What does the Department of Children and Families (DCF) do when they get a 51A report?

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Created February, 2021

If you call the Department of Children and Families because you are concerned about a child’s safety, you are making a 51A report. DCF will “screen” your report.

Screening means:

  • listening to your report,
  • making a decision about:
    • the information you give them, and
    • what they are going to do about it.

DCF must use the information you give them to decide:

  • It is an emergency because the child is in immediate danger. Then DCF will screen in the report for an emergency response and respond within 2 hours.

Or

  • It is not an emergency but a “reportable condition” exists. That means the child:
    • may have been abused or neglected by a caretaker, or
    • may be at risk of being abused or neglected by a caretaker, or
    • may have been sexually exploited or a victim of human trafficking, or
    • may be at risk of sexual exploitation or human trafficking.

DCF will screen in the report for a non-emergency response because the child is not in immediate danger. And they must respond within 2 working days.

Or

It is not a case for DCF to investigate. DCF will screen out the report.

Does DCF screen every 51A report?

Yes. DCF screens every report of child abuse and neglect they get from you, your neighbor, the general public, and mandated reporters. But they do not screen-in all reports.

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) does not have to investigate every report to find out if it is true. DCF "screens-out" reports that are:

  • not about abuse or neglect of a child,
  • not about the risk of abuse or neglect of a child,
  • not about a child being sexually exploited or at risk of being sexually exploited,
  • not about a child being subjected to human trafficking or at risk of being subjected to human trafficking,
  • clearly untrue,
  • about claims that are very old, or
  • about an adult who is not the child’s caretaker.

DCF does not investigate the reports they screen out.

What happens when DCF screens in a report?

If DCF believes a child is in immediate danger, they must respond within 2 hours.

If they believe the child is not in immediate danger, they must respond within 2 working days.

See What happens if the Department of Children and Families thinks your child may be abused or neglected?

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