HARRISBURG – If you’ve been paying attention long enough, you might recall that after the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal, the state’s child abuse hotline was overwhelmed by calls.
It was so overwhelmed that many calls never got to an operator.
Advocates and state officials blamed the problem on a combination things – greater public awareness and laws that broadened the state’s definition of abuse to require more people to report suspected cases.
Calls to the state’s child abuse hotline, as a result, neared 200,000 a year. At the worst of things, 4 in 10 calls never made it to an operator because callers waited on hold so long they gave up.
Today, those problems have largely been eliminated, Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said Thursday.
The department added staff, improved training and got better equipment, he said. Now, about 1 in 50 callers gives up without getting to the hotline operator.
Angela Liddle, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, said Human Services officials took “a proactive, systematic and sustained approach” to fixing the hotline’s woes.
“We are particularly pleased to note that now fewer than 2 percent of calls to ChildLine are abandoned or deflected,” she said.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who shed light on the hotline’s problems in a critical performance review, cheered its progress.
“I sounded the alarm in May because even one unanswered phone call means there could be a child in a life-threatening situation who needs help,” he said. “I am pleased to hear that DHS took our interim report recommendations seriously and implemented changes that could help save children’s lives.”
Changes to the law that took effect in 2015 came after the Legislature spent years grappling with how to improve the state’s record on recognizing and responding to abuse.
The result was not only more calls to the hotline but an increase in the number of cases of documented abuse.
Muddying the water, though, the rate at which investigators have substantiated suspected abuse has dipped.
In 2011, abuse was found in 1 of 7 reported cases. Last year the rate dropped to 1 in 10.
Last year the state received more than 36,000 tips of suspected child abuse that investigators couldn’t substantiate.
The stories behind those numbers are still unknown, said Cathleen Palm, director of the Center for Children’s Justice.
How many of those 9 in 10 calls led to intervention by social workers to help families, even if abuse wasn’t documented?
How many involved cases where people reported things that were not abuse?
How many times was abuse not documented because overworked investigators haven’t been able to keep up with a flood of calls?
People are now getting to the hotline operator. “That, on the surface, is a good thing,” Palm said.