Navigating a 51-A: An Overview

Adapted from the AOK Guidebook, It Takes a Village.

A 51-A is a reported allegation of abuse or neglect. It is termed “51-A” because that is the section of the statute in child welfare law that discusses allegations of abuse or neglect and how to handle them. These reports are often the mechanisms that result in a child being removed from his or her family and placed in foster care. Anyone can file a 51-A, and most are able to file anonymously if they feel the need to. Many professionals in the community are mandated reporters, meaning they have a legal obligation to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect. These include teachers, therapists, and doctors, but foster parents are also mandated reporters.

When a 51-A is Filed on a Foster Home

However, foster families can also be the subjects of a 51-A report, and it happens much more frequently than you might think. One family resource worker in the Western region recently mentioned that having a 51-A filed against them is almost a rite of passage for foster families. We don’t think the situation is quite that extreme, but it is not in any way unheard of for foster families to be the targets of a 51-A allegation. And there are several reasons for this.

First, a lot of eyes are on foster families, with a lot of mandated reporters regularly in our lives. For better or worse, foster families are held to a higher standard of care within the community, and we have seen 51-A reports filed for benign concerns (e.g., a foster child was outside shoveling snow and took off his coat, and the family was filed on for neglect for having a child outside without appropriate dress for the elements). Additionally, some foster children have experienced abuse and neglect prior to living with their foster family, which when disclosed is initially believed to be related to their current family. Also, older children who have experienced trauma can engage in dangerous behaviors, which sometimes results in allegations of abuse or neglect, even though no abuse or neglect took place. Lastly, foster parents can be the targets of another person’s anger, such as a birth parent, and 51-A’s have been filed manipulatively or to purposely hurt foster families. Of course, there are times when a foster parent is actually behaving in abusive or neglectful ways and the 51-A report is completely justified and necessary.

Here is a visual depiction of the process, with a description of each step, which follows.

An Overview of the 51-A Process

The 51-A is Screened

When a 51-A report is received, it is reviewed by the relevant DCF area office and either “screened out” or “screened in.” If the report is screened out, you will likely never even know about it (there is currently no policy regarding informing foster parents about unsupported 51-A filings). However, this report is always kept on file and if another one is made in the future, the previous report could become pertinent. If a report is screened in, it means the area office has decided to investigate the allegation, and assigns it for “51-B response.” Again, these titles are simply the names of the laws that govern them. At that point, the DCF area office determines whether or not to remove a child (or children) from the home, though such a decision can happen at any time. Through a fair hearing (described later), there is a mechanism to stay (or, prevent) a removal in some cases, if the fair hearing is requested within 10 days of the removal or notice of removal.

The Investigation is Assigned to the Central Office

A 51-B triggers an investigation and response to address the concerns raised in the 51-A report filing. When the subject of the investigation is a foster parent, the investigation is handled by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) housed in the Central Office in Boston. The SIU is tasked with reaching out to the alleged perpetrator (whom in this case we will call “the foster parent”) via postal mail within 15 business days. This letter will identify the person who is the subject of the investigation, but will not include any information about the allegation itself. Typically, this contact takes longer to arrive than the 15 days, and you will likely receive a call from your family resource worker, or even the SIU investigator, before then.

The Investigation & Home Visits

The SIU investigator is supposed to be an impartial and objective entity, with whom you have a clean slate. They are not affiliated with any area office and do not work directly with any other DCF staff outside their unit. Their sole responsibility is to determine whether there is reasonable cause to believe the allegations made, without having any pre-existing relationship with you or your case. As part of the investigation, the SIU investigator has access to your DCF file and can talk to all Department staff involved: the child’s social worker, your family resource worker, and any other person they deem relevant. Additionally, the investigator will want to talk to the person who made the report (if the report is made anonymously, this isn’t always possible), the foster parent(s) involved, and all children living in the home. They will also talk to any collateral contacts you provide, which could help support your position. These include teachers, therapists, physicians, etc.

The SIU investigator will make an appointment to come out to your home for these interviews. Throughout the process, they will share information with you about what was alleged in the 51-A, but are not supposed to disclose who filed the report. For better or worse, in many cases the source of the filing becomes apparent as the case progresses. As the subject of the investigation, you are under no obligation to cooperate or to allow the children you have custody of to be interviewed, but such a decision will likely be viewed negatively and will hurt your case.

