As the father of her infant daughter battered down a door and tried to hit her, Lisa could only think of her baby sleeping above in their second-floor apartment.
The 22-year-old mother scrambled toward the stairs, she recalled in an interview, desperate to reach their child.
When officers arrived that afternoon in June 2022, Lisa’s partner fled, leaving her then 8-month-old daughter unharmed. But social workers came to a decidedly negative conclusion about Lisa’s parenting. Within days, the state Department of Children and Families filed a child neglect finding against her, claiming Lisa — even though she was the victim — put her daughter at risk by leaving her baby alone during the attack, however briefly, and allowing her partner to be around the child.
Lisa’s case isn’t unusual, according to lawyers and social workers who handle domestic violence and child maltreatment cases. In Massachusetts and nationwide, child welfare agencies often cite abuse victims for child neglect, essentially holding them responsible for their own victimization, these advocates say.
DCF says it works with victims of abuse to find safe options and support. But experts say that in practice, the agency’s approach is often punitive. A determination of neglect, while not a criminal charge, is often made with little input from the subjects and, because such findings are difficult to appeal, can have lasting consequences. They show up on background checks, limiting job prospects and other opportunities. In some cases, DCF action can also lead a judge to take children from domestic violence victims.
“It retraumatizes the person who has already gone through a traumatic event,” said Aimee Bouchard, a managing director at the Children and Family Law Division at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state agency that oversees public defenders.
In Lisa’s case, her neglect finding appeared on a background check months later, costing her a promising new job.
“This has ruined so many opportunities for me in so many ways,” said Lisa, who the Globe is referring to by her middle name to protect her privacy. “You’re basically blaming me for all of this when I had no part in it.”
In a statement, DCF spokesperson Andrea Grossman said the agency’s top priority is “safety and stability for the children whose families are involved in domestic violence cases.”
“DCF relies on information gleaned from law enforcement, abusive and non-abusive parents, children, and professionals such as doctors and teachers already involved with the family, to make the best possible child safety decisions with the information available to us at the time,” she said.
The agency’s guidelines on reporting child abuse and neglect acknowledge domestic violence cases do not always warrant DCF’s involvement, and that reporting such incidents to the agency can put the victim of abuse or children in the home at risk. Too often, though, the agency’s responses don’t reflect the knotty, complicated realities of abusive relationships, advocates say.
“The survivor has all the responsibility put on them to change the situation,” said Jackie Savage-Borne, senior program manager of violence intervention and prevention programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The messaging is that if you’re in a domestic violence situation, you’re not protecting your child.”
Even in cases where department workers determine children are otherwise well cared for, DCF has substantiated charges against victims, often saying they should have been aware of their partner’s potential for violence.
Nationally, just 15 states have policies that protect domestic violence victims from being held responsible for failing to protect their child from exposure to domestic violence as of 2021, according to an article in Child Maltreatment, a publication of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children. Massachusetts wasn’t one of them.
DCF declined to answer questions about Lisa’s case specifically, citing privacy restrictions, but reported almost 18,893 51A reports, or allegations of child maltreatment, in fiscal year 2022 stemmed from domestic violence, about 20 percent of all reports received. Just over 6,000 of those were substantiated. The agency received 19,948 such reports in fiscal year 2023, and 5,982 were substantiated.
DCF also does not track if those reports are filed against victims of domestic violence, Grossman said. But staff with the Committee for Public Counsel Services said neglect filings against victims are common.
Lisa has spent the last year trying to have her neglect finding reversed, though the process has taken a lawyer and months of advocacy — resources often out of reach for many victims in similar shoes.
“She’s done everything possible to give her daughter a different life,” said Lisa’s attorney, Anne Bader-Martin. “What bothers me the most is that the supported neglect charge can follow you. … It could hold her back forever.”
The last thing Lisa wanted was for her daughter’s childhood to look like hers.
Lisa entered DCF custody when she was 5 due to her parents’ mental health and substance abuse issues. Over nearly two decades in the system, she cycled through stays in foster homes, group homes, independent living facilities, plus an adoption that only lasted a few years.
Despite the odds, she thrived in high school, graduating as valedictorian with a certified nursing assistant certificate.
She took community college classes and started dreaming of nursing school, a better job, an apartment of her own. She also began seeing the man with whom she would have a daughter with in 2021.
Overnight, the baby became Lisa’s biggest priority. She tracked every doctor’s appointment and found a good day care to accommodate her work shifts.
On June 26, 2022, a few months shy of her daughter’s first birthday, Lisa saw on social media that her partner was being unfaithful. She was standing on the ground-level back porch at the time while he was inside their second-floor apartment, watching their daughter sleeping in her crib. She confronted him by text.
“I couldn’t do it in person,” she said. “I was so upset.”
They had had fights before but he hadn’t been violent toward her, Lisa said. This time, enraged, he charged down the stairs to attack her.
“I was trying to get back inside, and he was chasing me,” she said.
She ran into her mother’s apartment on the first floor, which connected to the interior stairs. Her partner broke in and banged her head into the wall. Within minutes, police showed up, and he fled the scene.
