National News

As wait times grow, calls to the Texas abuse hotline go unanswered

Posted March 30, 2018 3:38 p.m. EDT

AUSTIN, Texas -- More than 100,000 callers each year to report potential child or elder abuse and neglect in Texas are hanging up before reaching an operator because of long wait times.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is on track this year to exceed 180,000 abandoned calls to the agency's abuse hotline, the most in at least a decade. As of Tuesday, there had been 23 days this year in which a caller had been on hold for more than an hour; in the past, the agency has had one or two such days per year.

It's not clear whether the long wait times and abandoned calls have led to abuse and neglect cases going unreported to the state agency but officials say the problems have created risks the state can't afford.

"We hope that everyone who has a concern they want to report to us finds a way to do that, either by calling back or doing an internet report. But the longer the hold times are and the more calls are abandoned, the greater risk that something is not going to be reported to us and DFPS does not have an opportunity to protect a vulnerable child or adult," said Ric Zimmerman, associate commissioner of statewide intake with the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services.

The abuse hotline operators act as the frontline for the state welfare agency, taking reports all day every day from law enforcement agencies, medical personnel and the public about abuse and neglect of mostly children and determining whether they rise to the level of an agency investigation. About half of them do.

Child deaths, along with high worker turnover and problems seeing potentially abused children in a timely manner, prompted Department of Family and Protective Services officials to pursue major reforms. In 2016, state lawmakers approved $150 million for the agency to hire 829 additional staff and gave caseworkers a $12,000 annual raise. Lawmakers last year infused more money into the agency to maintain the raises over the next two years as well as to implement additional improvements.

As they were boosting funds in Child Protective Services, however, lawmakers cut the number of call takers by 13 this year to 323 even though intake division leaders had asked to hire an additional 60 staff members, mostly hotline operators. The additional staff would have allowed the division to reduce its average hold time to the ideal 8.5 minutes.

Each call on average lasts about 15 minutes and each call taker handles about eight to 12 calls a day in addition to responding to online reports. The division processed 822,000 reports mostly through the hotline and its website last year.

With the staff cuts, officials had estimated that hold times would be around 14 minutes, but after changes to interview and reporting techniques, average hold times are around 12.5 minutes.

"With 800,000 reports, if we can save two seconds here and three seconds there, over time that actually adds up," Zimmerman said. "It's a huge balancing act. We don't want to rush them off the phone and not have time to build that rapport with the caller, but we don't want to sit there for an hour and a half going into incredible detail that's not really needed."

Law enforcement personnel, who use a separate hotline, have also encountered long wait times. For 40 days this year, a law enforcement officer has waited more than 20 minutes before calls were answered. The average hold time for law enforcement is two minutes.

The division is also developing a survey so that callers can give feedback on how to improve how calls are handled.

More calls

The rise in abandoned calls correlates with the overall increase in call volume over the years. It's due likely to the growth of child and elderly populations and more awareness about reporting abuse, especially when egregious cases are uncovered, Zimmerman said.

The division posted a huge number of abandoned calls in February -- 16,800 -- which Zimmerman attributes to more awareness raised by a California case in which authorities said 13 children were shackled, beaten and starved in their home for several years. About 84 percent of the increase last month were from reports by school district personnel, Zimmerman said, after two Wichita Falls school principals were charged with misdemeanors for failing to report an alleged sexual assault of a 6-year-old on a campus.

"We had a big push from the schools," he said.

Zimmerman hopes that lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session will boost spending to hire more call takers and give them a $500 monthly raise.

High turnover

The turnover rate of call takers, who must hold a bachelor's degree and be certified for their position, was 15.9 percent last year. It takes about seven weeks to train a call taker. The starting salary is about $31,000.

Program administrator Janine Melcer, who oversees a team of call takers and their supervisors, fears employees are overworked, which coupled with the emotional demands of the job, will increase turnover in the near future.

Twenty seven call takers have left since December, although the division is regularly training new classes of call takers.

"We are working them to death," Melcer said, adding that in Texas, call takers must handle all types of potential abuse whereas in many other states, child and adult reports are handled by different callers. "An intake specialist might hear in one day a situation where a parent has purposely taken a cigarette and burned a child ... another one being put in a dishwasher, another one being put in a dryer. That's the physical abuse, but then you've got sexual abuse and then you hear about the generations of it."

The number of calls holding and hold times are displayed on hotline operators' computer monitors as well as on multiple tickers that hang from the ceiling in the division's Northeast Austin office. Seeing the numbers swell throughout the day has also taken a toll on call takers.

"It's stressful," said call taker Jasmin Massey, who earlier in the day had handled a call involving a 16-year-old who had committed suicide. "Yesterday, we had like 100 calls holding for 50 minutes around this time. Probably about 30 of those hung up. There are children and adults who aren't getting help that they need. I would assume we should be able to have those resources."

Julie Chang writes for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: jchang(at)statesman.com.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

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