Advocates: ChildLine improvements a good start, but still work to do

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Pennsylvania’s Human Services head announced major improvements to the state’s child abuse hotline Thursday, four months after the state’s auditor general said he was disturbed by findings of an ongoing audit.

The Department of Human Services said it’s well on its way to fixing the problems with ChildLine; with more staff, more training, and even more upgrades on the way.

The agency acknowledged there’s still work to do, but state leaders and child advocacy groups say they’re happy with the progress so far.

“Today I can announce to you,” DHS Secretary Ted Dallas told reporters at a late-morning news conference, “that we are now at a place where we are performing better than ever.”

Back in May, the story was different: That’s when Auditor General Eugene DePasquale made the rare move of commenting on an audit before it was finished. He noted then there were 42,000 calls dropped or unanswered in 2015.

“It is very possible something happened to a child as a result of that,” he said in May.

Two-dozen changes to abuse reporting laws that went into effect at the beginning of 2015 – in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case –  increased the agency’s workload.

From 2014 to 2015, Dallas said calls to ChildLine rose 14 percent, reports of suspected abuse increased 39 percent, and requests for clearances to work with kids jumped 162 percent.

“First thing we did” when the new administration inherited the problem, Dallas said, “was start increasing staff at ChildLine.”

During that same time, it took 26 days on average to process those abuse clearances that far more people are now required to have before working with kids. Less than half of those were completed within the 14-day required window.

And 43 percent of ChildLine calls were “abandoned or deflected,” as the agency says, at the beginning of 2015.

Here’s the turnaround: DHS says now clearances take a day and a half on average, all of them are processed on time, and just two percent of abuse hotline calls are abandoned or deflected.

But a source tells ABC27 working through the extensive backlog means more mistakes and fewer corrections.

This source, who did not want to be identified, said in order to hit their deadline to eliminate the backlog, forms and reports are not filled out with the same care and mistakes are often not corrected.

Dallas said more time should help eliminate any problems.

“New employees always have a little bit of a learning curve,” he said, “so as we’ve hired up, those folks are getting their feet under them. But I think the quality is where we want it to be.”

Child advocates like the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance cautiously applauded the improvements.

“We hope and are sure that the secretary and his team will continue to work until that’s zero,” Tina Phillips, PFSA’s director of training, said of the dropped calls. “Because every one of those calls represents potentially a child at risk.”

Phillips said she’s encouraged by the progress, but there’s still room to improve. DePasquale cut a similar tone after the announcement.

“I am pleased to hear that DHS took our interim report recommendations seriously,” he said in a statement, “and implemented changes that could help save children’s lives.”

Dallas, too, acknowledged this is not the end of the road. More improvements are coming.

“That includes some further upgrades in technology, better training and also better ways, through the information technology, to track all the calls that we have,” he said.

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