Massachusetts law about child abuse and neglect

A compilation of laws, regulations, cases, and web sources on child abuse and neglect law.

Massachusetts laws

MGL c.119 Protection of Children

MGL c.119, s.21 Mandated Reporters defined

MGL c.119, s.51A Mandated Reporting explained

St.2008, c.176
An Act Protecting Children in the Commonwealth. Provides extensive changes to child protection laws in Massachusetts, including renaming the Department of Social Services the Department of Children and Families and creating a powerful new Office of Child Advocate within the governor's office.

Massachusetts regulations

110 CMR 1 Principles and responsibilities of the Department of Social Services   

110 CMR 2 Glossary

110 CMR 3 Information and referral services

110 CMR 4 Intake

110 CMR 5 Assessment   

110 CMR 6 Service plans and case reviews 

110 CMR 7 Services

110 CMR 8 Service denial, reduction, or termination

110 CMR 9 Case closure 

110 CMR 10 Fair hearings and grievances 

110 CMR 11 Medical authorizations 

110 CMR 12 Records 

110 CMR 13 Case investigation unit

110 CMR 14 Volunteers and citizen involvement 

110 CMR 15 Area boards and statewide advisory council

110 CMR 16 Requests for research

110 CMR 18 Criminal offender record checks 

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."

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 s. 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.)"

Other states have provided some helpful information for parents on the topic, however. See, for example, Florida's When to Leave Your Kids Alone.

See also, the Department 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, s.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.

Web sources

Abuse and Neglect: Your Rights and DCF, Mass. Legal Help
A great overview of your rights when the department gets involved with your family. Answers these questions: 

  • Who filed the report and can I read it? 
  • Do I have to talk to the social worker?
  • What happens after the 51A investigation is complete?
  • What is a service plan?

The Answer Book, Court Improvement Program, 2016
Great resource for children in foster care. Includes information on education, jobs, housing, health care, and more.

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. Department 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. Department of Children and Families
Provides key information in a question and answer format

Child Protective Services: A Family's Guide, Mass. Department 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.

Children Requiring Assistance (CRA), Children's Law Center of Massachusetts, 2014.
Pamphlet explains the CRA process and the rights of children and parents.

Handbook for Parents, Legal Guardians, and Custodians in Child Requiring Assistance Cases, Mass. Trial Court, Juvenile Court Administrative Office, December 3, 2012
This handbook will help you understand what is likely to happen in court, who the people that may be involved are, and what your rights are as a parent, legal guardian, or custodian in a child requiring assistance case.

Joint Advisory Regarding School District Officials' Duty to Report Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect, Mass. Department of Children and Families and Department of Education, 2010
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

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."

Quick Reference on CRA (Child Requiring Assistance), Children's Law Center of Massachusetts, June 1, 2013
A handy guide for child advocates in Massachusetts

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

Child Welfare Practice in Massachusetts, MCLE loose-leaf

DCF Case Practice Policy and Procedure Manual, Dept. of Children and Families, 2008

Last update: November 18, 2016 

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