Massachusetts – Know Your Rights
The protection of children has become a very important issue today. We see frequent news reports about children who have been harmed by their parents or by others, children who are raising themselves because of their parents’ substance abuse and so on. As a result of these reports, laws were passed to protect children. Sometimes attempts to carry out these laws threaten the rights of parents and families. This pamphlet was prepared to help parents and other caregivers understand what their rights are when DCF is investigating them concerning possible abuse or neglect of a child.
What is The Department of Children and Families?
The Department of Children and Families (DCF) used to be the Department of Social Services (DSS). It is the state agency responsible for protecting children and helping troubled families. DCF does the following:
- Investigates all reports that a child may be at risk of abuse or neglect.
- Provides services to help families in trouble. You can ask for these services on your own. DCF can also ask you to accept services as a condition of letting your children remain in your home.
- Goes to Court to get permission to remove children from their home if DCF believes that the children are at risk of abuse or neglect. The Court can order you to accept services from DCF as a condition before getting your children back.
- Is also a licensed child placement agency and can place children in foster care, voluntarily or though a court order.
- Arranges for the adoption of children.
How does DCF find out about my family?
In Massachusetts, anyone can report anyone else to DCF for suspected child abuse or neglect. There need not be any actual abuse or neglect, just information leading DCF to suspect that a child is at risk. “Abuse” occurs when a child has been harmed by someone who is caring for the child. “Neglect” occurs when a child is not properly cared for, for example, not fed or clothed adequately. These reports, known as “51A” reports, are frequently made by angry neighbors or ex-spouses. Many people such as teachers, daycare workers, doctors, nurses, and social workers are required by law to report. Reports from other people may be anonymous. If a report has not been filed, you may go to DCF yourself, voluntarily seeking help for family problems. Once DCF receives a report, it begins an investigation. The report may be investigated within 24 hours if it is an emergency, within 10 days if it is not.
Can DCF take my children if I don’t know about the 51A?
If the report describes an emergency, DCF may present the 51A to a judge and obtain permission to take your children away from you without notifying you beforehand. If this emergency procedure is used, you may not hear about the 51A report until the police come with the social worker to remove your children. If that happens, you should call your local DCF office to find out when they intend to go to court. You should to go court at that time. Sometimes, DCF goes to court immediately after taking the children. Once you go to the Court, if you have a low income, you may be able to get a court-appointed attorney. You have a right to a hearing within 72 hours on the issue of whether your child would be in danger if left with you pending a full hearing on your case.
Who filed the report and may I read it?
The Department cannot tell you the name of the person who reported you. Remember that sometimes these people call anonymously. The social worker must be as specific as possible in telling you the details of the allegations. Sometimes you can figure out who made the report. If the person whom you suspect made the report about your family would do it out of anger or spite, you may want to tell the social worker about this. It may help the worker to not take the report seriously. HOWEVER, REMEMBER THAT ANYTHING YOU SAY CAN BE USED AGAINST YOU. You have the right to ask to see a copy of the report and the investigative summary. You should send a written request to the Regional Director of DCF with a copy to the Commissioner. Check with your local DCF office for the address of your Regional Director. You will receive either the report or a written denial notice with the reasons for the denial. It takes some time to obtain a response to your request.
What happens during an investigation?
A social worker comes to the home as the first step in a non-emergency investigation. You may have an attorney or someone else present to support you. The social worker will want to discuss the allegations in the report. The discussion may focus on almost any aspect of your life including financial difficulties, sexual preference, your medical or emotional problems, of those of your children, your housing situation, cultural or racial background. The social worker may also want to speak to other members of your family. The social worker will want to see the children in your home, particularly the child on whose behalf the report was filed. They may also want to examine your home, talk with daycare providers, relatives, doctors and other people who may know something about you and your children. Any information you give to DCFf can be used against you in court if DCF decides to go to court to seek custody of your children.
Do I have to talk to the social worker?
NO. You have the right to refuse to participate in an investigation as well as the right to refuse permission for the social worker to enter your home. However, if DCF believes that your child in immediate danger, they may try to get the police or the courts to help them so that they can see your child. Try to talk to an attorney or advocate before you decide not to cooperate with DCF.
How should I handle the investigation?
First ask what the specific charges are. Take notes, use a tape recorder if you have one. (DCF may not agree, but try.) Try to stay on the topic of the specific charges. Many DCF workers will use this interview as a “fishing expedition.” The social worker may say things that will make you upset. Do not lose your temper or use rough language. Very serious rights are at stake. The worker may want you to sign information releases. If you choose to sign them, sign only completed forms specifying the person and the information sought. Obtain copies of everything that the worker wants you to sign. You can request an opportunity to have these items reviewed by an attorney before you sign. It is important to read everything over carefully. Do not sign anything that you do not understand.
What happens after the 51A investigation is completed?
DCF may either “support” or “unsupport” the report. An unsupported report means that the DCF investigator found that there was no evidence indicating that your children were abused or neglected. A supported report means that the DCF investigator believes that there is evidence tending to show that your children were abused or neglected or a risk of abuse or neglect.
What if the report is supported?
If the report is supported, DCF could try to take custody of your children or they may want to offer services to your family. Sometimes DCF tries to get families to agree to voluntarily place their children in foster care. If the social worker asks you to sign a voluntary placement agreement, ask for an opportunity to talk to an advocate or lawyer before you sign. Important rights are at stake. If you refuse to sign a voluntary agreement or if DCF decides that your children are at immediate risk, DCF may plan to go to court to try to get custody of your children. This is not necessarily a bad thing. You have a right to have an attorney, even if you cannot afford one. The court will appoint one for you and a different one for your children. You may wish to contact a legal services office about your rights if DCF decides to take you to court.
Does DCF always go to court if the report is supported?
No! As discussed above, DCF may want you to sign a voluntary agreement, but more often DCF will begin a “family assessment.” The assessment is used in order to determine if the family needs services and who could best provide those services. This is the time that the social worker who will handle your case is assigned. The social worker uses this as an opportunity to get to know you and your family. If you want services from DCF, this is also a good time for you to find out what DCF offers and whether your family could benefit from the services. The assessment must be completed within 45 days from the date of the “support” decision. The end result is usually a service plan. This is still a critical time in your relationship with DCF. Anything you say can be used against you later.
What is a Service Plan?
DCF is required to provide appropriate services to help strengthen troubled families who are identified because a 51A report was supported. This is true whether your children remain in the home or are placed in temporary foster care. These services may include daycare and homemaker services, counseling for you and your children, and parenting skills education. The plan will describe the services you are to received as well as what you will be expected to do. You must comply with your service plan exactly. Therefore, it is important to understand exactly what is expected of you. A service plan can be used in court to show what you agreed to do and to show what services were offered to you. You may wish to contact an advocate or lawyer before you sign your service plan. If you refuse services or are unable to participate in them, DCF may seek either legal or physical custody of your children in court on the grounds that you are uncooperative.