How does the Department of Children and Families (DCF) find out about child abuse and neglect?

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed June 2021

DCF has a 24 hour, 7 days a week hotline system for receiving reports.

People often call a report to DCF a “51A” report because the reporting law is in section 51A of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 119.

What is “abuse” and “neglect”?

Abuse includes:

  • Injuring a child physically or emotionally,
  • Shaken baby syndrome,
  • Putting a child at serious risk of physical or emotional injury, or
  • Sexual abuse or exploitation.

Neglect includes:

  • Taking drugs while pregnant so children are addicted to a drug at birth, or
  • Not providing children with basic food, clothing, or medical care.

    Note

    If the only reason  a child does not have enough food, clothing or medical care is because their parent is poor or has a disability DCF does not call the child "neglected."

You can also be reported to DCF for trafficking a child, as in human trafficking.

A caretaker is anyone who is responsible for a child’s health and well-being. They can be a:

  • parent,
  • stepparent,
  • guardian,
  • relative,
  • foster parent,
  • group home worker,
  • teacher,
  • babysitter,
  • daycare or childcare worker,
  • school bus driver, or
  • camp counselor,

What if there is domestic violence?

Before you make a report to DCF remember:

  • You do not need to report all families living with domestic violence to DCF.
  • When a caretaker is overwhelmed by domestic violence, reporting to DCF can make things worse for the caretaker or the child.
  • People who commit domestic violence make it very hard for caretakers, their friends, and families to protect children.

To learn more about reporting to DCF when there is domestic violence, see DCF’s guide, Promising Approaches.

Who has to report child abuse and neglect to DCF?

People who must report child abuse or neglect to DCF are called “mandated” reporters.

Can I get in legal trouble if I file a 51A report?

You are not legally responsible for a report you file if:

  • You file the report in good faith, and
  • You did not abuse or neglect the child you are reporting about.

If DCF, the district attorney, or a judge decides that you abused or neglected the child, you can be held responsible in a civil or criminal case.

If you file a false report, the person you named in the report may sue you for money damages in civil court.

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