What to Expect from the Department of Families and Children When There is Domestic Violence

"Domestic violence" refers to many kinds of abuse committed by a member of a family, a household, or an intimate partner against another member of the family, household, or against the intimate partner. "Domestic Violence" also refers to many forms of abuse committed by one person against another in certain dating relationships or engagements.

You can seek a court order to protect you if your abuser

  • harms you physically,
  • tries to harm you physically,
  • makes you afraid that serious physical harm is going to happen to you, or
  • threatens, pressures or forces you to have sex.

This court order is to protect you from further harm. It is called an "abuse prevention order," a "restraining order," or a "209A."

"Domestic violence" is sometimes called "battering," and it also refers to abusive patterns of power and control in family, household, and intimate partner relationships.

Know Your Rights: Domestic Violence, published by the American Bar Association, says that "Domestic violence is a pattern of many behaviors directed at achieving and maintaining power and control over an intimate partner, such as physical violence, emotional abuse, isolation of the victim, economic abuse, intimidation, and coercion and threats."

Learn more about custody and domestic violence in the Domestic Violence section.

Learn more about Can the Other Parent Take Our Child? in the Domestic Violence section.

Learn about What if the Other Parent Tries to Control my Parenting? in the Domestic Violence section.


This article is Chapter 10 of Where Do We Go From Here?, a self-help “know your rights” manual designed
to provide community legal education to victims and survivors of
intimate partner violence, shelter and other intimate partner violence
service provider staff, and other non-lawyers who have questions about
getting out of and staying out of abusive situations. 

"Where Do We Go From Here?" was produced by Western Massachusetts Legal Services

Produced by an AmeriCorps Project of Western Massachusetts Legal Services updated and revised Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed May 2010

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is the state agency that has the job of looking out for children and protecting them from abuse and neglect. DCF used to be called the Department of Social Services (DSS).

Why did the Department of Children and Families contact me?

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) usually contacts a family because someone told DCF that a child in that family may be abused or neglected.  When someone tells DCF that they think a child is being abused or neglected, it is called a "51A report." The name "51A" comes from section 51A of Chapter 119 of the Massachusetts General Laws.  

DCF must listen to every report of child abuse or neglect. They must either "screen in" the report or "screen it out".  If DCF "screens in" the report, see Does the Department of Children and Families investigate every report?, they must find out if the report is true. They do that by investigating the report.  They need to talk to the child's family and people who know the child and the family. If DCF learns that the child is abused or neglected, DCF must protect the child.

Sometimes DCF tries to protect a child by taking the child from his or her home. DCF workers can also refer cases to the District Attorney for criminal charges if they think a crime was committed.

More often, DCF tries to help a family solve its problems so the child can get the care he or she needs.

Does the Department of Children and Families investigate every report?

No. the Department of Children and Families (DCF) does not have to find out if every report is true. DCF workers "screen out" reports that are clearly untrue. They also "screen out" reports that are very old and reports that are about an adult who is not the child’s caretaker. DCF does not investigate the reports that it screens out.

DCF workers have to look into all of the reports that they screen in to see if they are true or false. When a DCF worker investigates a case, it does not mean that DCF thinks the report is true. DCF needs to find out if the report is true. The DCF worker may decide that the report is false once the worker learns more.

Find Legal Aid

You may be able to get free legal help from your local legal aid program. Or email a question about your own legal problem to a lawyer.

Ask a Law Librarian

If it's
9am and 4pm