When officers arrived, Lisa said, she panicked. She’d had traumatic experiences with cops before, and was afraid they might take her baby, she said.
“I was rude,” she admitted. “But they kept threatening me: ‘If you don’t do this, then we’re going to take the child.’ "
DCF workers arrived shortly after the police left to begin the agency’s own investigation. It was only then Lisa learned her baby’s father had a longer criminal record than she knew — including multiple restraining orders from ex-partners and allegations of physically abusing another child of his in Rhode Island, according to police and emergency response reports that Lisa, through her lawyer, provided to the Globe.
The responders noted damage to Lisa’s and her mother’s apartments, but documents reviewed by the Globe showed emergency response workers also described Lisa’s child as “clean and well cared for” with no visible marks or bruises, and that the apartment was stocked with various baby supplies including diapers, wipes, and food.
Lisa did what the officers and social workers directed: She obtained an emergency restraining order and stayed with her mother for the night.
“I’d followed all their orders, and I had my baby,” she said. “I thought I was fine.”
Then three days later, a letter from DCF arrived stating Lisa had been accused of neglect by one of the officers who’d responded to her case. Next to it, in stark letters — “Supported.”
The letter included few additional details. But a report on the allegations of child neglect, shared with Lisa and her lawyer months later would show DCF had labeled Lisa’s baby at “moderate” risk. In the report, the agency asserted that, instead of trying to get back to her daughter, Lisa had left her baby with her partner after they began fighting. The report also recommended that Lisa needed to accept some responsibility for the violent situation.
“Mother needs to follow through with domestic violence support and education to understand her role in abusive relationships and the impact on children,” a DCF worker wrote.
The letter offered few details; Lisa didn’t realize what it meant. “I was so confused. How was I found neglectful when I have my child?”
DCF’s own literature describes domestic violence as “a pattern of coercive, controlling behaviors.” Victims can find it difficult to leave an abusive partner, who can control their finances, housing, and even immigration status. Leaving can mean trading a home, friends, and family for an uncertain future, and for parents, calling the police could mean risking custody of their children.
“People are discouraged from help seeking as a result of these structures,” said Rebecca Greening, a lawyer and clinical instructor at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School.
For weeks, Lisa did not grasp the letter’s potential consequences. Not even her assigned DCF worker was aware of the finding, she said.
But a few months later, when Lisa was on the verge of getting a new, more lucrative job offer, the prospective employer called her with distressing news. Her otherwise clean background check had turned up the neglect finding. They couldn’t hire her.
“I started crying. I didn’t know what to do,” Lisa remembered. “I literally felt like my life was over.”
She called the first person she could think of — her longtime lawyer Bader-Martin, who had been assigned to her years before as a foster child when she had re-entered DCF custody. They immediately filed an appeal.
The process dragged on for months. A hearing wasn’t scheduled until April, and then, just minutes before it started, rescheduled for May.
Grossman, the DCF spokesperson, noted the hearings are an opportunity to do a more in-depth review of DCF’s initial screening decisions, which in emergency situations can be reached in a matter of days.
Often, though, the parents involved find the process confusing and opaque. Unlike with a criminal charge, the child welfare system provides no immediate Miranda-type explanation of a person’s rights. Parents may not realize that anything they say to a DCF investigator can be used in an investigation, and they aren’t told they have the right to retain an attorney, Greening said. Parents do receive letters explaining their rights, but the legalese can be confusing.
“Where is the support for the person navigating that system?” Greening said. “We don’t have any.”
Victims of domestic violence are often stunned when they learn that a substantiated neglect finding, arrived at without a judicial proceeding, is a permanent stain on their record, said Colleen Henry, a professor at Hunter College, CUNY who studies the impacts of the child welfare system.
The findings are likely to bar people from many caretaker jobs, which are disproportionately filled by women, particularly poorer women of color, Henry said.
Meanwhile, Lisa did what she could, moving to a new apartment to keep herself and her baby safe. But she felt invisible walls closing in, cutting off the future she’d imagined. When she went to her rescheduled hearing — nearly a year after the neglect charge was filed — she wept the entire time, she said.
She and her outreach worker both spoke during the 90-minute hearing, and Bader-Martin submitted doctors’ notes for Lisa’s daughter that showed the physicians had never seen any concerns or issues with her baby’s care.
The DCF representative, however, insisted on supporting the neglect finding.
“She said I chose to fight in the street rather than be upstairs with my child,” Lisa remembered. “They completely mixed the story up.”
In mid-August, the hearing officer recommended that Lisa’s neglect finding be reversed. Lisa cried when Bader-Martin called with the news and rang her closest friends to celebrate.
But Lisa’s life is still in limbo. DCF has until Sept. 12 to decide to appeal.
If DCF accepts the recommendation, Lisa wants to reapply for the job she couldn’t get with the neglect charge on her record, and resume her plans of pursuing a nursing degree.
But what Lisa won’t get back are the 15 months she’s felt blackballed from pursuing her future, she said.
“I have never done anything wrong to my child,” she said. “The fact that I’m being punished for something that I literally did not do, it’s sickening.”