How To Approach an Investigation

Being the subject of a 51-B investigation is an inherently stressful, frightening, and worrisome time. There are significant negative consequences for families who are the subjects of these investigations, even when they turn out to be unsupported. And, of course, there are significant consequences if they are supported. For example, these investigations can come up on background checks (even if unsupported) and can block you from any volunteer or professional activity involving children (e.g., volunteering at your child’s school, taking a job as a bus driver, etc.). Of most concern, however, is the impact these situations have on the children involved. Particularly when children are removed from our care (typically without notice), they experience trauma, fear, and loss – on top of the trauma, fear, and loss they’ve already experienced as a result of being in the foster care system to begin with. As foster parents, we have very little recourse to protect our foster children from this, or to ensure their well-being once they are removed from our homes, and the sense of helplessness can be immense. (Again, the one exception is to request a fair hearing, described later, which can stay a removal in some cases, if requested within 10 days.)

It is reasonable and understandable to feel all kinds of difficult emotions when you’re in this situation. However, you must quickly get yourself to a functional and productive state in order to be able to defend yourself against the allegations made against you. Additionally, we have some suggestions about your best options and strategies for your involvement in an investigation:

  • Stay calm. Although this is a stressful time, you need to do your best to remain calm, respectful, and centered. Of course, you want to scream from the rooftops that you are being unfairly targeted and that these allegations are false. But doing so will not prove them false, and the last thing you want is to appear erratic and unstable.
  • Be cooperative. The SIU investigator has a job to do, and it is in your best interest to cooperate fully in the investigation. Answer questions, provide information, and accept that you will need to open up your life in a vulnerable way to see this process through.
  • Get organized. As soon as you’re aware of a filing, put all your thoughts and timeline of relevant events on paper. Create a list of collateral contacts you think would be helpful for the investigator to reach out to. This could include the child’s teachers, school guidance counselor, treatment provider, or extended family members or friends. Make sure you include in what capacity they know your family and for how long, what information they are in a position to provide, and how to reach them easily. Lastly, if you have any relevant documentation, such as psychological evaluations, police reports, etc., you will want to gather these. Putting these materials together into a packet and having them available for the investigator will help you have some sense of control and will give the investigator a clear picture of your perspective.
  • Get support. You are entitled to have support people with you while being interviewed. Although most families do not hire an attorney for this process, you are within your right to do so. However, families have opted to have their family resource liaison or KidsNet director as a support person during the interview, and someone with whom to debrief afterwards.
  • Follow up. We have seen investigations and reports take months, and we have also seen them take years. You have every right to follow up on the investigation and ask about where things stand if you have not heard of a resolution. We suggest you give the process at least 2 months before you reach out to inquire.

51-B Findings

Once the investigation is complete, a letter is generated stating that the report was either “supported” or “unsupported.” This letter is supposed to be mailed to the foster parent, the family resource worker, and the person who filed the report, if it was a mandated reporter. However, we have no knowledge of any mandated reporter ever receiving a copy of this letter, even though they are supposed to. When a report is unsupported, it means there was not enough evidence to believe the allegations. It does not necessarily, however, mean the allegation is certainly untrue or that the foster parent(s) didn’t still violate some policy or responsibility.

After the Report

For this reason, the foster home is not automatically in good standing after an unsupported 51-B investigation. And, similarly, it does not mean that the children who were removed (if they were) will be immediately returned, or returned at all. Relatedly, sometimes foster parents who have not violated any policy and have been truly unfair targets of a 51-A report will have understandably negative feelings about continuing to serve in their role as foster parents and decide they want to take a break or close their home. For all these reasons, after an unsupported 51-B report, the DCF area office (along with input from the foster family, as relevant) has discretion to decide whether to re-open a home, close a home, and whether to continue to place children there.

A supported 51-B triggers a limited reassessment of the foster home. In most cases, a supported 51-B is cause to close a foster home and revoke a foster family’s license permanently, but this may not always be the case. If a home is not closed, the DCF area office determines whether and how to return a child to that placement (assuming they were already removed), or whether to place children there in the future.

As the subject of the investigation, you will not automatically receive a copy of the 51-B report. If it is unsupported, foster parents do not have legal access to the report. If it is supported, you must request a fair hearing in order to access a copy of the report. Additionally, you must specifically request the report; you will not receive it automatically, even if you request a fair hearing.

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