Audit Reveals ChildLine Understaffed

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HARRISBURG -- A state hotline intended to report suspected child abuse and neglect is under scrutiny by the state auditor general. He held a news conference in Harrisburg Tuesday to announce that thousands of calls to the child abuse hotline went unanswered last year.

A Newswatch 16 investigation discovered those same startling numbers. Thousands of hang-ups or busy signals when people called ChildLine last year. Based on that, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale says a solution cannot wait.

Jerry Sandusky’s crimes were a wake-up call for Pennsylvania. New laws strengthening child abuse reporting went into effect in January of last year. More people are required to report and the penalties for failing to report are more severe.

The number of calls to ChildLine, the state's child abuse hotline, spiked. An audit shows 42,000 calls went unanswered in 2015. That's one in five.

“More important than the huge number of calls, any single one of those calls could have led to a life or death situation for a child,” DePasquale said.

The auditor general's report isn’t complete yet. But with such findings, DePasquale is calling on the state's department of human services to do something now. Especially since he believes ChildLine didn't have enough caseworkers all last year.

“In 42,000 unanswered calls, it’s very possible that something happened to a child as a result of that, but we have no way of knowing that and that’s our biggest problem,” DePasquale said.

Now--as Newswatch 16 reported--the state is hiring 30 more caseworkers to handle calls to ChildLine. It's also upgrading the software used to process the reports.

But our investigation found it took about 10 months for the state to start doing some of what was needed to handle all those calls, including expanding the number of people who can be on hold at one time.

“I think any kind of changes you're making will take time. I’m not sure what you're talking about 10 months there. There are IT changes and staff changes made. They began immediately,” said Sec. Ted Dallas, Dept. of Human Services.

Child advocates pushed for the audit of ChildLine and hope the results don't deter people from reporting abuse.

“We have to keep instilling that confidence. People won’t make the call. People won’t stand up and speak up for children if they think the system won’t respond,” said Cathy Palm, child advocate.

Governor Tom Wolf's spokesperson says the administration inherited the problem from the Corbett administration and has worked to fix the problem.

Right now, 12 percent of calls are still going unanswered at ChildLine. State officials are aiming for four percent, hoping the new hires make that happen.