Local News

Budget cuts leave state help line unstaffed overnight

Posted September 10, 2009 5:28 p.m. EDT
Updated September 11, 2009 5:37 a.m. EDT

— The recession and high unemployment have increased calls to the state Department of Health and Human Services' call center, which is commonly referred to as CARE-LINE. At the same time, state budget cuts have forced the center to let go some workers and curtail its operating hours.

Callers have questions about issues from social service programs like food stamps and Medicaid to domestic violence. Some call because they're contemplating suicide, CARE-LINE supervisor Melodee Stokes said.

"We had callers that had mental health issues, substance abuse issues, domestic violence. They may be in a situation they need to get out of their home now. They don't know where to turn," Stokes said.

Even with the increasing number of calls, CARE-LINE had to eliminate its third shift – two workers lost their jobs – and shut down between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. because of state budget cuts. The move saved the state $89,000.

Less than 2 percent of the 142,000 calls CARE-LINE received during the first eight months of this year came in during the overnight hours. During the 16 months that the third shift accepted calls, only two were callers threatening suicide.

Still, Stokes said the overnight calls tend to be more serious in nature.

"They're more emotional. They're upset. They don't know where to turn," she said.

People who call CARE-LINE during the overnight hours hear a recording that mentions the hours of operation and, after 25 seconds, tells suicidal callers to hang up and dial 911.

"It's frustrating; it's disappointing," Stokes said. "But I have no doubt there'll come a time we can provide that service again."

Overall, DHHS cut 506 positions and about $900 million to help balance the budget.

Gov. Beverly Perdue said Thursday that budget cuts are difficult, but she argued there are alternatives to CARE-LINE for people seeking help.

"For goodness sake, if you are suicidal or in some kind of extreme situation, you shouldn't be calling the CARE-LINE and getting that information. You ought to be calling 911 to start with," Perdue said.

CARE-LINE can be reached toll-free at 800-662-7030.

The United Way supports HopeLine, a 24-hour crisis and suicide prevention hotline in the Triangle, which can be reached at 919-231-4525.