Audit finds thousands of unanswered calls to Pa. child-abuse hotline

HARRISBURG - Thousands of callers to Pennsylvania's child-abuse hotline since 2014 hung up or were disconnected before ever reaching a caseworker, a state audit has found.

During a review of the ChildLine hotline, the Auditor General's Office determined that 22 percent of the calls last year - nearly 42,000 - were unanswered, up from just 4 percent the year before.

One caller in 2015 waited more than 50 minutes before getting to speak with a caseworker, and another stayed on hold for about 53 minutes before hanging up, according to the report.

The auditors classified unanswered calls as any from people who hung up before being connected to a caseworker or whose calls were terminated because the hotline system queue was full.

Not every caller is reaching out to report abuse, officials say. Some, for instance, want to know more about the training of mandated reporters.

Still, such "an alarming rate" of unanswered calls - along with inadequate staffing - may have put abused children further at risk, officials said.

"In 42,000 unanswered calls, it is very possible that something happened to a child as a result of that," Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Tuesday at a Capitol news conference. "But we have no way of knowing that one way or the other, and that's our biggest problem."

Pennsylvania's child protective services law underwent significant changes during the time of the audit, adding new groups of people as mandated reporters of child abuse and requiring additional training.

Even before that, concerns had been raised about the support given to ChildLine. In 2012, the union representing hotline caseworkers complained that they had struggled for years with high turnover and understaffing.

The auditors recommended that the Department of Human Services determine how many workers it needed to ensure that all calls were answered and that callers were not placed on hold for an unreasonable amount of time.

Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children's Justice, said she and other advocates asked in 2010 for an audit of ChildLine.

Palm said that protecting children only works if people are confident in the system. "We've got to get to restored confidence in the child welfare system," she said.

In a response included in the report, DHS Secretary Ted Dallas wrote that within days of taking office, the Wolf administration began working to improve the situation at ChildLine. The portion of unanswered calls to the hotline peaked at 43 percent in January 2015, he wrote, but had dropped to 12 percent by March 2016.

The department has been hiring more caseworkers and supervisors, and has requested more money, he wrote.

"While progress has been made in improving the dropped and abandoned call rate, hiring and training additional staff, as well as improving operations, remains a priority," he wrote.

The auditors praised the department for how it has worked to address the problems at the hotline.

Jeff Sheridan, spokesman for Gov. Wolf, said in a statement that when the administration took office, the ChildLine program was "an absolute mess."

Despite the reduction in unanswered calls, he said, more funding is needed to meet the goal of picking up 96 percent of calls.

"We are committed to continuing our work with the legislature to implement the law and to finding ways to direct additional resources to ChildLine," Sheridan said, "and we are pleased the auditor general is now involved in the process, and has highlighted the need for more funding and additional staffing."

kingly@post-gazette.com

717-787-2141 @Karen_langley