Thursday, May 26, 2016

Pa. auditor general: 1 in 5 calls to state child abuse hotline went unanswered

Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Pennsylvania child advocates were anticipating that significant changes in the state's child protective services law would mean a dramatic increase of calls involving allegations of child abuse and neglect.
But they didn't expect to have to wait as long as 90 minutes to speak to a state hotline worker.
"Our experience with ChildLine has been frustrating. We, too, were not able to get through," said Lynne Rainey, executive director of Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services. "It has improved, but there are still delays."
Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale
Delays last year resulted in more than one in five calls to the state's child abuse hotline going unanswered, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Tuesday at a press conference unveiling the interim findings of an audit of the hotline.
DePasquale authorized the special performance audit to determine if the hotline is processing calls according to laws, regulations and policies. ChildLine is responsible for receiving, referring and tracking suspected child abuse and neglect allegations. It is part of the Department of Human Services.
"Unacceptable" and "unexcusable" are among the words that DePasquale used when describing the initial findings.
"Any one of those calls could have led to a life or death situation for that child," DePasquale said. "It's past time for this to get fixed."
DePasquale and Secretary of Health and Human Services Theodore Dallas agreed the increase in unanswered calls was the result of inadequate staffing to handle the volume generated by changes in the state's Child Protective Services Law, which expanded the list of those mandated to report child abuse, the definition of who qualifies as an abuser and the definition of abuse.
The changes gave ChildLine additional responsibilities for registering information involving general protective services referrals and child protective services referrals. 
Lawmakers did not include additional ChildLine funding with the changes, the officials said.
"There should have been an anticipation with the amount of people now required to go through these checks. It would have led to an increase in calls and for some reason that was not anticipated," DePasquale said.
While the audit is ongoing, Dallas' office is undertaking changes, including hiring more caseworkers and directing the chief of staff for the Office of Children, Youth and Families to directly oversee ChildLine.
The number of unanswered calls has dropped to 12 percent since implementation of some of the changes last year, Dallas said. The agency's goal is to bring the number down to 4 percent by the end of the year, he said, and he has requested another $1.8 million from the state to support ChildLine operations for next year.
Last year, ChildLine received 188,357 calls — 23,446 more than 2014. Nearly 42,000 — almost a quarter — went unanswered, the interim data shows.
In 2014, before the changes took effect, the hotline received 164,911 calls and 6,780 — roughly 4 percent — went unanswered. Not all calls to the hotline result in an abuse or neglect referral.
Besides an increase in unanswered calls, the auditor general's interim report found:
  • The average wait time for callers to be connected to a caseworker jumped from an average of less than 1 minute in 2014 to an average of up to 7 minutes.
  • The longest a caller waited on hold before a caseworker answered was nearly an hour. A year earlier, the longest wait was 29 minutes.
  • Thirteen percent of callers (23,789) put on hold last year hung up before speaking to a caseworker. Another 9 percent of callers (18,201) had their calls immediately terminated because too many people were on hold, the report found. A year earlier, 2.5 percent and 1.5 percent of ChildLine callers, respectively, abandoned their calls or were immediately terminated, according to the report.
  • One-third of hotline calls in 2014 and last year were not documented, so it's unclear if they involved abuse, neglect or an unrelated matter.
  • ChildLine managers failed to adequately monitor caseworker performance; supervisors monitored only seven calls last year taken by three caseworkers when there was an average of 46 caseworkers on staff.
  • At no point last year was ChildLine adequately staffed, despite dramatic increases in caller volume. Sometimes they were so shorthanded that supervisors answered calls leading to the lapse in monitoring of caseworkers.
The audit period spans from Jan. 1, 2014, until the audit is completed later this year, according to the interim report. The initial findings were so alarming, DePasquale said, they prompted him to release them ahead of the full audit.
As a result of the call-wait finding, DHS has set a new maximum limit of 30 calls on hold as of October; before that, DHS could provide no specifics on the number of calls that could be placed on hold before new calls were immediately terminated, the audit findings said.
In Bucks County, referrals through ChildLine nearly doubled between 2014 and last year, climbing from 3,272 to 6,169, Rainey said. Those numbers continue to climb with 1,671 referrals during the first quarter of this year.
All calls that come directly to the county agency are responded to within a designated protocol including all immediate home contacts, even with the increased volume. The agency has added additional staff.
"We continue to see an increase in numbers of new reports and it continues to be a challenge to provide staff coverage 24/7 due to the high volume," Rainey said.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Montgomery County Children and Youth Social Services Director Laurie O’Connor for comment Tuesday.
Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice, a Berks County-based child advocacy organization, called the interim report significant. She and other advocates had been pushing for nearly six years for a third-party audit of call-wait times for the hotline.
"Today we finally have the independent confirmation that the Commonwealth has for too long neglected the very front end of how we protect children," Palm said in an statement. "It is both telling and quite troubling that as a Commonwealth we have made a massive push for individuals to report suspected child abuse without sufficiently preparing for or being responsive to the crushing demand created on ChildLine."
Palm also touched on another issue in the report involving a failure to document or track all calls.
More than 111,000 calls were received by ChildLine in 2014 and 2015 which did not generate a referral report, and the assumption by DHS is the calls were not for concerns involving children, the audit found. These non-referred calls could include someone asking for the phone number of a county child welfare agency or wrong numbers or questions.
But without tracking, there is no way to know if any calls involved suspected abuse or neglect, the auditor general said.
Preliminary data for last year suggests that of the 188,357 calls ChildLine received last year, fewer than 40,000 were suspected child abuse or neglect, according to the Department of Human Services.
Of the 39,815 suspected cases of child abuse or neglect, 4,172 cases — or 9.5 percent — were substantiated according to available preliminary data, DHS spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac said. She added the final child abuse substantiation data will be released in late August.
That so many calls to ChildLine did not involve abuse or neglect reporting is something that child advocates have long suspected, Palm said.
"We have to get smarter at helping mandated reporters navigate when to call ChildLine and when to enlist other community-based or statewide information and referral lines for the family in need of housing, food or child care assistance," she said.
Finding ways to divert non-abuse related calls was among the eight recommendations the auditor general report had for DHS. It also suggested DHS determine a staffing level based on call volume and keep the staffing at that level and investigate recording hotline calls for training purposes.
Since he assumed his position 16 months ago, Dallas said he has increased ChildLine staff from 48 to 79 full-time employees, including supervisors, and he has three more full-time positions to fill. He also has increased electronic submissions of referrals 82 percent between January 2015 and March.
He also is developing an outreach plan to educate people about where non-abuse related calls should be directed, so that hotline caseworkers have more time to answer calls involving abuse or neglect allegations.
Later this year, the department anticipates the release of new technology used in ChildLine will include more efficiency features and implementation of a new monitoring program for caseworkers, Dallas said.
"With those changes, I think we are a lot better off than when I got here," Dallas added. "I think we are headed in the right direction."

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