Child safety experts worry that some children in danger may be falling through the cracks
By LYNNE TERRY, Oregon Capital Chronicle
Julie Siepmann waits until she gets home to call the state to report a child who appears to be in danger.
A clinical social worker who interviews children suspected of being abused, she’d prefer to call when she’s at work but the wait times for the child abuse hotline are too long.
Reaching a screener can take an hour or more, child welfare specialists say. Some call in the middle of the night to get through.
A centralized hotline meant to cure past troubles with reporting suspected abuse has troubles of its own, according to interviews and documents.
The state Department of Human Services established the hotline in 2019 to ensure statewide uniformity in the way that calls are handled. Hundreds call in each day, but in recent months sometimes up to half of the callers hang up.
That worries professionals dedicated to child safety.
“I think we are all concerned that the system is not working the way they had intended it to do and that kids are falling through the cracks,” said Russell Mark, chair of Oregon Child Abuse Solutions, a nonprofit focused on child abuse. He also is president and CEO of Juliette’s House – Child Abuse Intervention Center in McMinnville.
The hotline is supposed to be the state’s lifeline for children under threat. Anyone can use it to report suspected child abuse or neglect: The line received 175,000 calls in 2021.
Screeners interview callers and decide whether to call for an investigation. State officials try to arrange a fix. In the worst cases, children are taken from parents until the situation is resolved. In rare instances, parental rights are ended.
Mark said the hotline has several problems. The state doesn’t alert callers when investigations are ordered so they don’t know whether a child is safe unless they call the state again. He said the criteria used to trigger an investigation is unclear, and he called the wait times “devastating.”
Lacey Andresen, deputy director of the child welfare program at DHS, acknowledged that wait times have been too long. She said the state is trying to fix it.
“The wait times have not always been as high as what we’ve experienced in October and November,” Andresen said.
She said children are not falling through the cracks.
“There’s a whole safety net in our community to protect children,” Andresen said.
She added that a slight decline in the number of children in foster care also indicates that the safety net is intact.
But officials can’t say that for every case: There is no follow up when people hang up on a hotline call.
State law requires that a range of people, including social workers, medical professionals, teachers and police, report suspected cases of abuse or neglect.
Siepmann, clinical services director of Juliette’s House and a mandatory reporter, interviews kids who’ve been referred to the organization by police or child welfare services as potential victims. Sometimes during the interviews, Siepmann discovers a case that needs to be reported to the hotline.
Though that’s part of her job, she calls on her own time.
“If I felt like I could pick up the phone and within 10 to 15 minutes and have somebody on the line, then I could find an hour block to make the call and get the whole report made,” Siepmann said. “But you don’t know how long it’s going to take.”
New system in 2019
Three decades ago, the child abuse reporting system was decentralized, with 35 hotlines around the state. Experts, like those at Juliette’s House, called local child welfare officials to report a suspected case of abuse or neglect, and they decided whether to investigate. At the time, the Department of Human Services started looking into unifying the system over concerns that screenings and investigations weren’t consistent statewide, according to Jake Sunderland, press secretary of DHS.
But the system didn’t change until 2009, when the agency consolidated the hotlines into 15 regional numbers.
That didn’t solve the problem.
A state report in 2016 said the lack of a centralized system was affecting child safety, and a 2018 state audit recommended a centralized hotline for the child welfare system.
A single number – 855-503-SAFE (7233) – was rolled out in April 2019.
Screeners interview callers, gathering information about the child. That process often takes an hour, Siepmann said.
If a call is about abuse as defined by law, screeners order an investigation. Oregon law defines abuse as physical, verbal or mental. Neglect, mistreatment and abandonment are considered abuse, as are threats and exposure to an illegal drug.
Screeners use their judgment. “The folks who answer the phone, take the information and make a determination of whether or not it’s going to be defined as an allegation,” Andresen said.
She said all screeners receive the same training, a change that brought consistency to the process.
“We’ve seen based on audits of our own information, as well as comparisons and conversations with other states, that having a centralized hotline is the best way to get fair, equitable, consistent screening decisions because you have one body of people who work together to establish the screening program, rules and procedures,” Andresen said. “Our screening decisions are very consistent now. So whether you live in Curry County or in Multnomah County, the same type of reports are very consistently assigned or closed.”
