How does DCF find out about child abuse and neglect (51A report)?

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

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) has a 24 hour, 7 days a week hotline system for receiving reports about abuse or neglect of children. Local DCF offices, called Area Offices, also receive reports of abuse or neglect during business hours.

People often call a report of abuse or neglect to DCF a “51A” or "51A report.” The law about abuse and neglect reporting is in section 51A of chapter 119 of Massachusetts laws.

Who made the 51A report of abuse or neglect to DCF against me?

DCF is not allowed to tell you the name of the person who reported you. This information is withheld or “redacted” from reports. Sometimes, the person who makes the report does not even give their name to DCF. 

Many people who work with children have to make a report to DCF when they think a child is being abused or neglected. These people are called "mandated reporters." Mandated reporters are people like police, doctors, teachers, daycare workers, and social workers. Reports by mandated reporters often carry more weight than anonymous sources.


If someone reports you to DCF it does not mean that you are guilty of abuse or neglect or a bad parent. There are lots of reasons, like race and poverty, that make certain people more likely to be falsely reported to DCF.

What should I do if I know who made the report to DCF against me?

Sometimes you can figure out who made the abuse or neglect report against you. If you think the person who reported you is angry at you or trying to make things difficult for you, you may want to tell the DCF worker. In deciding what to do, consider that the DCF worker may tell the person who reported you what you say.


If you think a partner who abused you reported you to DCF, talk to a domestic violence advocate about what to tell DCF. The SafeLink toll-free number is (877) 785-2020.

When do mandated reporters have to report child abuse and neglect to DCF?

Mandated reporters must make a report to DCF if they:

  • are on the job, and
  • see or hear something that makes them believe a child’s caretaker has abused or neglected the child.

A mandated reporter must speak with DCF as soon as they suspect child abuse or neglect. And they must send a written report to DCF detailing the suspected abuse or neglect within 48 hours.

Mandated reporters can also contact law enforcement.

Mandated reporters must also make a report to DCF when they believe a child has been sexually exploited or trafficked. These types of reports do not have to be against caretakers.


Judges are not mandated reporters. If a judge believes a caretaker abused or neglected a child, they might call the court’s probation department. Then the probation department will get involved, and probation can make a report to DCF.

What is “abuse”?

Abuse includes any intentional act that

  • injures a child physically or emotionally,
  • puts a child at serious risk of physical or emotional injury,
  • is a sexual crime, or
  • includes sexual contact between a child and a caretaker.

A parent may use force to discipline their child if the force used:

  • is reasonable;
  • is for the child’s welfare, such as discipline of the child; and
  • does not create a serious risk of harm (more than a temporary mark or injury) or severe mental distress.

The definition of child abuse in DCF policy also includes: 

  • sexual exploitation, or 
  • human trafficking.
What is neglect?

Neglect means not providing children with: 

  • basic food, 
  • clothing,
  • shelter, 
  • medical care, 
  • supervision, 
  • emotional stability and growth, or 
  • other essential care.


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 should not consider that neglect.

Does DCF review reports of abuse and neglect against people who are not parents?

Yes. DCF gets involved if a 51A report of abuse or neglect: 

  • accuses a caretaker of abuse or neglect,
  • involves anyone sexually exploiting a child, or
  • involves anyone human trafficking a child.

A caretaker is anyone who cares 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.

If a report of abuse of neglect is not about a caretaker, DCF may contact law enforcement but it will not get more involved with your family.

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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.

Find an FPP advocate.


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