Updated: Oct 11, 2019
The first interaction you will likely have with the Department of Children and Families ("DCF") is a phone call or notice that a 51A report was filed against you or someone in your household. This is, understandably, one of the toughest things a parent can go through. It is hard to know what to say and how to keep track of meetings on top of meetings. As such, it is important to consult with a Massachusetts DCF Defense attorney.
So, what exactly IS a 51A report?
When a person suspects that a child may be abused or neglected at home, they can contact DCF and provide information about the family and any alleged incident in the form of a 51A report. Some people, such as school officials, are mandated reporters -- this means that they have to report suspicions of abuse or neglect.
When DCF receives information from reporter (whether mandated or not), they have two options:
1. Screen in, and investigate further; or
2. Screen out, and close the file.
Per the Department of Children and Families, the screening process may involve getting information from the reporter, checking social media, talking to people who know the family, reaching out to local police, running CORI/SORI checks and determining whether DCF has been involved with the family in the past.
If, after talking to the reporter and screening the case, DCF believes there is "immediate concern" for the child's safety/well-being, and that a parent or caregiver could be a cause of that concern, they will screen in the report on an emergency or non-emergency basis.
What happens when a 51A Report is 'Screened in'?
If the Department screens the report IN, it may do so on an emergency basis (requiring an immediate emergency response) or a non-emergency basis (requiring a less urgent response). Generally, this is the stage where parents first interact with The Department and learn that a 51A report exists.
Soon, DCF begins its 51B investigation to determine whether the Department "supports" an allegation of neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse of a child. The 51B stage is much more comprehensive than the 51A stage and as such, takes longer than the initial 51A "screen-in."
How will I know DCF is investigating me for abuse or neglect?
Outside of any phone calls and visits from DCF social workers, much to the family's chagrin, the Department will send the parent(s) or caretaker(s) a "Notice of Response" letter stating the child's name, the parent or caretaker's relationship to the child, the nature of the allegation (abuse or neglect) and the parent or caregiver associated with the allegation of abuse or neglect.
The addressee of the Notice of Response is not necessarily the parent or caregiver associated with the allegation. For example: If John files a 51A report against Fred and Wilma due to Fred's rage issues and yelling, and the Department screens it in, Wilma will get a Notice of Response notwithstanding her patience and excellent caregiving of Pebbles. This is understandably traumatic and upsetting for parents and caregivers, which is one reason why it is smart to consult with an attorney who can give parents (1) a realistic idea of what to expect; and (2) a strong defense to any allegations of abuse or neglect.
Along with sending the Notice, DCF should schedule a time to meet with the parent(s) or caregiver(s). Most times, this meeting happens in the home. This meeting marks a critical stage in the case, because anything the parent or caregiver says or does during the meeting will end up in the the Department's 51B report.
I am a good parent! Can't I tell DCF the truth without having an attorney?
The short answer to this is: yes, but it is more complicated than you think. As a legal professional who cares about child welfare, I like to think that DCF social workers are fair and only want to ensure children's physical and emotional needs are being met by their parent(s) or caregiver(s). Most of the time, DCF social workers are people who went to college and started work for the Department wanting to help other people and make a difference.
Nonetheless, no one is perfect. 51A reports, regardless of their truthfulness, can sound damning to parents and caregivers, and terrifying for the children involved. It is critical that DCF investigate claims of child abuse or neglect, so that it can be sure children are safe before they close the case. Since DCF's contact with parents and caregivers is brief at this stage, social workers pay close attention to what parents say and how they act.
If you have been accused of child abuse or child neglect, you might think talking is a good idea -- and a good amount of talking, might I add! The problem is, even if you are a great parent and on top of your child's needs 24/7, seemingly innocuous statements about your life can lead to negative consequences in your DCF case.
If you are a nervous talker, you might disclose:
* A previous drug or alcohol problem;
* Mental health issues (previous or current);
* Criminal activity;
* Anger issues;
* Interactions between you and the child that may raise the DCF social worker's eyebrow;
* A history of domestic violence.
Before you know it, that seemingly small and honest statement lands in the DCF 51B report. At worst, it raises the social worker's concerns, and DCF uses the statement to support a finding of abuse, a finding of neglect, or a "substantiated concern" finding.
If the Department supports an abuse or neglect finding, or finds a "substantiated concern," DCF will create a service plan (a.k.a a "Family Action Plan") and may use that statement to dictate what tasks you need to complete. Are you a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 10 years? DCF might want you to start A.A. meetings again and go to therapy. Were you a victim of domestic violence in a past relationship? DCF might want you to attend weekly therapy to address past trauma, regardless of how well you are holding up.
Because of the far-reaching consequences of your first interactions with DCF as a parent or caregiver, it is critical to have a designated person there to take notes. A friend, family member, or neighbor can easily handle this part of the investigation process. A DCF Defense attorney in Massachusetts can take this support a step further, and prevent these concerning statements from impacting your family and your life. DCF defense attorneys and family law attorneys with DCF experience know what statements could be detrimental and can:
(1) Prevent you from stating them; or
(2) Mitigate the harmful consequences of making these statements.
Stay tuned to Part 2 of this Guide for more information on 51B investigations and parental rights during such investigations.
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