Massachusetts DCF Lawyers

DCF Services

Serving Clients in DCF Investigations for Neglect or Abuse from Offices in Hingham and E. Sandwich, MA

undefinedAttorney Nicole K. Levy provides Lynch & Owens clients with a unique range of services in connection with Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) investigations for child abuse or neglect. Attorney Levy is a leader in the field of DCF representation, having written extensively about DCF investigations, including her groundbreaking blog, “The Crucial First Steps of a DCF ‘51A Investigation’ for Child Abuse or Neglect in MA”.

When a parent or caregiver is investigated by DCF for neglect or abuse of a child, early intervention is often crucial. A DCF investigation under to G . L. c. § 51A includes multiple opportunities early in the process for the agency to “screen out” the allegations of neglect or abuse, or to enter an “unsupported” finding of neglect or abuse against the caregiver. For cases in which an “unsupported” finding by DCF is not realistic, a skilled attorney can mitigate the harm suffered by a client, thereby avoiding some of the severe consequences that can accompany DCF’s continued involvement.

The Stages of the DCF Investigation Process

A typical DCF investigation of allegations of neglect or abuse against a parent or caregiver includes the following four stages:

1. The Intake Call – DCF receives a call or written communication from an individual or from a mandated reporter that describes a possible incident of child neglect or abuse. Before proceeding to the next step, DCF intake personnel determine whether the alleged neglect or abuse involved a parent or caregiver, where other forms of abuse – such as child-on-child bullying – falls outside of DCF’s scope. Intake staff also determine whether the conduct described by the reporter, if true, would rise to the level of abuse or neglect, where questions are often raised about spanking and parental discipline vs. child abuse.

2. The 51A Investigation – If intake personnel determine the incident may be neglect or abuse, DCF commences is what is commonly known as a “51A investigation” (the name being a reference to the Massachusetts statute under which DCF conducts investigations, G . L. c. § 51A). This is usually the earliest stage of a DCF investigation that an attorney can intervene on behalf of a parent or caregiver being investigated for neglect or abuse.

The screening process under 51A involves two parts. First, DCF must determine within five days of a report whether an emergency exists involving any children. If DCF determines that an emergency exists in the first five days, the agency may seek an order from the Juvenile Court for emergency custody of the children, to remove them from a dangerous situation. DCF generally only takes this extreme step in cases where children face an immediate and serious danger.

If DCF determines that no emergency exists, the agency proceeds with a slower investigation to determine whether the report of neglect or abuse should be “screened in”, in which case the investigation continues, or “screened out”, in which case DCF’s investigation ends at this early stage.

The timeframe for 51A investigations are set out in 110 CRM 4.31, which provides:

The investigation of all “non-emergency reports” shall commence within two working days of initial contact and shall be completed within 15 working days following the receipt of the report by the Department.

At the conclusion of the 51A investigation, DCF must prepare a report that includes summaries of all calls, interviews and documents reviewed by the investigation team. Although DCF rules call for the 51A investigation to be completed within 15 days, it is not uncommon for the agency to complete some 51A investigations in less than a week.

In most cases, the goal for caregivers under investigation, and their attorney, is to have the report “screened out” at the 51A stage, thereby minimizing DCF’s involvement with the family. If a 51A investigation lasts substantially longer than 15 days, a caregiver’s attorney often engages in a careful and respectful dialogue with DCF, as the attorney seeks to guide the investigation towards a positive outcome while acknowledging the strained resources and difficult mission that DCF investigators face. (It is important to recognize that Massachusetts has the highest rates of neglect of abuse in the United States, and DCF resources are often stretched thin and chronically underfunded.)

3. The 51B Investigation. If a report of neglect or abuse is “screened in” following a 51A investigation, the next stage of the process is a 51B investigation. In many respects, the 51B investigation is simply an extension of the work performed by the agency during the initial 51A investigation. However, the 51B investigation often includes more resources and more time. The result of the 51B investigation includes three possible outcomes:

1. An unsupported finding of neglect or abuse. This means that DCF determined that no neglect or abuse occurred.

2. A supported finding of neglect or abuse. This means that DCF determined that neglect or abuse by a caregiver occurred.

