Caseworkers at Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline did not answer about 42,000 calls last year, putting thousands of children’s lives at risk, according to a report released by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

And it could be a pattern several years in the making. Child advocates say they’ve been sounding the alarm about this issue since 2010.

The report released Tuesday states that the agency identified “an alarming rate of calls to ChildLine [were] not answered by [Department of Human Services] caseworkers in 2015, along with inadequate staffing for the hotline and a severe lack of monitoring of hotline calls.”

The Department of Human Services [DHS] attributed the unanswered calls and other issues with changes in law and a new system in late 2014. This is not the first time the department has been called out for unanswered ChildLine calls, though.

The statewide nonprofit Center for Children’s Justice (C4CJ) reported that in 2010 between 9 and 13 percent of calls went unanswered each month. Cathleen Palm, founder of C4CJ (formerly known as the Protect Our Children Committee), told PublicSource that it’s been “an exhausting couple of years” fighting for an independent look into ChildLine’s pitfalls.

C4CJ wrote a letter on June 24, 2010, to the Secretary of the Department of Public Welfare (now DHS) and General Assembly leaders, stating:

We urge you to review the procedures and staffing of ChildLine to ensure that this vital lifeline for abused and neglected children is able to effectively fulfill its duties.

In August 2010, C4CJ followed up with the standing committees of the state General Assembly:

6,099 calls (nearly nine percent) to ChildLine were either abandoned or deflected in the first six months of 2010.

At that time, C4CJ recommended that performance measures be established for ChildLine as well as regular reports to the General Assembly and public about ChildLine’s operations.

In December 2010, the Associated Press reported that the Rendell Administration flagged Childline’s operations within transition documents prepared for the incoming Corbett Administration.

In February 2011, C4CJ requested that former Auditor General Jack Wagner undertake an audit of ChildLine. It was not performed. A few months later, child advocates called for the creation of a Task Force on Child Protection and highlighted ChildLine as one of the areas in need of urgent attention.

When PublicSource asked Susan Woods, press secretary to the auditor general, why the office hadn’t conducted an audit sooner, she responded that the ChildLine issue “was brought to our attention last year by child advocates,” also highlighting that current Auditor General DePasquale has only been in office since 2013.

On Thursday, DHS tweeted out a graphic timeline and said: “We won’t stop until we efficiently process EVERY call that comes in to ChildLine.”

DHS attributed the volume of unanswered calls to changes brought about by amendments to the Child Protective Services Law at the end of December 2014 — largely in response to the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case — along with implementation of a new Child Welfare Information Solutions [CWIS] system.

From the department’s response to the audit:

With the passage of 24 bills amending the Child Protective Services Law (CPSL), ChildLine also became responsible for registering General Protective Services (GPS) information, as well as Child Protective Services (CPS) information. The laws also lowered the threshold for what constitutes child abuse, expanded who could be a perpetrator, and who is considered mandated reporters. All staff needed to be retrained on the CPSL and a brand new system prior to it going live on December 27, 2014. …

When the system went live, the volume of calls was substantially more than expected, with fewer self-service referrals being received than estimated. Additionally, there were system errors and defects that initially impacted the hotline workers’ ability to enter and transmit referrals as planned, causing delays in transmission and in being able to take an additional call.

Palm argues that DHS’ child protective tools were inadequate years before the amendments to the Child Protective Services Law.

“Everyone is quick to say, ‘Wow, this happened because of Sandusky and the law changes,’ but this suggests that the law changes were bad and this worries us,” Palm said, referring to child advocates.

C4CJ and Palm continue to push for independent oversight and transparency in child protective services.

“We have confidence that, going forward, protecting children remains a priority,” Palm said. “But we also can’t afford to overlook how for so long there was scarce leadership and urgency on behalf of abused children.”

Reach Courtney Linder at Follow her on Twitter @CNL_13.

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