Department of Children & Families (DCF)


Massachusetts state flaf


Provides DCF policies, procedures, a family’s guide, departmental publications, and more.

Statutes & Regulations

Child Abuse & Neglect

The definitions used by DCF and family court in child protective matters.

The rules used by DCF to require mandated reporting — that is, a report by a non-anonymous person in their professional capacity — and to describe the report which must be made by that person, called a 51A.  If a mandated reporter knows or has “reasonable cause to believe that a child is suffering from physical or emotional injury resulting” from abuse or neglect, he or she is legally required to file a 51A report.  The law, enacted in 1973, specifically includes “physical dependence upon an addictive drug at birth” as a circumstance that must be reported to the state.

A 51B is the report made by the DCF caseworker with her assessment or investigation of the allegations, which states whether the alleged abuse and/or neglect in the 51A report is “substantiated” or “supported” (found to be true), the level of risk to the child or children, and recommendations for further services (voluntary or required) and/or removal of children from the home.  During the investigation, the caseworker usually visits the family home, and she must make “collateral contacts” with persons known to the family, including teachers, doctors, and other professionals.  Investigations and assessments must be started within two working days of receiving the report and completed within fifteen working days.


Administrative Appeals and Records

DCF maintains records of every 51A report filed by any mandated or non-mandated reporter, even when the allegations of the report are ultimately found to be untrue, or they cannot be proven (See 110 Mass. Code Regs. 4.23).  Records regarding substantiated reports are kept until the child turns 18.  Records regarding unsubstantiated reports are expunged after one year, unless the family involved has been the subject of additional 51A reports.

A custodial parent who disagrees with a “supported” finding of child abuse or neglect can file for a fair hearing within 30 days after DCF’s notification of the finding.  DCF will then have 20 days to review the request, and may attempt to negotiate with the family to avoid a hearing.  If unable to resolve the dispute, DCF must schedule a fair hearing within 90 days of the initial request.  A fair hearing is not a court proceeding, and is presided over not by a judge, but by the agency’s hearing officer.  The parent or caregiver may be represented by a lawyer at the hearing, but it is not required.  If, after the fair hearing, the parent or caregiver wishes to further challenge DCF’s finding, he or she may seek review by a judge under § 14 of the state’s Administrative Procedures Act.


Juvenile Court Proceedings

If DCF at any point has “reasonable cause to believe” that a child is suffering “serious abuse or neglect,” that removal of the child from the home is necessary to avoid the risk of “death or serious physical injury,” and that there is insufficient time to seek a court order, DCF is permitted to remove the child from the home on an emergency basis.  After doing so, DCF must petition the juvenile court under § 24 for an emergency order transferring custody of the child to DCF or a licensed childcare provider.  This initial proceeding takes place “ex parte,” meaning that there is no requirement that the child’s parent or guardian be present.  However, if the emergency order is granted by the juvenile court based on DCF’s petition, the parent(s) or guardian(s) of the child must be notified and summoned to appear at what is called the “72-hour hearing.”

These laws governs the 72-hour hearing following emergency removal.  Here, the juvenile court decides whether the emergency order granting temporary custody of the child to DCF should be extended beyond 72 hours.  The child’s parent(s) or legal guardian(s) have the right to be represented by an attorney at this hearing, and both the parent and DCF can present evidence.  If the court decides that the child is in need of care and protection, the court may issue any appropriate order regarding custody, supervision, medical care, and other matters if the order is in the “best interests” of the child.  In order to continue the child’s commitment to DCF custody, the court must make a written certification under § 29C stating that the child’s continued presence in the home is “contrary to his best interests,” and must evaluate whether DCF has made “reasonable efforts” to prevent or eliminate the need for removal.  The standard in creating court orders is always the “best interest” of the child, as determined by the court.  If a parent disagrees with the determination of the child’s “best interests,” he or she has the right to petition the court for a review and redetermination every six months.  If the child remains in DCF custody 12 months after after the initial commitment order, the same court must hold a “permanency hearing,” and issue a final order and permanent disposition.

A juvenile court that finds a child to be in need of care and protection generally must inform the child’s parent(s) or legal guardian(s) when DCF has petitioned for any changes to the child’s custody, guardianship, or adoption.  The court must consider a long list of factors to determine whether or not the parent’s consent is required to proceed with an adoption or other custody disposition.  If the court decides to dispense with the required consent, this has the legal affect of terminating the parent or guardian’s right to be notified and/or give consent for the child to be adopted or have custody transferred.  A parent whose rights have been terminated under this section cannot request a review and redetermination of the child’s “best interests” under § 26.  Included in the list of factors are the length of time that the child has been in DCF custody, whether the child has “formed a strong, positive bond with a substitute caregiver,” and whether the parent “suffers from a condition that is reasonably likely to continue for a prolonged [and] indeterminate period, such as alcohol or drug addiction.”

An order of commitment made by the juvenile court under § 26 (following the 72-hour hearing) may be appealed directly to the Massachusetts Appeals Court within 30 days of the order being filed.  This process is separate from the administrative Fair Hearing process by which a parent can challenge DCF’s decision to support a finding of child abuse or neglect.


State Marijuana Laws



Passed by voters in 2008, this law removed criminal penalties for possession of less than one ounce by adults in Massachusetts. Now, the offense is only a civil violation, punishable by $100 citation (though some towns have increased the fine for public use to $300-500).  People under the age of 18 must have their parents notified and do community service, as well as receive drug awareness counseling or have the fine increased to $1000.  The law also went beyond decriminalizing, providing that the offense of petty marijuana possession cannot be used as the basis for civil penalties, such as “to deny an offender student financial aid, public housing or any form of public financial assistance including unemployment benefits, to deny the right to operate a motor vehicle or to disqualify an offender from serving as a foster parent or adoptive parent.”  Nevertheless, parents already in custody of their children are not specifically protected.  For an analysis of Massachusetts marijuana reform and child protective services, see this article in the Northeastern University Law Journal by our co-founder.


 Medical Marijuana

There are no specific provisions for protection of pregnant women, parents, or legal guardians who are medical marijuana patients.  However, general protections for qualifying patients and personal caregivers are included in § 4, which states that they “shall not be subject to arrest or prosecution, or civil penalty, for the medical use of marijuana,” as long as in possession of no more than a sixty-day supply, and can present his or her registration card to law enforcement upon request.  For an analysis of Massachusetts marijuana reform and child protective services, see this article in the Northeastern University Law Journal by our co-founder.


All Massachusetts Laws & Penalties (NORML)

Last updated: April 17, 2014 at 20:56 pm


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