3. A finding of “substantiated concern”, where DCF falls short of finding that neglect or abuse by a caregiver occurred, but the agency remains concerned about caregiver conduct. (Another variation is when DCF enters an “unsupported with concern” finding.)

In order to enter a supported finding of neglect or abuse against a caregiver, DCF is required to follow a series of specific steps during its 51A investigation, including interviewing all parents, guardians and caregivers, as well as third-party “collaterals” who can provide DCF with additional information about the children and caregivers.

DCF’s formal findings are included in what is known as a 51B report. Caregivers who have been investigated by DCF have the right to request a copy of the 51B report from DCF; however, such copies often include heavy redaction, where individuals who report alleged neglect or abuse are granted anonymity.

Attorney Nicole K. Levy’s Services During the DCF 51A/51B Investigation Process

Nicole K. Levy provides clients under investigation by DCF with a unique series of services that are intended to reduce negative outcomes in 51A and 51B investigations. These services often include a mix of consultation and direct representation including:

  • Attending home visits by DCF investigators
  • Advising the client on interviews of the client, child and/or collaterals
  • Direct representation of clients during interviews with investigators
  • Advocating directly with DCF on the client’s behalf
  • Preserving the client’s right to a fair hearing by asserting the client’s rights and seeking DCF’s adherence to rules and procedures during the investigation

Many Massachusetts attorneys who represent clients in DCF cases have a background in criminal law. Attorney Levy’s background in family law has a resulted in a productive working relationship with DCF offices across many areas in Massachusetts that is built on mutual respect. DCF investigators have broad administrative authority to enter supported findings of neglect or abuse against Massachusetts caregivers. Attorney Levy’s knowledge of DCF procedures and reputation with DCF staff enables her to achieve client goals while avoiding some of the pitfalls that attorneys who take a purely confrontational approach to DCF often encounter.

In most cases, Attorney Levy’s goal is to obtain an “unsupported” finding of neglect or abuse, or, if such a finding is not achievable, obtaining a “substantiated concern” finding instead of a “supported finding” of neglect or abuse. Attorney Levy also represents clients after a “supported” finding of neglect or abuse, generally with a focus of limiting the post-investigation involvement of DCF in the client’s life and limiting the duration and severity of DCF’s intervention in the family. Mitigating of the negative impacts of a supported finding of neglect or abuse may include:

  • Engaging DCF to avoid DCF referrals to law enforcement for criminal charges of neglect or abuse
  • Engaging DCF for services the caregiver may participate in to limit the duration of DCF involvement with the family
  • Avoiding care and custody proceedings in which DCF seeks emergency custody of children
  • Limiting negative impacts on a client’s parental rights, reputation and professional career

If you are under DCF investigation for neglect or abuse in MA, call to schedule a consultation with Nicole K. Levy today at (781) 253-2049 or send her an email.

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The Effects of a Supported Finding of Neglect or Abuse

A supported finding of neglect or abuse against a caregiver can be a serious matter, particularly for individuals who work with children. For caregivers subject to a supported findings of neglect or abuse, the caregiver’s name will be entered into a state database, which is subject to background checks for individuals who work with children:

EEC's current BRC process requires the completion of a Massachusetts Criminal Offense Record Information ("CORI") check through the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services ("DCJIS"); a Department of Children and Families ("DCF") check of supported findings of abuse or neglect with DCF; a Sex Offender Registry Information ("SORI") check for level 2 and level 3 sex offenders registered with the Sex Offender Registry Board ("SORB"); and a state and national fingerprint-based criminal information ("fingerprint") check, which includes Massachusetts and out of state criminal information reflected on a fingerprint.

