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A key element of DCF’s hard job: preventing harm while risking it

A mother and her child played at a park.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Re “Domestic assault victims confront DCF penalty: Child neglect findings are unfair, advocates say” (Page A1, Sept. 10): The problem of child protection in situations of domestic violence has been the focus of policy efforts and legal challenges for 30 years, and as this article shows, it is still a contested area. Children are hurt by witnessing violence in the home. They also are often hurt by the intervention of the public child welfare system. In the extreme case, they may be removed from the person to whom they are most attached — the nonabusive parent. In less extreme cases they may be indirectly affected by harm done to their nonabusive parent.

Workers at the state Department of Children and Families are, for good reason, reluctant to risk further harm to a child. In avoiding that risk, they may underestimate the risk of harm to the family from their own interventions. What feels like erring on the side of caution may actually be choosing one potential harm over another.


DCF workers have a very difficult job. The consequences to them if they intervene too little, and a child is hurt or killed, are much more severe than the consequences to them if they intervene too much, and families suffer stigma, additional trauma, or separation and loss.

Ann Fleck-Henderson


The writer is a retired professor from the Simmons College School of Social Work.