More Dropped Calls At PA Child Abuse Hotline as Auditor Investigates
HARRISBURG, PA – The state’s top elected watchdog is turning his attention to customer service at the state’s child abuse hotline.
Advocates say it’s worth taking a look.
Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas acknowledged during an interview Friday that 1 in 4 people who call the hotline get a busy signal or are put on hold so long, they hang up.
It’s a symptom of the budget impasse that has left the department unable to fill vacancies at the call center, Dallas said.
He didn’t know offhand how many openings the center has, he said.
But the spike comes after the state had mostly straightened out problems with the hotline, he said.
The number – also used for requests for background checks – was so overwhelmed earlier this year by new laws on background checks that 4 in 10 calls were dropped or lost.
By this summer, the department had tamped that down to fewer than 1 in 10 calls, he said. That’s largely due to a website, keepkidssafepa.gov, that now handles background clearances.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the time seems right to review the hotline.
DePasquale took office in 2013, just as the Department of Human Services was undergoing dramatic change and facing new demands for help in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky case, which had come to light in late 2011.
Those reforms are now in place.
“We want to see if they’ve fixed the problems,” DePasquale said.
Dallas said auditors should be able to discern that the state’s handling of abuse calls was improving dramatically before the budget impasse and a related hiring freeze.
“It’s one example of why we are having this protracted budget negotiation,” he said. “It’s why we need a fair budget that fairly funds social services.”
The hotline is used by professionals who are required to report suspected abuse. But it can also be used by anyone who suspects abuse to disclose their concerns, even anonymously. Reports are forwarded to child welfare staff or local prosecutors.
This won’t be the first rock in state government that DePasquale has overturned.
He rode into office pledging a wholesale review of oversight of the natural gas industry. Auditors found the state slow to respond to complaints about drillers, and record-keeping systems that made it hard to verify what the state’s inspectors were doing.
Another audit found the Department of Education doing nothing extra to help 561 struggling schools.
Then, in April, DePasquale announced that his office had found the Department of Labor and Industry dallying for years without coming up with regulations to enforce a 2008 law barring mandatory overtime for health care workers.
Almost 1 in 10 complaints filed as a result of the new law were closed by state regulators without any explanation, he said.
Advocates hope that Depasquale’s latest effort, focusing on the child abuse hotline, will be just as revealing.
Last year operators took 158,000 calls, according to data compiled by the Center for Children’s Justice based in Berks County.
That’s 30 percent more calls than in 2010. Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach, was arrested for being a serial child molester the following year.
Before Sandusky’s arrest, almost 1 in 10 calls to the hotline went unanswered, or callers were placed on hold for so long they hung up, said Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice.
Increased scrutiny of the state’s handling of child abuse cases — and more staff in the call center — reduced the percentage of lost calls. The state gained ground even as the overall number of calls surged.
But its data on dropped calls don’t show how things go once operators answer the phone.
And all of the data comes from the Department of Human Service’s own analysis.
That’s the biggest reason that advocates who’ve fought to change how Pennsylvania responds to child abuse are eager to see what DePasquale finds.
His will be the first independent analysis to determine how those reforms are working, Palm said.
“Now is a good time to do the audit,” she said. “We’ll find it if we have seen hiccups” in overhauling the hotline.