JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Low staffing levels and high call volume have led to dangerous delays for callers to the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline, state Auditor Nicole Galloway said.
Last week, Galloway released her office's audit of the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline Unit, which is administered by the Missouri Department of Social Services. The hotline received more than 138,000 reports of alleged child abuse and neglect in fiscal year 2017.
"The role of the Hotline Unit is absolutely critical in protecting Missouri's children," Galloway said. "The process of receiving and reviewing allegations of child abuse and neglect — and then taking quick, appropriate action on credible reports — must be as efficient and thorough as possible."
DSS has made improvement efforts in recent years to increase responsiveness. However, staffing levels have declined since 2015, leaving an insufficient staffing to handle an increasing number of hotline calls, the audit states.
This means longer wait times, or callers having to call back multiple times to make reports. Consequently, there is a higher risk of some abused or neglected children not receiving timely and critical assistance and protection, Galloway stated.
Between fiscal years 2013 and 2017, the number of reports made to the Hotline Unit increased by an average of about 4,500 annually, while staffing levels did not keep pace with the increase. Over the same period, the audit found the average hotline wait time more than tripled from one minute, 18 seconds to four minutes, 28 seconds.
The Department of Social Services has made various efforts to improve wait times, including implementing an online reporting system for non-emergency reports in FY2017 and increasing the number of staff in FY2018. In addition, the Hotline Unit opened a field office in Springfield.
Galloway said while those steps have been helpful, the Hotline Unit should continue to increase staffing levels to address the increasing number of child abuse and neglect reports.
"While DSS continues to implement changes to improve this process, we found that a lack of resources is still hindering the work of the Hotline Unit," she added.
The audit also pointed out the Hotline Unit has not developed and monitored formal and quantifiable operational performance goals or expected levels of performance. As a result, the unit is unable to compare actual performance to expected or desired performance.
On the whole, the hotline unit received a performance rating of good, indicating it's overall well-managed and complies with legal provisions.
Some Missouri professionals — including health care and mental health professionals, social workers, child care providers, law enforcement officials, school officials, and others — are classified under the law as mandated reporters. The hotline unit also receives calls and online reports alleging child abuse and neglect from voluntary reporters such as relatives, neighbors and others.