Massachusetts DCF Attorney Nicole K. Levy reviews DCF’s “family assessment” process following a supported findings of child neglect or abuse.
Once the Department of Children and Families (DCF) has commenced an investigation for child abuse or neglect with you or your family, there is a chance that the agency will be involved in your life for a long time. There are multiple outcomes to a DCF investigation, and these outcomes will determine whether DCF continues to be involved with your family or the agency’s activities will terminate within days, weeks or months of initially contacting you.
DCF is one of the busiest agencies in the state. In Massachusetts, DCF has two primary responsibilities: (1.) investigating and identifying incidents of child neglect or abuse and (2.) providing services to children in need, such as foster care and support programs for parents. The number of investigations for abuse or neglect that DCF conducts each year is astounding. In 2017, DCF investigations resulted in 17,850 substantiated findings of abuse of neglect, 18,833 unsubstantiated findings (i.e. no neglect or abuse), and 8,403 “other” findings, which including findings of “substantiated concern”.
In total, DCF conducted at least 45,086 investigations for child abuse or neglect in 2017. Massachusetts has a total population of 6.9 million, with approximately 1.4 million (20%) residents under the age of 18. As an average, DCF conducted approximately one abuse or neglect investigation for every 30 children in the state. (In reality, individual children and/or families are often the subject of numerous DCF investigations each year.)
What happens after the DCF completes their investigation into my family?
As further explored in our blog, “The Crucial First Steps of a DCF "51A Investigation" for Child Abuse or Neglect in MA”, DCF has three options after completing an investigation for child neglect or abuse. The agency can support the allegations, “unsupport” the allegations, or enter a finding for “substantiated concern”. If DCF unsupports the allegations of abuse and/or neglect (by entering an “unsubstantiated finding”), it means that DCF did not find sufficient evidence to determine that a child or children were neglected and/or abused by a caretaker. Generally speaking, after entering an unsubstantiated finding, DCF closes the case, and that is the end of the matter.
If DCF supports an allegation of abuse or neglect, it means that DCF has identified sufficient evidence to believe that your children were abused or neglected or that they were at a risk of abuse or neglect. Meanwhile, if the agency enters a finding “substantiated concern”, it means that DCF did not identify sufficient evidence to warrant a finding of neglect or abuse, but the agency identified enough concerning evidence of risk or potential risk that DCF chooses to remain involved with the family. After either finding, DCF can then either close the case, which is unusual, or keep the case open and continue to work with you and your family for the foreseeable future.
Will I Need to Go to Court if DCF Enters a “Supported” or “Substantiated Concern” Finding?
DCF’s neglect and abuse findings are considered “administrative” in nature. Administrative findings are not made by an independent fact finder, such as a judge. Instead, administrative findings are made outside of the court process, with the determination being made by the same agency that conducted the investigation.
A supported finding of neglect or abuse will generally only result in a court hearing in two circumstances:
(1.) A parent or caretaker may appeal DCF’s finding by requesting a “fair hearing” within 30 days. If DCF upholds the finding after a fair hearing, the parent or caretaker may then appeal the fair hearing decision in Court
(2.) If the alleged abuse or neglect is serious enough, DCF can refer the matter to a district attorney for criminal prosecution or file an action for Care and Protection in the Juvenile Court in which DCF seeks to take custody of the children. The majority of supported findings of neglect or abuse do not result in a criminal referral or care and protection action.
The DCF Central Registry: Supported Findings Result in Names Added to List
Although most supported findings of neglect or abuse (or substantiated concern) by DCF do not result in court involvement, it is important to know that parents and caretakers who are subject to a supported findings are added to DCF’s “Central Registry”, and are added to a list of “Alleged Perpetrators” if DCF refers the case to the District Attorney, even if the DA does not ultimately press charges. The Central Registry can be searched by other state agencies, including agencies responsible for licensing professionals in child-related professions.
Findings of substantiated concern do not result in the name of the parent or caretaker being added to the Central Registry, even if DCF made a report to the District Attorney. Findings of “substantiated concern” cannot be appealed through a fair hearing, but can be through the filing of a grievance within 30 days of the findings. This process generally does not include court review.
The Family Assessment: The Next Step After “Supported” or “Substantiated Concern”
The next step after DCF supports allegations of neglect or abuse is generally a family assessment. The assessment is performed outside of court, with your family and DCF. For parents or caregivers, the assessment often seems similar to the initial investigation. Sometimes the DCF investigator will serve as the social is assigned to the family for the assessment; sometimes the social worker is a new person. The assessment may include the involvement of collaterals, such as a family therapist, other professionals or other family members.
The formal purpose for the assessment is for DCF to determine if services need to put in place for the family. (The agency frequently refers families for additional services.) The informal purpose of the assessment is to allow DCF to maintain contact with the family for an additional period of time beyond the investigation, in order to monitor any concerns.
As part of the assessment, a social worker will come to your home and interview you and your children again, as well as speak with collaterals. Although the assessment process occurs outside of Court, parents and caretakers should always remember that anything they say to a social worker can later be used against them in a subsequent court case or new investigation for neglect or abuse.
Refusal to Participate in the Family Assessment
A failure or refusal to participate in the family assessment creates significant risks for a parent or caretaker. Some attorneys may argue that participation in the family assessment is voluntary; however, parents or caretakers who refuse to participate in the assessment should recognize that the agency has enormous power and numerous tools at its disposal.
In addition to having the power to refer cases to the District Attorney and initiate Care and Protection proceedings in the Juvenile Court, DCF frequently initiates new investigations for neglect or abuse against caretakers whose names are already in the system. A caretaker who refuses to participate in the family assessment creates a spectrum of potential risks that are difficult to predict.
The Service Plan: What Does DCF Want Me to Do During the Family Assessment?
During the assessment, the social worker will meet with you and your family multiple times. He or she will also likely attempt to set you and your family up with services, in accordance with a “service plan” that DCF generates. In many instances, DCF will ask parents and caretakers to voluntary agree to comply with the agency’s service plan. Parents may even have a service plan if their children are removed from their care and custody by the Juvenile Court.
Parents and caretakers must think carefully about signing a Service Plan that includes explicit or implicit admissions suggestion that the parent or caretaker has engaged in problematic conduct. For example, a service plan that includes drug or alcohol treatment may create complications if the parent is engaged in child custody proceedings in the Probate & Family Court. An attorney might caution a parent or caretaker about signing such a service plan, particularly if the investigation did not clearly establish that the individual suffered from a substance abuse problem. Similarly, enrollment in anger management or batterer’s programs by a parent under a service plan may be construed as admission of domestic violence in certain contexts.
DCF will ask you to sign the service plan and follow it, and if you do not, they can extend their involvement in your life, or take more drastic measures, such as involve the court. Nevertheless, there may be instances where signing a service plan exposes a parent or caretaker to other risks that the individual must be consider. Parents or caretakers should consult with an experienced DCF attorney before taking steps that cannot be undone.
What Can I Do About a Supported Finding of Neglect or Abuse?
If you wish to challenge a supported finding of abuse and/or neglect, you must timely request a Fair Hearing. When you receive notice of a supported finding, DCF is required to provide you with instructions on how to challenge such a finding. You are allowed to hire counsel, bring witnesses, and present your case to a Fair Hearings Officer to try and have the finding reversed.
About the Author: Nicole K. Levy is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts and East Sandwich, Massachusetts. She is also a mediator for South Shore Divorce Mediation.