The Child Welfare System and Addiction in Massachusetts

A brief review on how the child welfare system works in Massachusetts if a parent is abusing drugs and/or alcohol. With a section for questions at the end.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: This article provides an overview of child welfare systems in Massachusetts. Learn what will happen if a report for child abuse or neglect is filed due to parental substance abuse.


Why Did They Take My Child?

The prime goal of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families [1]is to protect children. Sometimes they takechildren from their parents to keep kids safe.

Did this happen to you?

First, you’ll need to learn how the system works. Then, you can identify the steps you need to take in order to get back your kids.

BUT, know this:If you are drinking or using around your children, Massachusetts State considers this to be child abuse.

Reports of suspected child abuse or neglect are taken very seriously in the state, and you may lose custody of your kids. They could end up in foster care or be adopted by another family…

So, don’t wait!

Reach out for help today.

Addiction does not make you a bad person or a bad parent. But you do need to break the chains of to live a full and satisfying life. To learn how rehab can help, call our hotline. We’ll talk about your treatment options and help you get started on the road to recovery.

Why Has Reported Me?

In the State of Massachusetts, any person can report suspicions of child abuse or neglect to the Department of Children and Families (DCF). There needn’t be any actual proof of abuse or neglect. Information alone can lead DCF to suspect that a child is at risk. To report cases of suspected drinking or drug use, call

Child-at-Risk Hotline (800) 792-5200

Anyone can file these reports, but some people have to report what they see by law. In fact, some professions require people to report suspected child abuse or neglect.Mandated reporters in Massachusetts who are licensed by the Commonwealth are required to complete training about recognizing child abuse or neglect and how to report it. [2]Mandatory reporters include:

  • Any child care program founded by the state
  • Child care resource and referral agencies
  • Child care licensors
  • Day care staff
  • Family-child care programs
  • Foster parents
  • Licensed human services
  • School staff
  • Voucher management agencies

Massachusetts law requests mandated reporters to immediately make an oral report to DCF when they have reasonable’ cause to believe that a child is being abused or neglected. They must also file a written report known as ’51A’ report within 48 hours to DCF.

Keep in mind that this list is not limited.

All reports are confidential. The Department is require to keep the name of the person who filed the report private. The Massachusetts General Law Ch, 119 s. 51 E & 51F [3] states that the department shall maintain the report inclusive and confidential. Information and data relating to individual cases shall be made available only with the approval of the commissioner or if the court orders.

What Happens When I’m Reported

After a 51A Report is filed, the Department of Children and Families starts an investigation. If the report is classified as an emergency, it may be investigated within 24 hours, otherwise it may take up to 10 days.Several steps are required during the investigation process:

STEP 1: The Department will assign a social worker to your case.

STEP 2: The social worker will come to your home to investigate the circumstances filed in the report within 5 days after the case was assigned. The discussion will focus on almost all aspects of your life includingyour:

  • Cultural background
  • Financial status
  • Housing situation
  • Medical and mental health problems
  • Sexual preference

Moreover, the social worker will want to talk with the other members of the household including your children. Also, they may examine your house to search for evidence of substance use.

STEP 3: The social worker may talk with school staff, daycare providers, doctors, relatives and/or other people who know your children.

STEP 4: The evaluation of the parent and home is completed, and given to the DCF to resolve the case.

STEP 5: DFC will make a written determination to the report as either ‘supported’ or ‘unsupported’.

Supported Report. A 51A report is “supported” when the social worker believes that there is evidence that your children were abused or neglected or are at risk of abuse or neglect.

Unsupported Report. A 51A report is ruled as “unsupported” when the social worker didn’t find an evidence that your children were abused or neglected.

Find more information about the investigation process here:

What Happens Next?

If the 51A report is supported, the DCF will open a case for you and your family.Depending on the case, the DCF will either try to take custody of your children, or offer a ‘Service Plan’ for your family.

If you are granted a ‘Service Plan’, you will work together with the social worker to decide which service plan is best for your family. This plan will also provide the things you need to do to help your family. Some of the services include:

  • Counseling
  • Family advocates
  • Parental aides

In custody cases, DCF usually tries to get families to agree voluntarily place their children in a ‘kinship’ placement or foster care. If you refuse to sign a voluntary agreement, the DCF may choose to go to court to get custody of your children.

A kinship placement is a placement to a family member of friend who can provide same environment for your children.

Also, if DCF sees that your child is at immediate risk, they have the authority to emergency remove the child(ren) from your home. If this happens, the department must seek court approval for the removal right away. Moreover, the DCF will work with you to find a ‘kinship’ placement or a foster home.

Child Welfare Laws

1. In the State of Massachusetts, the General Laws Ch 119 s. 51A require a mandatory report when a child is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from:

1. Abuse inflicted upon the children that causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare, including sexual abuse.
2. Neglect including malnutrition.
3. Physical dependence upon an addictive drug at birth.

