and information provided, the intake will be either “screened in” or “screened out” based upon the intake screener’s consultation with an intake supervisor. 4 If screened out, your client would likely not even know DCF was ever called. If screened in, the intake can be screened in for an emergency response or a non-emergency response.5 A referral may be made immediately to the District Attorney’s office, depending on the allegation. If screened in, the case will then be transferred over to a DCF response worker, responsible for completing an investigation of the report received.

DCF action taken in regards to an emergency response is more commonly the one you hear about where DCF then goes to Juvenile Court to try to obtain custody of the child. For the purposes of this article, I will be focusing on the more likely situation for your client of a non-emergency response.

51B Investigation

DCF’s investigation is commonly referred to as the “51B investigation.” M.G.L. c. 119, §51B and 110 CMR 4.26- 4.31 govern the investigation by DCF.

A “Notice of Response” letter is supposed to be provided to the parent(s)/caretaker(s) of the child for whom a 51A report has been received. The letter includes a table stating the child’s name, allegation and caregiver associated with the allegation. The letter is signed by the DCF response worker assigned to investigate the matter. It is supposed to be provided to the parent(s)/caretaker(s) at the time of first contact.

The DCF response worker must meet the child who is the subject of the investigation and visit the child’s home within 3 working days after the screening decision, unless the alleged abuse occurred outside the home.7 The parent(s) and other individuals living in the home with the child are also visited at least once, and the initial visit is also supposed to take place within 3 working days after the screening decision.8 A parent who does not live with the child is to be contacted at least once.9 In addition to meeting with the child and parent(s)/caregiver(s) for the child, the DCF response worker will contact the reporter, check past DCF files and may contact collaterals (i.e. child’s doctor, police department) to gather additional important information. The DCF response worker, based on what is discovered during the investigation, may choose to screen in any additional concern/allegation.

Typically, the parent will be contacted directly by the response worker to set up a time to meet. If an interpreter is needed, the parent/caregiver is entitled to have an interpreter at the meeting, which DCF is responsible for providing. At the meeting with the DCF response worker, the parent/caregiver may have an advocate present. This advocate can be a friend, family member, or possibly an attorney. The DCF response worker will typically go over the allegation(s) from the intake and ask the parent a series of questions. If the allegation is one of abuse, DCF recommends that the alleged perpetrator does not try to see the child during the course of the investigation. The parent, or their advocate, can contact and submit documentation to the DCF response worker through the course of the investigation. In order to communicate with DCF as an advocate, DCF may require the parent to complete an authorization form so that you may communicate with them and vice versa.

The DCF response worker is supposed to determine: (a) the existence, nature, extent and cause or causes of the alleged abuse or neglect; (b) the identity of the person or persons alleged to be responsible therefor, if possible; (c) the name, age and condition of all other children in the same household; and (d) all other pertinent facts or matters which in the opinion of the investigator are necessary to support or unsupport the allegation which was reported to the Department.10

DCF’s Decision/Requesting Reports

DCF’s investigation is supposed to be completed within 15 working days following the receipt of the intake.11 After completion, DCF makes a determination whether the allegations are “supported”, “unsupported” or if there is “substantiated concern.” All decisions are reviewed by the response worker’s supervisor.

A decision to “support” an allegation means that there is “reasonable cause to believe that an incident…of abuse or neglect by a caretaker did occur.”12 In reaching a decision, the DCF response worker considers: direct disclosure by the child(ren) or caretaker, physical evidence of injury/harm, observable behavioral indicators, corroboration by collaterals and the DCF response worker/supervisor’s clinical base of knowledge.13 DCF will then open a case for assessment and action planning with the family or, if there is already an open case, will inform the ongoing worker and update any service plan accordingly.

A decision to “substantiate concern” an allegation means there is “reasonable cause to believe” that a child was neglected and that the “actions/inactions of parent(s)/caregiver(s) create potential for abuse or neglect but there is no immediate danger to child’s safety or well-being.14 DCF will take the same steps to work with the family as a supported decision. The construct of “substantiated concern” is a recent one by DCF; it is not discussed in DCF’s regulations as a potential outcome as that part of 110 CMR has not been updated since 2009. I have seen a decision of “substantiated concern” only pertain to allegations of neglect and for reasons such as the child getting caught in the middle of a tensious divorce/custody battle or possible parental alienation/parent coaching the child.

If DCF supported or substantiated concern of any allegation, DCF will then continue services for the family through an assessment process which will culminate in an action plan, formerly known as a service plan; the case will be turned over to an ongoing worker to work with the family through the assessment process and to develop an action plan.15

A decision to “unsupport” an allegation means there is not reasonable cause to believe a child was abused and/or neglected or that the person believed to be responsible for the abuse or neglect is not a parent/caregiver for that child. 16

DCF’s decision, regardless of the outcome, is provided in the form of a letter to the parent(s)/caregiver(s) and to the reporter of the 51A, if the reporter is a mandated reporter. 17 If your client respected the recommendation of DCF to not try to see their child during the course of the investigation, even if an allegation of abuse and/or neglect is supported or there is substantiated concern, this does not constitute any order that the parent/caregiver responsible cannot see their child again; only a court order can change custody or the parenting plan.

Among other information, all of the DCF response worker’s communications and notes from their investigation will be compiled into a report titled “Child Abuse/Neglect Non-Emergency Response,” commonly referred to as the “51B report.” This report, as well as the 51A intake report, can be requested by any parent or caregiver by sending a letter including information about the child/person requesting the reports, and sending to the attention of the DCF Area Office’s Area Director. The letter must be signed by the parent/caregiver, but it can direct that the reports be sent to a person of their choosing, i.e. an attorney. The records produced by DCF will be redacted; information about the 51A reporter and certain other identifying information will be blacked out. Each area office handles the records requests slightly differently, and it is therefore important to check in periodically with the designated records person at the area office if the records are not received within several weeks.

This concludes Part I of “Dealing with DCF.” Part II, in the next newsletter, will discuss the grievance process/fair hearing process and the interplay of DCF with Family & Probate Court.

Alissa E. Brill is an associate at Kajko, Weisman & Colasanti, LLP, which she joined in May 2018. Prior to that, she was a staff attorney at the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association doing family law and guardianship matters. Her practice is devoted to all aspects of domestic relations.


1 Available at: https://www.mass.gov/dcf-policies.
2 “A Mandated Reporter’s Guide: Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting,” Massachusetts Department of Children & Families, last updated February 28, 2016, available at: https://www.mass.gov/how-to/report-child-abuse-or-neglect.
3 Id.
4 110 CMR 4.21.
5 110 CMR 4.25.
6 110 CMR 4.27(4).
7 110 CMR 4.27(1).
8 110 CMR 4.27(2).
9 Id.
10 110 CMR 4.27(6).
11 110 CMR 4.31(2).
12 110 CMR 4.32(2).
13 110 CMR 4.32(2).
14 “Actions DCF takes when child abuse or neglect is reported,” Massachusetts Department of Children & Families, last update unknown, available at: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/actions-dcf-takes-when-child-abuse-or-neglect-is-reported.
15 Department of Children and Families, Policy #2017-01 (Family Assessment and Action Planning Policy), effective February 6, 2017, available at: https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2018/03/05/Family_Assessment_and_Action_Planning_Policy.pdf.
16 Id.
17 110 CMR 4.32(3),(4).