You are here

Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect When Domestic Violence is Involved

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Created December, 2010

Reports of child abuse and neglect are made to the Department of Children and Families. When someone reports to DCF that they think a child is being abused or neglected, the report is called a "51A report."

The name "51A" comes from section 51A of Chapter 119 of the Massachusetts General Laws. The law also says that certain kinds of people must report child abuse and neglect to DCF. They are called mandated reporters.  Mandated reporters must take special care when they report abuse and neglect in cases involving domestic violence.


Who is a "mandated reporter"?

Health care professionals

Physicians, medical interns, hospital personnel engaged in the examination, care or treatment of persons, medical examiners, psychologists, emergency medical technicians, dentists, nurses, chiropractors, podiatrists, optometrists, osteopaths, allied mental health and human services professionals licensed under section 165 of chapter 112, drug and alcoholism counselors, psychiatrists or clinical social workers.


Public or private school teachers, educational administrators, guidance or family counselors, school attendance officers.


Child care professionals

Child care workers or foster parents of many descriptions.


Law enforcement personnel

Probation officers, clerk-magistrates of a district court, parole officers, firefighters, police officers.


Priests, rabbis, clergy members, ordained or licensed ministers, leaders of any church or religious body, accredited Christian Science practitioners, persons performing official duties on behalf of a church or religious body that are recognized as the duties of a priest, rabbi, clergy, ordained or licensed minister, leader of any church or religious body, accredited Christian Science practitioner, or persons employed by a church or religious body to supervise, educate, coach, train or counsel a child on a regular basis.

Certain administrators

Person in charge of a medical or other public or private institution, school or facility or that persons agent

When must mandated reporters report child abuse and neglect to the Department of Children and Families

Mandated reporters must report to DCF if, when acting in their professional capacities, they have reasonable cause to believe that a child is suffering certain kinds of physical or emotional injury. The kinds of physical or emotional injuries that must be reported are those that are the result of:

  1. abuse inflicted upon the child which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child's health or welfare, including sexual abuse;
  2. neglect, including malnutrition; or
  3. physical dependence upon an addictive drug at birth.

When a mandated reporter comes to believe any of these things, he or she must immediately communicate with DCF orally and, within 48 hours they must file a written report with DCF detailing the suspected abuse or neglect.

DCF helps mandated reporters know what to do about reporting child abuse and neglect when domestic violence is involved

In 2009, the Department of Children and Families published a pamphlet for mandated reporters called Promising Approaches. The pamphlet gives important suggestions to mandated reporters about what to do when domestic violence is involved. Promising Approaches is now part of Masslegalhelp.

DCFs message to mandated reporters is: Think before you file.

Promising Approaches says, "Mandated reporters are encouraged to carefully review each family's situation and to consider thoughtfully whether or not to file a report with the Department of Children and Families."

Framework for a mandated reporter

The pamphlet gives mandated reporters a way to look at situations involving domestic violence.

Important points:

  • Every situation involving domestic violence isn't one to report to DCF.
  • Filing when a caretaker is overwhelmed by a domestic violence situation can mistakenly penalize the caretaker.
  • The fearful environment created by a perpetrator undermines the ability of the caretaker, and the caretaker's family and friends to help protect the children.


Assessing Safety and Risk

Important points:

  • Risk factors may not always be present.
  • There are circumstances which may indicate a mandated report is not appropriate.
  • Mandated reporters are encouraged to assess carefully the caretaker's and child's conditions, and to evaluate whether community services and support will strengthen the caretaker's determination and ability to safeguard the child.
  • Connecting the family to social services, school, counseling services, faith organizations, battered women's programs or concerned family and/or friends may provide the support and encouragement needed to assist the victim and keep the children safe.

The pamphlet has a list of important factors for mandated reporters to consider when deciding whether to file a report. This is a list to help the reporters decide how safe the caretaker and child are and what risks are involved in reporting. See the pamphlet for details.

Risk factors where a report is mandatory

The pamphlet says that if any of the following factors is present, the mandated reporter must file a report.

  • The perpetrator threatened to kill the caretaker, children, and/or self and caretaker fears for their safety.
  • The perpetrator physically injured the child in an incident where the caretaker was the target.
  • The perpetrator coerced the child to participate in or witness the abuse of the caretaker.
  • The perpetrator used a weapon, made threats to use a weapon, and the caretaker believed that the perpetrator intended or has the ability to cause harm

How can parents use the "Promising Approaches" pamphlet with mandated reporters?

If a "mandated reporter" tells you that he or she may have to report to the Department of Children and Families, and you are living with domestic violence, you can ask them to read the pamphlet.  You can talk to them about your situation and about what the pamphlet says.  You can work together to make sure that the mandated reporter takes appropriate steps.

How can mandated reporters use the "Promising Approaches" pamphlet with parents?

If you are a mandated reporter and think that you may need to file a 51A report because you learned about domestic violence in a family, give a copy of the pamphlet to the non-abusive parent.  Have a conversation with her about what's in the pamphlet about assessing safety and risk and about filing safely.

Who to call for help

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