Two former Department of Child Services hotline workers say management policies have led to the call center's 50 percent turnover rate and a system that effectively discourages the investigation of child abuse and neglect reports.
Meanwhile, as the General Assembly's study committee on DCS prepares to turn its attention this week specifically to the hotline, DCS officials have told the panel they are trying some pilot programs on how reports are made and that they are willing to discuss other possibilities in how the call center operates.
Since The Tribune in February published growing concerns about the hotline, parents, teachers, doctors, judges and law enforcement officials around the state began to report their dissatisfaction with how many fewer reports were being investigated.
Before 2010, when DCS began to roll out its single call center in Indianapolis, each county operated its own hotline. DCS Director James Payne has said the former system was inconsistent in how it took and reacted to reports and that the potential for bias was greater.
"Mandatory reporters" in child protection, such as teachers, police and doctors, have complained about long waits to talk with a hotline worker, unreturned calls, and that trust and ties with local DCS employees was lost. They complained that too many of their reports were being "screened out" rather than assigned for investigation.
DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan told the study committee during its first hearing Aug. 22 of "very legitimate concerns about the hotline."
In response, he said hotline calls from law enforcement officials - police, judges and prosecutors - are now automatically sent to local offices for investigation. They're debating whether to include in that policy calls from other professionals, such as school officials who report abuse.
Three pilot programs are being tried in Lawrence County, DCS officials say:
* County DCS officials are reviewing all hotline non-assessments ("screenouts").
* Law enforcement officials may contact their local DCS office directly for immediate help.
* And in both Lawrence and Vanderburgh counties, local child-protection teams have the option of reviewing all non-assessments (screened-out cases).
"Once pilots are complete, DCS will collect feedback, make adjustments as needed, and offer to other counties to implement - if they wish," DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland wrote in an e-mail last week. "Not all counties report concerns with the hotline."
'It should be a priority'
Marshall County Prosecutor David Holmes said last week that law enforcement officials there have met with local DCS staff recently, and in some cases, police are able to contact local officials directly.
Not long ago, Holmes said he heard universal frustration about DCS response.
"When police raid a meth lab in a house, you go in some of these places and your eyes water. It's just horrible in there because they're cooking meth, and there's a 2-year-old or a 3-year-old in there," he said. When a family case manager arrives sooner, "it allows the police to do their job.
"I do think (DCS has) been conscious of the publicity out there and are making a real effort to be responsive," he said. "I can see if you're fielding complaints from the general public, they need a screening process. But it seems to me if it comes from law enforcement, it should be a priority somehow."
South Bend social worker Linda Cress, who works with students in Monroe and Marshall schools, said last week that the consolidated hotline has both strengths and weaknesses.
She's seen more of her reports screened out than she's agreed with. But at least she's told at the end of her call whether the report is likely to be investigated - and she can prepare others involved in the case - when before, she often never learned of a resolution.