The average wait time to report a case of child abuse or neglect to Los Angeles County’s child abuse hotline is two minutes and 20 seconds on most days, much shorter than its peak nearly 20 years ago.
In 1998, callers to the Los Angeles County child abuse hotline run by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) faced wait times between 45 minutes and four hours during the busiest parts of the day, according to testimony from a DCFS official in 2015.
Reports of child abuse and neglect have been mounting in recent years, but the county will experiment with an online system to ensure that its child abuse reporting system doesn’t get bogged down again.
“The volume is a challenge for our county,” said DCFS regional administrator Jennie Feria, who oversees the hotline. “Not every call is an emergency, but we have to make sure the wait times for the calls are reasonable so the public isn’t deterred from calling and that we are accurately capturing the information [from callers].”
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors signed off on a plan that will allow DCFS to implement a pilot program allowing mandated child abuse reporters to submit certain types of maltreatment reports over the Internet, instead of by phone.
A handful of states offer non-emergency online reporting of child abuse, including Arizona, Florida and Texas. Los Angeles County is the first jurisdiction in California to opt for online reporting.
Located south of downtown at the DCFS Emergency Response Command Post, Child Protection Hotline fielded nearly 219,000 calls of child abuse in 2016.
That’s an average of one call every 2.4 minutes to the hotline, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The total number of child abuse reports in 2016, according to DCFS documents, represented an increase of 22 percent over 2006, when about 179,000 were placed to the hotline.
According to a DCFS report, the increased number of calls to the hotline has been caused by several factors. Media attention paid to high-profile cases of abuse and neglect have driven more reports, and DCFS now has new responsibilities to field calls for groups like older foster youth and commercially sexually exploited children (who were previously were overseen by the Probation Department).
About 190 workers and supervisors at the hotline are responsible for gathering information about allegations of child abuse and deciding whether the reports are credible. Between 30 and 35 percent of hotline calls of abuse are “screened in,” or investigated, according to Feria.
When a call comes into the child abuse hotline, a DCFS worker must decide if an allegation of child abuse should be investigated. If so, cases can either be investigated right away, as an immediate response, or a worker is dispatched to follow up with the child within five days.
According to the new pilot project, some mandated reporters — such as law enforcement officers and school personnel — will be allowed to submit reports of child abuse online as long as the allegation is not life-threatening. When a child could be in immediate danger, reports would have to be made over the phone.
With the online system, teachers and police officers must answer 10 questions as they make a report of child abuse, such as does the child face a health risk and does the alleged perpetrator have access to the child?
A “yes” answer to any one of those questions will prevent the child abuse report from being submitted online. Instead, mandated reporters will have to file the report through the hotline.
Submitting child abuse reports online, said Feria, would free up DCFS social workers to focus on emergency cases.
“There’s no waiting on hold,” she said of the new online system. “It’s a lot easier to use. It also allows some of the emergency calls that are coming into the 800 number to be handled more quickly.”
After Los Angeles County helped sponsor a bill in 2015 that permitted child welfare agencies in the state to test out new approaches to child abuse reporting, the county hopes to create a more efficient reporting system at its front end.
The pilot project will cost $30,000 for one year, with the option to continue for two more years after that with a wider variety of mandated reporters if it is successful.