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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ind. Gov't. - "Some judges, police call DCS child abuse hotline 'frustrating,' 'inefficient'"

A very long, must-read, front-page Indianapolis Star story today by Alex Campbell (that I had a very difficult time finding on the Star's webpage -- if I hadn't known about it and persisted, I would have missed it completely. Is that the way it will be next month for online subscribers?)

The story begins:

Department of Child Services officials call the agency's child abuse hotline a "model for other states," "one of the most up-to-date and effective" in the nation.

The hotline's workers in Indianapolis answer calls promptly and effectively 24 hours a day, the state officials say, delivering consistent results for children in all of the state's 92 counties.

But local officials who have been using the centralized hotline since it went into effect in 2010 paint a different picture. They use descriptions such as "constant problem," "very frustrating" and "inefficient."

"They do not seem to understand the issues that are actually going on in the field," a Warrick County sheriff's detective says. A Knox City police detective is more blunt: "Children are not getting the help they need."

Those comments are contained in responses to an informal survey conducted by Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, which he shared exclusively with The Indianapolis Star.

Steele conducted the survey because he didn't completely buy the "everything's fine" line he was hearing from DCS. He wanted to find out what people who actually relied on the new centralized hotline were experiencing.

Steele wrote letters to dozens of judges and sheriffs in counties around the state, asking them to speak √£bout their experiences. Clearly, there are concerns with the new system.

DCS decided more than two years ago to route all child abuse calls through a central intake in Indianapolis rather than having each county take the calls that come in. Since then, DCS has faced scrutiny on several fronts. It's set to face more starting this morning, when a summer study committee begins at the Statehouse, with the hotline on the lawmakers' agenda.

Critics have complained that the system wrests control from local officials with local knowledge and that too many cases are now deemed unworthy of investigation.

Many in the Steele survey echo these complaints and raise many others: critical delays in response, a lack of follow-up, miscommunication, incompetence and, in some cases, an unwillingness to acknowledge and address problems.

Asked about the survey, DCS declined to make any officials available for interviews, instead releasing a written statement from DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan. The agency is aware of the issues raised in the survey, Ryan said, and they align with what administrators heard at a May 15 public forum in Bedford.

There, officials spoke out about various concerns in Lawrence County and Morgan County.

Steele was at that meeting. DCS hotline director Andrea Goodwin "seemed surprised" by the revelations, Steele said, and she said she hadn't heard similar complaints in other counties around the state.

"That," Steele said, "just didn't make sense to me." * * *

[S]everal officials who responded to Steele's survey told him they had brought their concerns to DCS officials in the past but had not heard back.

Henry County Judge Mary Willis described meeting with Goodwin in October 2010 because of "the serious nature" of issues raised by volunteers, probation officers, school workers and law enforcement officers. "Specific examples were provided to her," Willis said. "Little solution was provided."

Willis had her own experience with the hotline that year that troubled her. She heard testimony in court about a child who had been "abandoned by her parents and left with a slightly older sibling in a house with minimal utilities, no food or money or necessary medication."

So Willis called the hotline. "I was hung up on initially by the hotline operator," Willis wrote, "then screened out since I did not 'witness' any abuse personally."

The Department of Child Services Interim Study Committee is meeting this afternoon at 1 PM. You may watch it online via the link provided on the meeting agenda. The agenda itself portends a long afternoon.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 22, 2012 10:28 AM
Posted to Indiana Government