Mark and Siepmann dispute that.
They say some instances of abuse or neglect are not investigated and that it can sometimes take several calls to trigger an investigation.
What’s not in dispute are the wait times, which dogged the hotline from the start. Callers sometimes waited 90 minutes to reach a report taker in April 2019, according to several news reports.
State officials said they were having problems getting everyone trained.
The state hired 115 screeners but only about one-third had experience working on a regional hotline. The first year, about 20 percent of calls went unanswered. That increased to nearly 30% in 2020. The abandoned call rate fell to about 20% last year.
DHS has no information about who does not get through or why they hang up. The hotline was set up with separate queues for police, mandatory reporters and everyone else, including a separate queue for Spanish speakers. Police, who account for about 20% of calls, get top priority. Everyone else is second, including child welfare workers, child abuse specialists, school officials and the public.
State data show there are unanswered calls in each category, though most calls from law enforcement are answered.
The hotline has a callback feature for the first 20 people on hold who can leave their number and a screener calls them back. When it’s full, callers have to wait.
Calls in the middle of the night
Rori Hartzell, a family nurse practitioner and medical director at Juliette’s House, said that when she has a case to report, she calls from home within 24 hours.
“Typical wait times are definitely upwards of two hours,” Hartzell said. “That is not something we can do in the middle of our workday.”
DHS workers also have to report abuse the same way as everyone else. Some get up at 2 a.m. to call, Hartzell said.
“People are told to call in the middle of the night because it is easier to get through when most people are sleeping,” said one state worker, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. Child abuse professionals say they never fail to report. Their jobs involve keeping children safe. But Hartzell worries that some mandatory reporters, like medics handling emergencies, might not have the time to call the hotline when they spot potential abuse or neglect in a home.
“What I’m hearing is that oftentimes they don’t report because they’re off to the next call, and they can’t wait on hold for two hours because they need to respond to another emergency,” Hartzell said. “That is concerning.”
Mark of Juliette’s House also worries that citizens trying to report abuse are hanging up.
“What happens to Joe Q. public?” Mark asked. “If they see something, they’re not going to stay online for an hour or two hours waiting for somebody to answer the phone.”
Wait times increase in recent months
State data show that the hotline has had abandoned calls from the start, but the number has increased in recent months. For example, last July and August, the number of total calls ranged from a low of about 130 to about 550 per day, with many in the middle on weekdays. A few dozen to more than 100 callers hung up.
Starting around the second week of September when most in-person classes resumed, the hotline received more than 500, 600 or even 700 calls a day during the week, with several hundred callers hanging up each day. The volume was particularly high in December, sometimes soaring past 800 calls some days. Often a third or even half of the callers hung up.
Andresen acknowledged long waits in recent months. But she said that has not been the norm, something that child welfare experts dispute.
“The wait time is as bad, if not worse than it’s ever been,” Mark said.
Andresen said she’d like calls to be answered in two minutes. She blamed the long wait times in part on callers who are reaching out for something other than abuse.
“We have a significant number of calls and contacts to the hotline that don’t result in an allegation of abuse and neglect,” Andresen said. As an example, she said teachers might call about a child coming to school without a jacket. Less than 50% of calls are about abuse or neglect, the department said.
Andresen also blamed the long waits on staffing shortages. But the hotline has never been fully staffed even before the pandemic, according to Sunderland, the DHS spokesman.
The hotline operation now has the equivalent of 134.5 full-time positions and 18 vacancies.
Andresen said DHS funding for screeners has been based on the number of investigations – not the number of calls.
“We’re reevaluating how we describe to the Legislature how many positions we need,” Andresen said.
She promised that fixes were coming. Among them, the state plans to roll out a queue for medical providers this month, giving them top priority with police. The state is also working on setting up a system so that child welfare workers, who account for 10% of calls, can file reports electronically.
“I think long term we’re thinking about strategies around electronic reporting.” Andresen said. “I really want to do what we’re doing well before we try to do it.”
She added: “I anticipate over the next six months we will continue to see a reduction in wait times,” Andresen said.
Child abuse experts say they’ve been promised improvement for three years. Now they’re fed up. If the wait times don’t improve, Mark said child safety advocates will go to lawmakers to try to get a fix.
“We’re going to wait and see if these changes roll out as DHS has promised,” Mark said.
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