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Department of Children and Family investigations

Produced by an AmeriCorps Project of Western Massachusetts Legal Services updated and revised Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed May 2010

What happens during a Department of Children and Families (DCF) investigation?

Emergency investigations

Sometimes a report sounds so serious that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) thinks it is an emergency. In an emergency investigation, a DCF social worker must investigate a report within 24 hours.

Non-emergency investigations

Most investigations are non-emergency. In non-emergency investigations, a DCF social worker must complete a basic investigation within ten days. The worker will call or visit you. The worker will try to find out if someone is abusing or neglecting your child.

If the social worker comes to your home, it is a good idea to have an advocate or a friend there with you. Ask that person to take notes about what happens. The social worker will want to talk to you about the things in the 51A report. But the social worker may also talk to you about other things. She can ask you questions about almost any part of your life.

The social worker may want to see your child or children when they are at home with you. The worker also may look around your home. She may talk to day-care workers, relatives, doctors, and other people who may know something about you and your child.

At the end of this first investigation, DCF will decide if your child is being neglected or abused. DCF can decide that your child is abused or neglected even if the report that started the investigation turns out to be false. If the DCF worker finds any condition that he or she thinks is dangerous to your child, the DCF worker will "support" the claim of abuse or neglect. If the DCF worker believes the child is being abused or neglected, the worker will "support" the claim of abuse or neglect.


A nurse reports to DCF that she found a bruise on your child's arm and she thinks the child is being abused. The DCF worker finds your child got the bruise during recess at school, rather than at home. But the DCF worker also learns from your child that there is domestic violence in your home. The worker may "support" the report of abuse (decide that your child is being abused) because of the domestic violence.

Do I have to talk to the social worker?

You do not have to talk to the social worker. You have the right to refuse to talk to her. You also have the right to refuse to let her into your home.

But if you do not talk to the worker or let her in your home, she may think this means there is a problem. If DCF thinks your child is in danger, they may go to the police. They also may go to court to try to take your child away because they think it is an emergency.

Try to talk to a lawyer or advocate before you decide not to cooperate with DCF. Call your local legal services program to see if you qualify for free legal help. You can also call a lawyer referral service to try to find a private lawyer to help you at a price you can afford.

What can I do about the investigation?

Ask what the specific charges are: "What did the person who called in the report say?" Try to talk only about the things in the report-- the "specific charges". The worker may say things that upset you.Try not to lose your temper. Take notes if you can.

The worker may want you to sign "releases" for information. If you sign these forms, you are giving permission for someone else to talk to DCF about you and your child.


If you sign a "release" that is addressed to a hospital, you are giving the hospital permission to talk to DCF about you and your child. The release may also give the hospital permission to share your medical records or your child's medical records with DCF.

Read everything carefully.Only sign papers you are sure you understand. You can ask for a few days to show the releases to a lawyer before you sign them.

It is extra important to talk to a lawyer if the release lets DCF see information that you may have to explain later, like:

  • you have (or had) a serious problem with alcohol or drugs;
  • you did something that is a crime; or
  • you abused your child.

Remember that DCF can refer your case to the District Attorney if they think you committed a crime.

If you choose to sign releases, only sign ones that have all the blanks filled in. Make sure that you know who DCF is sending the release to.

You can also write on the release that it will "expire" (stop working) on a certain date. This way DCF will only be able to collect information about you and your child for a limited time.


You can write, "This release will expire on June 1, 2011."

Get copies of everything the worker wants you to sign.

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.

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