(It is important to note that as of 2018, the names of caregivers who are subject to findings of “substantiated concern” or “unsupported with concern” are generally not added the DCF database for state and local background checks. Where DCF is an administrative agency, however, changes in its reporting policies can sometimes change with minimal outside scrutiny. How DCF will report findings in the future is a significant unknown.)

In addition to professional licensing concerns, individuals who have been added to the state database can be subject to search by law enforcement and other state and local agencies and/or individuals who have access to the DCF database. A supported finding of neglect or abuse against a parent can prevent the parent from participating in some of their children’s school activities and can have a serious impact on a child custody case involving the affected children. For example, Probate and Family Court judges have the authority to order the release and review DCF records in child custody proceedings.

In addition to the known consequences that a supported finding of neglect or abuse may have on parents or caregivers, one must also consider how such findings might be treated under the law in the future. High profile cases involving the neglect or abuse of children – particularly those involving DCF – often make headlines, and it is extremely difficult to predict whether Massachusetts and other states will expand background checks and access to DCF databases in response to future high profile incidents. State agencies often respond to crises involving individual children by increasing background checks and subjecting individuals against whom a supported finding of neglect or abuse to new scrutiny, sometimes many years after DCF made its finding.

When tragedy strikes children, the pattern is clear: law enforcement, schools, government agencies and employers all face questions about the incident could have been prevented. If and when the perpetrator of a crime against children is found to have been part of the DCF database, the media and public cry out for ever more access to the database. After all, wouldn’t you want to know if your neighbor or the parents of your child’s friend was once subject to a supported finding of neglect or abuse?

In addition to the impacts described above, individuals against whom a supported finding of neglect or abuse enters must always be wary of criminal prosecution under the state’s many child abuse and neglect laws. DCF investigators have discretion to refer supported findings of neglect or abuse to county district attorneys for prosecution. In cases where evidence of abuse or neglect is clear, the primary goal of caregivers under investigation, and their attorneys, may be to avoid a referral from DCF to prosecutors by engaging DCF directly about services the caregiver may participate in to convince DCF that a criminal referral is not necessary.

Appealing A Supported Finding of Neglect or Abuse: The Fair Hearing Process

Lynch & Owens also represents clients in fair hearing appeals of DCF findings of neglect or abuse.

Following the entry of a supported finding of neglect, a caregiver may appeal DCF’s finding by requesting what is known as a Fair Hearing. An attorney’s representation of a client in a fair hearing is similar to representation in a formal court proceeding. However, succeeding in a fair often turns on the attorney’s knowledge of the complex web of administrative rules that DCF operates under Code of Massachusetts Regulations Title 110, as well as the state’s statutory scheme. (Although caregivers subject to a finding of substantiated concern do not have a clear right to an appeal through the fair hearing process, there may be mechanisms for obtaining a review of the finding through a separate grievance process.)

Although the rules of evidence are relaxed in fair hearings, the process includes many familiar concepts taken from traditional litigation, including the opportunity to seek discovery, cross-examine witnesses (including DCF staff and interview subjects), and presenting evidence on the client’s behalf.

If you would like to engage a DCF lawyer from Lynch & Owens for a fair hearing, call to schedule a consultation today at (781) 253-2049 or send us an email.

Retainers and Legal Fees for DCF Representation

In general, we require Clients seeking representation during a DCF investigation to provide a retainer of $6,000. Depending on the stage of the investigation and scope of representation, DCF consulting services may be available for a reduced retainer on a case-by-case basis.

Our minimum retainer for representation in a DCF fair hearing appeal is typically $7,500.

DCF representation services are generally billed at our attorney’s standard hourly rate, with retainers subject to replenishment by the client when his or her client fund account becomes depleted.

Massachusetts DCF Lawyers in Hingham and on Cape Cod

Are you seeking representation for a DCF investigation for neglect or abuse, or for a fair hearing appeal of a DCF finding of neglect or abuse? Our Massachusetts DCF attorneys are here to help.

Call to schedule a DCF attorney consultation today at (781) 253-2049 or send us an email.

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