A state worker answers calls to Oregon's child abuse hotline, operating from a new call center in Portland. (Portland Tribune/Jaime Valdez)
PORTLAND -- The caller told Hannah Lene about a child disciplined at school for spraying water who begged school employees not to send a note home because he feared his mother would then punch him.
Another caller reported a child whose nose was bloodied from her mother slapping her face.
Lene starts the chain that might rescue such children from abuse. She is a call screener for the state child welfare office. In her first year on the job, she has answered hundreds of phone reports of suspected child abuse.
“The hardest thing for being a screener is we don’t know what happens after the call,” said Lene. “We don’t get to know the outcome” after the report is passed on to a state caseworker.
Those who call a hotline to report child abuse can find themselves talking to one of 15 call centers around Oregon, a fragmentation that leads to uneven results and gaps.
Flaws in the hotline system have been known to state officials for a decade. By April, state officials finally expect to have a single call center with carefully trained employees who will see that every abused child gets prompt and useful attention.
The dispersed call centers are being consolidated at one location in North Portland, which runs around the clock. Some call centers scattered around the state function only during business hours. About half of the call centers have already been consolidated.
“There really has been a consensus for some time that this is what is needed,” said state Sen. Sara Gelser, chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee.
By spring, the statewide 24-hour hotline number – 1-855-503-SAFE – will be emblazoned on buses, popping up in social media feeds and flashing on the screen at movie theaters, an effort to publicize the new hotline and generate even more reports.
For years, national child welfare organizations, including the Children’s Bureau, have recommended that Oregon adopt a statewide hotline and screening system to address inconsistencies in how the reports are handled at branch offices.
“The way training was done for all of our hotlines when they were separate was each location was responsible for making sure that each of their screeners were trained,” said Jennifer Sorenson, a hotline manager. Now, screeners will go through the same academy with the same training, she said.
Centralized training and screening reduces the risk of information falling through the cracks, Sorenson said.
Call volumes can reach as high as 350 calls a day at the central hotline with half of the 15 branch offices still to shift their operations to Portland, said Laura McGinnis, a spokeswoman for the state child welfare system.
In 2016, the hotlines received nearly 77,000 reports of abuse. About 38,000 were sent to the field, resulting in 8,000 investigations by state Child Protective Services.
For the year long period ending in September 2017, the state determined 11,077 children were abused or neglected. Nearly half were younger than 6.
After receiving a call, screeners and their supervisors decide whether to assign a case to a Child Protective Services worker or to close a case after searching agency history relating to the family, Lene said.
Oregon is one of 17 states that don’t mandate by law a centralized hotline and centralized screening of calls, according to an audit by the Secretary of State in January 2018.
In 2016, a review by the Children’s Bureau, an office of the federal Administration for Children & Families found that inconsistent training of child welfare workers and high caseloads can result in a lack of follow-up on allegations of abuse.
To make matters worse, the state child welfare database intended to provide workers with an easy way to check a family’s history with Child Protective Services sometimes yields unreliable results, according to the state audit.
The review identified confusing investigatory rules, policies and processes and a lack of coordination between multiple entities responsible for responding to allegations of abuse. The result is that some reports aren’t investigated or are dismissed before enough information has been gathered.
The new center is expected to remedy some of those inconsistencies, McGinnis said.
The delay in centralizing the abuse reporting put children at risk, according to the state audit. There was variation across the state in how those taking telephoned abuse reports proceeded. That mean reports weren’t referred to supervisors for assessment or weren’t passed on to field workers, McGinnis explained. Auditors tracked five times in the past 16 years that reviews and audits recommended a single hotline without significant action by the Oregon Department of Human Services.
Consultants in 2002, for instance, documented inconsistencies in the child abuse screening and assessment criteria used at the branch offices. Four years later, the National Child Resource Center for Organization Improvement recommended the state move to centralized processing of incoming calls of abuse.
The state agency ignored its own personnel in 2011, when a critical incident response team investigating a child’s death recommended better hotline operations.
In 2015, Gov. Kate Brown ordered a review of safety for foster children that resulted in, among other recommendations, yet another call for a centralized hotline.
Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis, said employee turnover and a lack of leadership in the agency stalled change. She credits Marilyn Jones, the director of state child welfare programs since October 2017, for finally acting on the recommendations. The leadership change with Jones and department Director Fariborz Pakseresht in late 2017 may have marked a shift in resistance to the change.
“It has been a really elusive goal for over a decade, and Marilyn made it happen,” Gelser said. “It took an implementer. Marilyn really was able to identify the things we need to do to make it occur.”
“The governor has been tracking the agency’s progress on this hotline and was eager to fund the project when funding was needed,” Press Secretary Kate Kondayen wrote in an email.
For the next two-year state budget, Brown has proposed increasing spending for the call center by $3 million to a total of $41 million.
The Portland location for the center was picked a year ago but transferring screeners from around the state has taken time and will not be done for another four months, McGinnis said.
The screeners work in a sprawling room divided only by their cubicles, similar to an insurance office. Many of the cubicles are decorated with motivating messages such as “Who can I ask?” and “Be Confident.”
Over the holidays, Gelser mailed treats and thank you notes to screeners already working in Portland and issued a public thank you on Twitter for putting in extra shifts to hasten the consolidation.
“Screeners are probably one of the most important parts of the (child welfare) system, but nobody ever sees them, and many people don’t understand what they do,” Gelser said.
“It’s a really hard job,” Gelser said. “You are listening to really hard stories and making life or death decisions over and over all day long.”
Paris Achen: [email protected] or 503-506-0067. Achen is a reporter for the Portland Tribune working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.