Massachusetts law about child abuse and neglect

A compilation of laws, regulations, cases, and web sources on child abuse and neglect law by the Trial Court Law Libraries.

If you are unable to find the information you are looking for, or if you have a specific question, please contact our law librarians for assistance.

Table of Contents

Massachusetts laws

MGL c.111, § 24L Shaken baby syndrome prevention initiative

MGL c.119 Protection of children

Massachusetts regulations

110 CMR Department of Children & Families

Selected cases

Comm. v. Dorvil, 472 Mass. 1 (2015). Spanking. The court recognized a parent's right to use force in disciplining a child, "provided that the force used against the minor child is reasonable; that the force is reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor, including the prevention or punishment of the minor's misconduct; and that the force used neither causes nor creates a substantial risk of causing physical harm (beyond fleeting pain or minor, transient marks), gross degradation, or severe mental distress."

Comm. v. Millien, 474 Mass. 417 (2016) 
Extensive discussion of "shaken baby syndrome." There is a heated debate in the medical community as to whether a violent shaking of a baby alone can generate enough force to cause the triad of symptoms of traumatic brain injury, and as to whether these symptoms can sometimes be caused by a short accidental fall....where the prosecution's case rested almost entirely on medical expert testimony, the defendant was denied his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel because, by not providing the jury with the other side of this debate, his attorney's poor performance "likely deprived the defendant of an otherwise available, substantial ground of defence."

Covell vs. Dept. of Social Services, 439 Mass. 766 (2003) 
Provides an overview of statutory and regulatory requirements and procedural steps involved in the Department of Social Services (now DCF) investigation and recording of reports of suspected child abuse.  This case also discussed the application of the “substantial evidence” test…substantial evidence may be based on hearsay alone if hearsay has “indicia of reliability.”

Lindsay vs. Dept. of Social Services., 439 Mass. 789 (2003)  
Neglect. SJC interpretation of state regulations (110 CMR 2.00) and Federal regulations (45 CFR 1340.2(d)) that there is a requirement of actual harm or a substantial risk of harm for a finding of neglect. 

Millis Public Schools v. M.P., 478 Mass. 767 (2018)
CRA/Truancy. We conclude that a child "willfully fails to attend school" when he or she acts purposefully, such that his or her behavior arises from reasons portending delinquent behavior.." The court vacated a CRA judgment where "where nothing in the record suggested that the child's behavior exhibited problems or tendencies that could lead toward juvenile delinquency, and where nothing in the record showed that a modification of the child's custody arrangements would help improve the child's attendance record."

How old must a child be to be left home alone?

Massachusetts doesn't set a specific age at which a child can be left home alone. In Massachusetts, such issues are decided on a case-by-case basis.

For information on abandonment and neglect, see MGL c.119, § 39: Abandonment of a child under 10, and 110 CMR 2, which defines neglect as follows:

110 CMR 2.00
"Whenever used throughout 110 CMR, the following words shall have the following meanings, unless the context plainly requires otherwise....

Neglect means failure by a caretaker, either deliberately or through negligence or inability, to take those actions necessary to provide a child with minimally adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision, emotional stability and growth, or other essential care; provided, however, that such inability is not due solely to inadequate economic resources or solely to the existence of a handicapping condition. This definition is not dependent upon location (i.e., neglect can occur while the child is in an out-of-home or in-home setting.)"

See also, the Mass. Dept. of Children and Families web page on Reporting child abuse and neglect. To report suspected child abuse, call (800) KIDS-508, or after hours, (800) 792-5200.

Is it against the law in Massachusetts to leave a child alone in a car?

The only specific restriction we have been able to find in Massachusetts relates to day care providers. 606 CMR 7.10(5)(i) says: "As provided at 606 CMR 7.13(3)(j), a child must never be left unattended in a vehicle." The section referenced does not exist. The relevant regulation is 606 CMR 7.13(4)(j), which reads: "the driver of the vehicle takes attendance before and after each trip and conducts a complete vehicle inspection after every trip to ensure that children are not left alone in a vehicle at any time."

