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Embattled agency and its abuse hotline criticized

INDIANAPOLIS – A legislative panel Thursday looked at tightening oversight of Indiana’s embattled child protection agency and decentralizing a statewide child abuse hotline that has been criticized as unresponsive in the wake of a series of child deaths that critics claim were preventable.

The Department of Child Services would be overseen by a permanent commission under one of the dozens of options that the study committee will consider recommending to legislators. Other proposals would take power from the state agency and switch it to local judges and prosecutors, change the way the state deals with mentally ill kids, and classify some troubled children as “at risk” rather than labeling them as juvenile delinquents.

But as in past meetings, the agency’s statewide child abuse hotline dominated discussion.

The agency decided more than two years ago to route all child abuse calls through a central intake in Indianapolis rather than have each county take calls from its area. But some judges and sheriffs said that in some instances, investigators didn’t hear about calls until hours after they had been placed.

Concern about how the hotline screens child abuse reports has grown as child deaths around Indiana have been investigated by local media outlets.

DCS director John Ryan said some law enforcement officials had told him that they had been put on hold for 20 minutes or more, though another agency official said most calls are answered within a minute. DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland told The Associated Press the average wait time for lay callers is less than three minutes.

But any delay was unacceptable to some commissioners.

“We have to get that wait time to zero. We’re talking about the lives of children here. We can’t have people being put on hold for two minutes,” said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, co-chairman of the panel.

“If you want to get as close to zero as possible, then we have to add staff,” Ryan said.

Officials paged through a sheaf of proposals, including replacing the statewide hotline with hotlines in local child protection offices, increasing staff, sharing call-answering duties between caseworkers and police, or handling calls only from professional sources such as hospitals, schools or child care agencies.

But Democratic Rep. Gail Riecken of Evansville questioned whether the reports regarding children who died came from professionals or concerned citizens. She said officials need to make sure they are listening to “the person down the street who is concerned for a child and is calling in for the 19th time.”

“Any delay, any kind of delay, for children can be very dangerous,” said Viola Taliaferro, former Monroe County juvenile court judge.

Whatever is done to increase efficiency, according to the proposals outlined Thursday, is going to cost money. The options ranged from hiring an additional 50 hotline workers to decrease hold times, at an estimated annual cost of $3.4 million, to setting up 24-hour hotlines at the local level, which might cost nearly $57 million.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said 90 percent of the calls to the hotline are received before 11 p.m., and staffing local hotlines for all callers from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. would cost about $40 million – $21 million more than limiting local calls to professionals during the same hours. After-hours calls would go to local law enforcement agencies.

“I think our duty is to urge what we think is the most efficient and safest for the children of the state of Indiana,” Lanane said. “It’s worth $21 million.”

The commission meets again on Nov. 27.