The state has made an effort to increase the number of calls to its child abuse hotline that are answered on the first try. It added five contracted workers to take reports from the public and, from 2015 to 2016, saw the number of unanswered calls decline.
In addition, the Office of Child and Family Services within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has been planning changes to the call-in process with the hopes of making it more structured and efficient.
These are promising efforts, though there are certainly ways the intake unit can continue to improve. About 22 percent of calls, 12,198 out of 54,904 calls in total, to the hotline weren’t answered on the first try in 2016.
As one national expert pointed out in a recent BDN Maine Focus story, just one unanswered call that resulted in continued harm to a toddler or infant would be too many.
Improvements to the hotline should start with a more complete accounting of what happens when people can’t reach a live intake worker. For instance, 7,325 callers hung up before someone answered their call last year. But it’s not known how many of them waited on the line for a long time. Or, how many hung up and never called back? How many hung up, called right back and got through?
It would also be valuable to know how calls were resolved when people chose to leave a voicemail, as 4,873 did last year. How long, on average, did it take for workers to call people back?
It’s reasonable to expect that having a more complete understanding of the problem will help the department decide how to prioritize changes and resources.
There are a variety of options open to Maine if it decides to revamp its intake services. While there’s not a lot of published research on how to operate or update these hotlines, there are other states to learn from, such as Pennsylvania.
In January 2015, 43 percent of calls to that state’s hotline were dropped or abandoned, after numerous bills became law that expanded the definition of what qualified as child abuse, and reclassified who were considered perpetrators and mandated reporters. (Mandated reporters are required by law to report potential child abuse if they have reason to suspect it.)
Today, only about 2 percent of calls aren’t answered on the first try.
How did Pennsylvania do it? After completing an analysis of the workload, the state decided to aim high and try to pick up every call. It dramatically increased the number of hotline workers and prioritized training for them.
Pennsylvania allows mandated reporters to submit potential instances of harm online. While a call generally takes 20 minutes, it’s possible for a hotline worker to process an online report in about five minutes.
The state also doesn’t allow voicemails in case someone is calling with what turns out to be an emergency situation.
And other states, such as Connecticut, have developed priority call lines for mandated reporters, so they can get through quickly. If they’re a nurse or a teacher, they don’t have all day to wait.
Maine is not alone in struggling to capture all calls, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to continue as-is. Instead, Maine should take a page from Pennsylvania’s book and aim high.