In Commonwealth v. Nebel, 59 Mass. App. Ct. 316, 321 (2003), the court explained that briefly leaving a child alone in a car was not child abandonment under MGL c.119, § 39:

"If this activity [leaving child alone in car], albeit ill-advised, were meant to be criminalized, the Legislature could have written a more extensive child endangerment statute. Compare 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/12-21.6 (b) (West 2002) ("There is a rebuttable presumption that a person committed the offense [endangering the life or health of a child] if he or she left a child 6 years of age or younger unattended in a motor vehicle for more than 10 minutes"). That the actions of the defendant were foolish and a lapse of judgment, as DSS observed, is self-evident. To equate abandonment with poor judgment, however, is a leap we are not prepared to take. The defendant left his daughter for an undetermined amount of time, traveling a relatively short distance away. There was no indication that he did not have the intention to return shortly; indeed the evidence was to the contrary. This cannot form the basis for a criminal conviction of abandonment."

Despite the lack of a specific prohibition, authorities still have the discretion to criminally charge caregivers under existing child endangerment laws, such as MGL c.265, § 13L (Reckless endangerment).

Web sources

4 ways the state tries to help with abuse, neglect, and discipline in your family, Mass. Legal Help.
A great overview of your rights when the department gets involved with your family.

The answer book, Court Improvement Program, 2018.
Great resource for children in foster care. Includes information on education, jobs, housing, health care, and more. Web version here.

Care and protection cases, Children's Law Center.
A basic guide to the steps in a care and protection case, from reporting through screening and possible removal of the child to trial.

Child abuse and neglect, Mass. Dept. of Children and Families.
Includes links to information on warning signs, reporting abuse, and what happens when the department becomes involved.

Child abuse and neglect reporting: a guide for mandated reporters, Mass. Dept. of Children and Families.
Provides key information in a question and answer format.

Childhelp’s National Child Abuse Hotline 
1800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453), 24 Hour hotline. Text, call or chat.  This web site also offers an overview of what child abuse is and the different types of abuse.

Child protective services: a family's guide, Mass. Dept. of Children and Families.
This pamphlet explains what to expect when DCF contacts you, how DCF can help you and your family, your rights when DCF is involved with your family, and where you can find support for your family.

Child Requiring Assistance Cases, Mass. Juvenile Court.
Find out what will happen in court, who may be involved, and what your rights are as a parent, legal guardian, or custodian in a Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) case. Includes forms and Handbook for parents.

Children Requiring Assistance (CRA), Children's Law Center of Massachusetts, June 2017.
Pamphlet explains the CRA process and the rights of children and parents. Also a quick reference guide for advocates here.

Definitions of abuse and neglect
Learn about the definitions of abuse and neglect that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) uses.

Joint advisory regarding school district officials' duty to report suspected child abuse and neglect, Mass. Dept. of Children and Families and Dept. of Education, 2021.
Summarizes the mandated reporting law, as amended, addresses commonly asked questions about the law and the responsibilities that it imposes on school officials, and includes links to G.L. c. 119, §§ 21 and 51A.

Juvenile Court Department guidelines for court investigator reports, Mass. Juvenile Court Dept.
Guidelines include the conduct of GAL investigations, appropriate content for GAL reports, and more.

Massachusetts Children’s Alliance
A membership organization that promotes an integrated multidisciplinary team response to child abuse. This web site provides an overview of the different forms of child abuse and the signs of child abuse.
Massachusetts citizens for children is the oldest state-based child advocacy organization in the country. Focus is on abuse and neglect prevention. Their web site offers information on the types of abuse and neglect and how they can be prevented.

Protective intake policy, Mass. Dept. of Children and Families, February 28, 2016.
"The purpose of this policy is to clearly articulate the Department's primary and immediate focus on child safety in screening and responding to reports of child abuse and neglect and to establish the requirements for performing these responsibilities by Department staff in accordance with MGL c. 119, §§ 51A-51B."

Warning signs for child abuse or neglect, Mass. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
Lists recognizable physical and behavioral indicators of child abuse or neglect.

What can I do if I disagree with the Department of Children and Families?, Mass. Legal Help, June 2021.
Explains what you can do if you have a problem with your worker, of if you disagree with the agency's decision or if you have a problem with your social worker.

Print sources

Child welfare practice in Massachusetts, MCLE loose-leaf.

DCF case practice policy and procedure manual, Dept. of Children and Families, 2008, with updates.

Juvenile law, Mass. practice volumes 44-44A, West, 2006 with supplement. Chapter 3 Care and Protection, Chapter 4 Children requiring assistance (CRA).

Massachusetts juvenile delinquency and child welfare law sourcebook & citator. MCLE, c.2007-

When DCF steps into your case, MCLE, 2019.


Last updated: October 14, 2022

Help Us Improve with your feedback