Model Child Abuse Hotline: A Model No Longer

THE ORIGINAL NATIONAL MODEL

“Created by law in 1973, New York’s State Central Register was one of the first of its kind in the country, and the law would serve as a model for other states. Beginning as a makeshift operation with five workers, the hot line is now a far-reaching system that employs 208 people,” explained Albany Times Union reporter Darryl Campagna.

By 1994, the New York State hot line received 486,000 calls. Of these, an estimated 100,000 were follow-up calls to ongoing cases, and 85,000 of these calls calls were determined to be pranks that had to be treated as valid until proven otherwise. Of these calls, only about 26 percent of them were actually being passed on for investigation.

As the number of calls increased, so did the difficulties in keeping up with the ever-growing demand. And the problem was not isolated to New York.

As of 1997, of the 355,579 calls made to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services hotlines, only 19.2 percent were actually passed on for investigation. According to the Department’s own data, over a ten year period the percentage of reports accepted for follow-up had steadily declined, even as the sheer number of reports increased.

By 2012, Illinois’ DCFS reported facing “challenges with long wait times for calls coming into its hotline,” looking at Indiana’s new centralized Hotline system as a possible solution to the problem.

Just as there are many variations among the states, there are wide variations in how reports are handled from one county to another. This has always been the case.

During the mid-1990s, 32 percent of all reports in California were screened out statewide. But the percentage of reports screened out varied substantially from one county to another. In 1994, for example, Los Angeles County screened out about 19 percent of the reports its hotline received, compared to 55 percent in Contra Costa County. According to the California Office of the Legislative Analyst: “Some of the variation among counties may be due to a lack of specificity in the state guideline, thereby allowing counties to adopt different screening policies.”

In many states, the percentage of reports screened out has apparently increased, even as the raw number of reports increased. The state of Massachusetts, for example, screened out about one third of the calls made to its hotlines in 1991. As of 2010, the percentage of calls screened out had increased to 44.7 percent, according to Child Maltreatment 2010.

Similarly, the state of Washington screened out approximately 30 percent of the hotline calls that it received, according to a 1996 performance audit. By 2010, Washington state was screening out 54.2 percent of its referrals.

“In 2010, Minnesota’s child protection agencies screened out 68 percent of recorded referrals statewide. A decade earlier, in 2000, the state’s child protection agencies reportedly screened out 38 percent of child maltreatment referrals. The apparent increase in the percentage of child maltreatment referrals that agencies were not investigating or assessing has concerned some people,” explains Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor.

The audit explains also that “a major contributor to agency variation in screening is vague statutes defining abuse and neglect.” Keeping statutes vague “may reflect a policy choice to preserve the ability of child protection agencies to practice in ways that accommodate the variation among communities they serve,” the report explains.

THE NEW AND IMPROVED NATIONAL MODEL

Seeking “to bring consistency to the way abuse and neglect calls were managed across the state,” Indiana established a centralized Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline that was phased in over the course of some time during 2010, a process that was completed on August 30, 2010. Clearly, something needed to be done, as the Indiana Department of Child Services explains:

Prior to Indiana launching the hotline, reports of child abuse and neglect were directed to more than 300 different telephone numbers across 92 counties, with some calls rolling over to law enforcement offices, or being answered inadvertently by overnight cleaning staff. Call record keeping also differed from county to county, making it difficult to determine how many calls in total did not meet the legal definition of abuse or neglect.

This was no ordinary centralized Hotline, as Indiana’s web site explains: “The Hotline is staffed with 62 specially-trained Family Case Managers, know as Intake Specialists, who are professionally trained to take reports of abuse and neglect. These Intake Specialists gather information from callers, determine whether the information provided meets statutory criteria for DCS to conduct an assessment, and if appropriate, route reports directly to DCS local offices for response and assessment.”

Clearly, this is no ordinary hotline. This is the Cadillac of hotlines; so much so that several states were looking at it as a model on which to improve the operations of their own Hotlines.

Hotlines are a “best-practice trend spreading across the country,” Indiana explains, and Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia “are just a sampling of states that have adopted centralized hotlines. Recently Oklahoma and Louisiana also launched their own centralized call systems.” Representatives from Arizona, Illinois, West Virginia, Iowa and Michigan have explored Indiana’s new Hotline “as an example of how to implement or improve their own operations in addressing reports of child abuse or neglect,” the Department explains.

THE MODEL’S OUTSPOKEN CRITICS

Even as Department officials continued to tout the benefits of their “model” program, criticisms continued to mount, with local officials familiar with the unit painting a very different picture, describing it as a “constant problem,” “very frustrating,” and “inefficient.”

“They do not seem to understand the issues that are actually going on in the field,” a Warrick County sheriff’s detective says. A Knox City police detective was more direct: “Children are not getting the help they need.”

Those comments are contained in responses to an informal survey conducted by Sen. Brent Steele (R-Bedford) which he shared exclusively with and The Indianapolis Star

“Critics have complained that the system wrests control from local officials with local knowledge and that too many cases are now deemed unworthy of investigation,” journalist Alex Campbell explains. Others who were surveyed echoed these complaints while raising many others, including “critical delays in response, a lack of follow-up, miscommunication, incompetence and, in some cases, an unwillingness to acknowledge and address problems.”

On September 5, 2012, Indiana’s new and improved Hotline came under renewed criticism; this time from social workers, members of the public, as well as some current and former hotline workers during the second round of legislative hearings concerning the Hotline, held at the Indiana Statehouse.

“Some described a hostile work environment. Others decried lack of follow-up and bad advice that posed a danger to vulnerable children,” reports The Indiana Star.

The first to testify during the three-hour session was an ex-hotline supervisor. Amber Turientine left the agency in October 2011 due to what she described as a work environment in which supervisors were “encouraged to bully and target” their subordinates. She also submitted written testimony from four former hotline workers, as well as three current ones, all of whom raised similar issues. All but one former worker submitted their testimony anonymously.

“I am very afraid that a child fatality will be directly the result of failure of this hotline,” one current employee wrote. “Things are that serious.”

Changes stemming from a decision to allow local law enforcement authorities direct access to local DCS caseworkers when reporting suspected abuse were welcomed by Bedford City Police Detective Robert Herr, who testified in favor of the recent change in policy.

Further investigations into the operations of the Hotline are planned to continue.