2. General Law Ch. 176, known as an “Act Protecting Children in the Commonwealth” has created a new powerful Office of Child Advocate that recommends a coordinated, system-wide response to child abuse and neglect including related mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence issues.

For more information on Child Welfare check out these laws:

The Courts That Are In Charge

The Massachusetts Probate and Family Court [4] is responsible for handling family and children issues. It is responsible for dealing with divorce, paternity, child support, custody, parenting time, adoption, parental rights, and abuse prevention. The Court is present in 15 locations in Massachusetts, and owns 14 divisions.

The main administration offices are in Boston:

1 Pemberton Square, Mezzanine, Boston, MA 02108

Phone:(617) 788-6600
TTY: (617) 788-6616
Fax: (617) 788-8995

What Happens to Parents

If you are found to abuse or neglect your children due to substance abuse, you will be offered support and addiction treatment services. Moreover, you and the social worker will create a Service Plan that will guide you through the process of getting your life back.

If you successfully complete the Service Plan and rehab treatment, you will show the DCF and the court that you are willing to change and to create a better living environment for your children. During this period, the social worker may obtain court-ordered drug testing to prove your sobriety state.

In cases with low risk, some services may be offered such as parent education, child care, and counseling. Also, caregivers may be connected with community services that provide therapy, support group meetings, and parental training.

In severe cases or even fatalities, police are called to investigate and the outcome may end up with file charges in criminal court.

Here are some tips on how can you handle the investigation:

  1. Ask what specific charges are being made.
  2. Take notes, or record the conversation.
  3. Don’t get upset, don’t lose temper, or use violent language.
  4. Read everything before you sign any paperwork.
  5. Request that an attorney review papers before you sign.
  6. If you choose to sign an information release, sign only completed forms.
  7. Do not sign anything that you don’t understand.

Learn your legal right before you work with The Department of Children and Families. Your right include:

  • You have the right to refuse to participate in an investigation.
  • You have the right to refuse permission for social worker to enter your home.
  • You can speak with an attorney or have one with you at any time.
  • You have a right to invite a supportive person to be with you during a DCF visit.
  • You have the right to a court appointedattorney if you cannot afford one.
  • You have a right to get your questions answered from the time of the report to the end.
  • You have the right to be notified in writing at the end of the investigation.

What Happens to Children

Depending on the severity of your case, children may remain at your home or be removed into a ‘kinship’ placement or foster home. Children remain at home with their caregivers in low-risk cases. Together with the family, they may receive services and supports such a counseling, education, safety planning, and more. In severe cases where the child/ren are at risk, they are placed with relatives or foster care, but some may be placed in a group or residential setting.

While in foster care, children attend school, and receive all services they need. Visits between parents and their child, and between siblings are encouraged and supported if they follow a set plan. Every child in the foster care system, should have a permanency plan.

These plans guide the work.Family reunification is the prime goal of the permanency plan for most children, except in extreme circumstances where the permanent agreement such as adoption or custody transfer to a relative takes place.

Families and social workers create the permanency plan for the child and a service plan for the parents.

What Happens if I Drink or Use?

If you don’t follow court orders, and continue to use substances, you may lose your children forever. In these cases, the permanency plan for your children may be changed.

The evidence is based on court-ordered random drug tests. Plus, the social worker files reports for every meeting that you have.

Federal law requires the court to hold a permanency hearing that determines the child’s placement every 12 months [5]. At these hearings, the court may decide to place your children for adoption if you don’t show progress.

So why risk it?

The bottom line is that your children need you. And you deserve to live a better life. A life without drugs or alcohol. Enroll into a rehab program and YOU CAN change your life. Call us to learn more about your rehab options in Massachusetts.

Your kids are counting on you!

Can I Get My Child Back?

Reunification with your children is always the first goal of every child welfare case in Massachusetts. Foster care is nor forever, but you need to work hard in order to get back your children.

What can you do?The answer is simple:Work on your case plan, and follow orders.

While your children are in foster home, the DCF will constantly checking out your progress on the case plan. You will be working with a social worker, psychotherapist, and/or addiction specialist.Some of the basic things that you may need to work on may include:

  • Being clean and sober.
  • Being prepared to be a parent.
  • Establishing a safe home environment for your children
  • Providing enough food, medical care, and emotional support for your children.

Once you have fulfilled your case plan successfully, it can lead to a life with your children.BUT, remember you are the one who can make changes.

You need to WANT addiction recovery…

For the love of your kids.


Reference Sources:
[1] Massachusetts Department of Children and Families
[3] Massachusetts General Law Ch, 119 s. 51 E & 51F
[4] Massachusetts Probate and Family Court
[5] A Family Guide: Report child abuse or neglect
Child Welfare: How the Child Welfare System Works
Child Welfare: Understanding Child Welfare and the Courts
Child Welfare: How to Report Suspected Child Maltreatment
Child Welfare: Reunification
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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