DCF Emergency Removals
In some cases, the harm or risk of harm will be so apparent to the 51B investigator that DCF will take emergency custody of a child prior to the completion of the 51B investigation. The department can and will take a child into custody without prior court approval if the investigator has reasonable cause to believe that immediate removal is necessary to protect the child from abuse or neglect, and that there is inadequate time to seek a court order for removal. See Under General Laws Ch. 119, § 51B(e). In making this decision, the investigator must take into account the harm to the child that may be caused by the removal (i.e. emotional trauma), as well as risk of harm if the child is not immediately removed from the home.
If a child is taken into immediate temporary custody, the department is required to make a written report stating the reasons for such removal, as well as file a care and protection petition on the next court day.
Following the filing of a petition, an “emergency hearing” will be held to determine whether the child should be placed in DCF custody. These hearings are usually conducted ex parte, with only a DCF social worker present in court. The purpose of the emergency hearing is to give the judge an opportunity to evaluate abuse or neglect allegations, and determine whether immediate removal is necessary.
Under General Laws Ch. 119, § 24, the removal of a child from the custody of his or her parents on an emergency basis requires a finding by the judge that (a) there is reasonable cause to believe that the child is suffering from serious abuse or neglect, or is in immediate danger of serious abuse or neglect; and (b) that immediate removal of the children from the parents is necessary in order to protect the child from serious abuse or neglect. See Care and Protection of Robert, 408 Mass. 52, 54-55 (1990).
The threshold of finding reasonable cause is reasonably low, and thus the court generally issues an initial order, granting temporary custody to DCF pending a 72-hour-hearing.
Unless the child has been previously removed by a social worker under General Laws Ch. 119, § 51B(e) (see above), the social worker will then effectuate this initial order by removing the child from the home. In most cases, parents are given no prior notice of the removal. Consequently, there is often no opportunity to prepare either the parent or the child for this traumatic event.