March 2, 2024

The Massachusetts Department of Children & Families (“DCF”) is the so-called child protective agency for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The powers of DCF are broad, but they are not unlimited. There are a myriad of reasons DCF may be calling you or knocking on your door. The steps you take to address this contact early will likely set the tone for what happens next.

First, take a deep breath. Relax. Massachusetts has a very broad mandated reporter requirement. Your child’s pediatrician, the nurses and physician’s assistants in that office, the teachers at your child’s school, the staff at their day-care, the police, and others all have an obligation to report to DCF if they see or suspect imminent abuse or neglect. The observation may be as benign as a small unexplained bruise that was caused on the playground or as serious as a burn which appears intentionally inflicted. What may constitute neglect is especially subjective, and one provider may report something another provider would not ever consider neglectful (reported spanking of a child is a good example of this). The report may also arise anonymously, from something your child said to a school official, or from a vindictive ex-romantic partner or a well-meaning but overly imaginative neighbor. Just because DCF is contacting you does not mean that it credits the report or that you are in any trouble. As the child protective agency of the Commonwealth, with some exceptions, DCF is mandated to conduct an investigation into those reports, which will likely mean interviewing you and your children.

Second, don’t destroy anything. If you think an e-mail, document, photograph, video, or some other item is incriminating or otherwise unhelpful, the instinct may be to get rid of it. Don’t. First, you don’t yet know what the precise allegation is, even when you think you do, and you may guess wrong. Something on that photo or video may prove to be helpful to you later. Keep it and review it with your attorney. Second, DCF may already have the item, and indicating that it does not exist when they know it does will not help you in the long run. Don’t turn anything over to DCF you are unsure about, but do not destroy it and do show it to your lawyer and obtain her/his advice about how to proceed.

If the thing you are accused of is a crime, whether it is true or not, be aware that the things you say to DCF during the course of the investigation may be used against you in a future criminal prosecution. In such cases, it is best to remain silent until you have discussed those issues with an attorney.

If you don’t have a family lawyer, or cannot afford one, be as cooperative as you reasonably can, and as honest as you safely can (with due consideration to any future criminal prosecution), without forgetting that DCF may not necessarily have your best interests at heart in this situation. Do not raise your voice to, do not curse at, do not threaten, do not ignore the DCF worker who contacts you. Try to think of them as just public employees doing what they see as their jobs, even when you don’t agree with them. For the most part, that is what they are. Very, very few have a personal interest in causing you or your family any disruption, even when it does not feel so at the time. If you do any of those other things, you are likely to make a bad situation much worse. Ignoring them rarely causes them to go away. If you don’t want to speak with them, or let them into your home, let them know in writing that you do not wish to talk or to let them in, but that they can feel free to ask you things in writing. But as we said, in most cases you should not expect they will simply go away.

If the allegation is serious, and there is some possibility that DCF will remove your children from your home, attempt to find a family member with a clean record and a stable living situation who would be willing to serve as a foster parent as soon as possible. When removals do occur, they are abrupt, and you would like to have a place to direct DCF to as a temporary placement which will have the least impact on the children, and in turn, on you. You want those friends or family members to be ready for DCF’s call.

We always advise clients to temporarily take down their social media accounts and not to post anything during the period of the investigation. It may feel good to vent about DCF, or the person you think called them on your family, but nothing good can come of that. Take your social media accounts down for a while and do not post anything. This will pass and you can go back to them later.

If you have a personal or family lawyer, contact them immediately. If you can afford it, you should have an experienced attorney help you communicate with and meet with DCF. It often helps to diffuse the situation.

What Happens Next?

Except in what it sees as an emergency, DCF will want to interview you and your children. If DCF thinks it is an “emergency” it will remove your children from your custody, in most cases with nearly no warning (and often with a police escort) and you will be given a court date to appear before a judge to ask for them back. A lawyer experienced in these kinds of issues will be appointed to represent you in that court hearing, in most cases. If the children remain your custody, and DCF wants to interview them, try to obtain an attorney to help you with this process. If you cannot afford an attorney, use your best judgment and always be aware that what you say and how you behave during the interview process can have a big impact on what DCF decides to do next.

Recap

If DCF contacts you:

  1. Try to obtain the advice of an experienced attorney right away who can help you assess the situation and help you to respond;
  2. Do not threaten or raise your voice to the DCF employee who contacts you, that never helps;
  3. Do not destroy anything, keep it to review with your attorney, even if you have to wait until the court appoints one if DCF takes temporary custody of your child;
  4. If DCF removes your children from your custody during the investigation, try to have a family member or friend ready ahead of time with whom the children may stay temporarily;
  5. Work with the lawyer you hire or who is appointed to represent you – they are on your side.

Final Thoughts

We have been in public housing units, market rate apartments, small homes, and what we consider mansions with families facing a DCF investigation. With few exceptions, those families were ashamed that this had happened to them and thought they were the only people this kind of thing had happened to. You are not alone. In 2022, DCF received 91,427 such reports and investigated nearly all. https://www.mass.gov/doc/fy-2022/download. And you can survive this experience with your family intact, as did the vast majority of those other 91,427 families. We would be happy to assist.

The information in this article is not legal advice and you should not rely on it as such. The specific facts of each situation can result in vastly different outcomes from one case to another. If you have questions about this area of the law, and how it may apply to your specific circumstance, please consult with a lawyer. I would be happy to discuss specific questions with you and you should feel free to contact us

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