DePasquale

In this file photo from July 2015, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale meets with the LNP Editorial Board. 

THE ISSUE

Nearly 42,000 calls to Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline were unanswered in 2015, according to an interim audit report released Tuesday by the state auditor general’s office. The ChildLine hotline was “constantly understaffed” last year, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said. Twenty-two percent of all calls to ChildLine in 2015 went unanswered; nearly one-third of all calls received in 2014 and 2015 were not tracked or documented, and supervisors monitored an extremely small number of calls — only 7, or 0.005 percent, the interim report said. Calls made to ChildLine are either answered; or abandoned, meaning the caller hangs up while waiting; or they are deflected, meaning the call queue is full and so calls are immediately terminated. The ChildLine hotline and abuse registry is administered by the state Department of Human Services.

Given the disturbing nature of his findings, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale was right to issue an interim report on ChildLine.

As DePasquale noted, “even one unanswered phone call means there could be a child in a life-threatening situation who needs help.”

So the alarm had to be sounded immediately.

Ironically, that’s the very thing that’s expected now under Pennsylvania law when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse or neglect: Sound the alarm immediately.

Is the call getting answered this time around?

Longtime problem

The Wolf administration says yes, that it is fixing a mess that it inherited.

We hope so.

Because this is a mess that’s directly affecting the well-being of children.

Imagine, if you can bear it, how many child abuse reports never were made because calls were not answered by ChildLine caseworkers. Imagine the hells lived by so many children that may have gone unchecked.

And then consider this: Advocates have been worried about ChildLine for years (it was they who pushed for an audit).

Cathleen Palm of The Center for Children’s Justice first wrote a letter of concern to state officials in 2010, after a Gov. Ed Rendell commission reported that calls were being abandoned because of long hold times “due to ChildLine operating at reduced staff levels.”

That year, 8.82 percent of calls to ChildLine were abandoned or deflected.

To be clear, that was six years and two administrations ago.

New laws, new demands

Then, in December 2013, in the wake of the horrific Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, the first of 23 new child protection laws were passed in Pennsylvania.

Child advocates were worried then about the capacity of ChildLine to handle what they rightly predicted would be a deluge of new child abuse reports.

As the auditor general’s interim report shows, they were right to be concerned.

Last year, the longest wait time before a call eventually was abandoned was approximately 53 minutes. More than 1 in 5 of the 188,357 calls made to ChildLine were deflected or abandoned.

In February 2015, an LNP editorial expressed concern that the system was being overwhelmed by the deluge of calls, and noted that ChildLine was understaffed and experiencing a high level of turnover.

In January of that year, an unconscionable 43 percent of calls to ChildLine were being deflected or abandoned.

‘Unprecedented resources’

On Wednesday, Ted Dallas, secretary of the DHS, told LNP that the number of deflected or abandoned calls to ChildLine had fallen from that 43 percent to 12 percent this March because of the “unprecedented resources” and energy he and his staff had put into mending the ChildLine system.

The staffing has increased by 66 percent from 48 positions to 78. The chief of staff for Children, Youth and Families now has direct oversight over ChildLine. New technology will be deployed in July, and a new system of performance monitoring will be in place in the fall.

“Twelve percent is not where we want to be,” Dallas said. “But it’s a lot better than 43 percent. ... We’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”

He said DHS was working toward meeting a goal of 4 percent of abandoned or deflected calls.

We’re glad the numbers are moving in the right direction. But as the auditor general points out, the goal should be to get to zero abandoned or deflected calls.

It’s true that some calls may be nonessential queries about, say, the status of child abuse clearances. (And by the way, people should check the Keep Kids Safe PA website for that kind of information, and keep ChildLine free to take calls about suspected abuse.)

But among the 4 percent of dropped or abandoned calls the DHS is willing to live with, there may be a call that determines a child’s future.

Transparency needed

Dallas said he’s asking for $1.8 million in next year’s budget to continue improving staffing and operations at ChildLine.

No one should quibble over that sum, given that, as the auditor general points out, lawmakers didn’t adequately fund ChildLine so it could meet the demands placed on it by the new child protection laws.

We laud the advocates, including Palm, who pressed for the ChildLine audit. And we appreciate that the Wolf administration seems dedicated to fixing ChildLine.

But it’s a dismaying reality that this most essential, most basic tool for ensuring the safety of children in Pennsylvania remains a work in progress.

Going forward, we hope the DHS regularly releases data showing how ChildLine is operating — or not operating.

And we anxiously await the auditor general’s final report. The more attention given to this critically important hotline and abuse registry the better.

To report suspected child abuse, call ChildLine at 800-932-0313, or go to the website: keepkidssafe.pa.gov.

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