Can DCF take my child?

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Children's Law Center, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the Family Preservation Project

If the Department of Children and Families (DCF) thinks that a child is in danger due to abuse or neglect, it can go to the Juvenile Court to ask for custody of that child. DCF can also remove a child from their home before going to court if that child is in immediate danger. When DCF goes to court before or after removing a child from their home, it files a “care and protection” petition.

Can DCF take my child before they get permission from the court?

Yes. If DCF thinks your child is in immediate danger due to abuse or neglect, DCF can take your child right away. Then DCF must get a court order immediately afterwards or on the next business day. When DCF removes children from their homes, it almost always does it without going to court first.


If the DCF worker comes to your house to take your child, you can ask them to let your child stay with relatives or close friends while the situation gets sorted out.

What do I do if a DCF worker tells me that DCF is considering removing my child from my home?

Many families involved with DCF report that DCF workers threaten to remove the child from their home. If a DCF worker tells you that DCF is considering removing your children, you can:

  • Tell DCF in person and by email that you do not want your children removed because: 
    • it will be traumatic for the child,
    • there are other ways to solve the family’s challenges and keep the child safe, and
    • you want help from DCF to prevent the removal.
  • Ask for a meeting with your DCF worker and supervisor to clarify DCF’s concerns.
  • Ask if DCF has a mediation service available to help prevent removal.
  • Privately ask your family members if they could temporarily care for your children. You may want to sign a caregiver affidavit allowing them to care for your children. This may avoid a DCF removal.
  • Contact a lawyer or advocate that may be able to help you. See the Family Preservation Project.
What does DCF have to tell the court to get custody of my child in a care and protection case?

When DCF files a care and protection petition, it must swear that it believes your child:

  • Is suffering from serious abuse or neglect, or
  • Is in immediate danger of serious abuse and neglect, and
  • Can only be protected from serious abuse or neglect if DCF takes them.


DCF must also swear that they made reasonable efforts to keep your child at home.

What is an emergency custody hearing?

The first hearing in a care and protection case is usually an emergency custody hearing. After the judge hears from DCF, the judge can order emergency temporary custody to DCF. In Boston Juvenile Court, the parent and their attorney can take part in this hearing. In every other Juvenile Court in Massachusetts, the parent and child do not take part in this hearing.

The court can give DCF emergency temporary custody for up to 72 hours. The court appoints attorneys for the parent and the child after this emergency hearing.

What happens next?

After the emergency custody hearing, the court then must hold a hearing within 72 hours. At that second hearing the court decides if your child can come home. This hearing is often called a “72-hour hearing” or “temporary custody hearing.” You should get a notice from the court about when and where this hearing is. Usually your DCF worker will also tell you about the date, time, and location of the 72-hour hearing.


The temporary custody hearing does not always happen within 72 hours. The hearing may be held later because of the schedule of the court or because attorneys are not available for the parents or the child.

Where is my child until the 72-hour hearing?

Once DCF has custody of your child, DCF decides where your child stays. DCF can place your child with a relative, in a foster home, or at a residential group home. Its decision is based on your child’s age and needs. The decision is also based in large part on what is available.

What happens at the “72-hour hearing”?

At the 72-hour hearing, the court decides if the temporary custody order will continue for more than 72 hours. This and every hearing in a care and protection case is closed to the public.

If you want your child back, you need to show up for the hearing. The judge needs to see you and hear from you. Usually your child will not go to the hearing.

You will often meet your court-appointed lawyer for the first time at court when you arrive for the 72-hour hearing. Sometimes the lawyer will call you before the hearing. Your child’s lawyer will be at the hearing and should have tried to talk to your child before the hearing.

If you do not feel confident reading or speaking English, you have the right to an interpreter. Let the court, DCF, and your lawyer know as soon as you get notice of the hearing.

If you have a disability and need accommodations, you have a right to those accommodations. Let the court, DCF, and your lawyer know about those needs as soon as you get notice of the hearing.

If you cannot get to the hearing because you live far away or for another good reason, you may be able to “appear” in court by telephone or internet service. Let the court, DCF, and your lawyer know as soon as you get notice of the hearing.

At the hearing, DCF, you, and your child's lawyer all have the right to speak and present evidence. This is usually the first time you or your lawyer has the chance to learn DCF’s side of the story. This is the time for you to ask the judge to return custody of your child to you or to give temporary custody to another person, like a family member or friend.

Each side can give the court documents and question witnesses. Each side can explain:

  • If your child should return home,
  • If removal of your child from the home should continue, or
  • If some other arrangement is best, like having your child live with a relative or friend.

The judge then has to decide if coming home would put your child in immediate danger. If the judge decides it is too dangerous, they will give temporary custody of your child:

  • to another person, like a relative, or
  • to DCF.

If the judge decides that your child can come home, the judge may order you to follow some rules and do some things.

The judge also must decide if DCF made “reasonable efforts” to prevent removal of your child. Even if the judge decides that DCF did not make “reasonable efforts,” the judge may still decide it is too dangerous for your child to return home. But if the judge decides that DCF did not make reasonable efforts, that may help you in other ways. The judge might order that you get more visitation with your child. Or the judge might order DCF to provide you with more or better services to help your family.  You should discuss this with your lawyer.

In some cases, the judge decides that DCF was wrong to take your child. So the judge will dismiss the case and the case is over.

What happens after the 72-hour hearing?

If the judge does not dismiss the case at the 72-hour hearing, the court case will continue even if your child returned home. The judge will appoint a court investigator to review the case. They will also schedule the next hearing, called a status conference hearing.

If the judge returned your child home at the 72-hour hearing, the judge may dismiss the case at the next hearing.

If your child stayed in the custody of DCF at the 72-hour hearing, the court case will usually continue for at least six months and often much longer. Hearings to review the status of the case will take place about every three months. During the court case, DCF can allow your child to live at home at any time without a court order. After 12-15 months in court, if DCF has not allowed your child to return home, the court will have a hearing to determine a permanent plan for your child.

Care and protection cases can end with your child: 

  • returning home, 
  • being placed in a guardianship,
  • being adopted, or 
  • Continuing in foster care until they turn 18.
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DCF FPP advocates

Family Preservation Project (FPP) advocates can help families with DCF involvement if the families:

  • are currently being investigated by DCF, or
  • have an open DCF case, or
  • in some cases, are at immediate risk of being involved with DCF, and

do not have a current DCF court case.

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