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Home / Understanding the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Response / When the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Becomes Involved

When the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Becomes Involved

You have made the call to DCF and then filed a 51A report. Now what will happen? When DCF receives a report of abuse and/ or neglect from a mandated reporter (or from anyone else concerned about a child’s welfare), Department personnel are required to evaluate the allegations and decide about the risks to, and the safety of the child(ren) involved. This process is guided by the DCF Protective Intake Policy 143 (May 18, 2021) and is designed to clearly articulate a primary and immediate focus on child safety in screening and responding to reports of child abuse and neglect.
The Protective Intake Policy is divided into two phases: (1) the screening of all reports; and (2) an investigative response to any report that is screened in. The screening and investigative response contained in the Policy are briefly summarized below.


  • Requires non-emergency reports of abuse and neglect to be reviewed and screened in or out in one day. Emergency reports require an immediate screening decision and an investigatory response must be initiated within two hours.
  • Mandates review of all information about the child and caregiver’s prior DCF involvement and review of any comparable information available from child welfare agencies in other states, including cases in which a parent has previously lost custody of a child.
  • Requires CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information), SORI (Sexual Offender Record Information), and national criminal history database checks of parents/caregivers and all household members over 15 years old.
  • Requires requests from law enforcement for information on 911 calls and police responses to the residence of any child or family involved in a report of abuse or neglect.
  • Requires a mandatory referral to the responsible District Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement if it is determined that the report involves a criminal act against a child (as defined in the policy) that requires such a referral (e.g., sexual assault, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, serious physical abuse, etc.)
  • Establishes a formal Screening Team in all 29 area offices comprised of screeners, supervisors, managers, and others that meet daily, review reports of abuse or neglect as defined by the policy, and make a screening decision (screen in or screen out) on non-emergency 51A reports and reports that involve 3 separate 51A incidents in 12 months. Reports requiring an emergency response are NOT held for review by the Screening Team.

Investigative Response
All reports that are screened in:

  • Are immediately assigned for a response by a Response Worker. The response must be initiated and completed within the timeframes defined in the Policy.
  • Require Response Workers to interview parents, caregivers and other children in the home as well as the person allegedly responsible for the abuse or neglect.
  • Enable Response Workers to search online sources for information relevant to assessing child safety.
  • Include an assessment of parental capacity by evaluating whether the parent understands how to keep the child safe, uses appropriate discipline methods and provides for the family’s basic needs, among other criteria.
  • Mandate use of the Department’s Risk Assessment Tool to assess potential future risks to the child’s safety.

The policy framework also includes staff and case supervision requirements, and outlines circumstances that require supervisors to seek assistance from Department managers, attorneys or clinical specialists for collaborative review of complex cases.

During DCF’s screening and response process, all mandated reporters are required to answer the Department’s questions and provide information to assist in determining whether a child is being (or is at risk of being) abused and/or neglected, or is a victim of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, or of human trafficking for labor, and in assessing the child’s safety in the household.

When the initial call is made, and when filling out the 51A, the reporter should be prepared to provide the following information if known (Also see Mandated Reporter’s Guide 144 on the Safe Kids Thrive website):

  • Your name, address and telephone number, and your relationship (if any) to the child(ren).
  • All identifying information you have about the child and parent or other caregiver, and information about other children in the household if known.
  • The nature and extent of the suspected abuse and/or neglect, sexual exploitation and/or human trafficking, including any evidence or knowledge of prior injury, abuse, maltreatment, or neglect.
  • The identity of the person(s) you believe is/are responsible for the abuse and/ or neglect.
  • The circumstances under which you first became aware of the child’s injuries, abuse, maltreatment or neglect, sexual exploitation, and/or human trafficking.
  • What action, if any, has been taken thus far to treat, shelter, or otherwise assist the child(ren).
  • The child’s visibility within the community (e.g., child care, school attendance. etc.).
  • Emergency contact information for the children being reported, and languages spoken in the household.
  • Any concerns about alcohol, drug use, misuse by the parent/caregiver.
  • Any other information you believe might be helpful in establishing the cause of the injury and/or person(s) responsible, any concerns you have for social worker safety.
  • Any information that could be helpful to DCF staff in making safe contact with an adult victim in situations of domestic violence (e.g., work schedules, place of employment, daily routines).
  • Any other information you believe would be helpful in ensuring the child’s safety and/or supporting the family to address the abuse and/or neglect concerns (other contributing or high risk factors, the family’s strengths and capacities, etc.).
    • Other examples of information you may have: restraining orders between members of the child’s household (particularly if active at the time of the report); identified weapons in the home; known sex-offenders in the home; information on other non-caregiver adults living in the home
NOTE: If you do not have all this information, do not let this keep you from filing. File with what information you do have and let the professionals make their determinations.

Next, as outlined above, the report is screened. The purpose of the screening process is to gather sufficient information to determine whether the allegation meets the Department’s criteria for suspected abuse, neglect, or risk of human trafficking (i.e., is a “reportable condition”); whether there is immediate danger to the safety of a child; and whether DCF involvement is necessary to ensure the child’s safety and well-being. Reports that are determined to be emergencies are screened in immediately and a response must be initiated within two hours. Reports that are not emergencies are screened within one working day.

During the screening process DCF obtains information from the person filing the report and also gathers information from other sources including professionals involved with the family, such as doctors, nurses, or other service providers who may be able to provide information about the child’s condition. Screeners will also review DCF records and databases to determine any prior involvement of the parents or caregivers or their children; talk with other DCF staff who may have knowledge of the child or family; request information from child protection services in other states; conduct CORI/SORI checks of parents/ caregivers and others living with the family; contact the District Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement 145 ; search online sources and social media; and may request a clinical review.

As a result of this process, the report is either screened in for an emergency response, screened in for a non-emergency response, or screened out. If the report is screened in for emergency response, the screener has determined that the failure to take immediate action would pose a substantial risk of death, serious emotional or physical injury or sexual abuse to a child, and an investigative response is initiated within two hours. An initial determination of the child’s safety is completed within 24 hours, and all response activities as well as a report documenting the DCF response must be completed within five days.

If a report is screened in for a non-emergency response, it has been determined that although the child may have been abused or neglected, or may be at risk for abuse, neglect, or human trafficking, the situation as reported does not pose an immediate threat to the child. In these cases, a response must be initiated within 2 working days and all response activities including a report must be completed within 15 working days (See Appendix I: What Happens When DCF Receives a 51A Report). In either case, when the case is screened in, and the DCF response supports the initial allegation(s), the case is assigned to a response worker who is responsible to complete the assessment and response plan.

143 https://www.mass.gov/doc/dcf-protective-intake-policy/download

144 https://safekidsthrive.org/the-report/section-specific-appendices/recognizing-responding-to-and-reporting-allegations-and-suspicions/

145 Contact is mandatory if a child has died or has been sexually assaulted/exploited/trafficked or is the victim of serious physical abuse or injury.


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