The Child Abuse Registry, a hot line used to report child abuse in Orange County, is receiving so many calls daily that it has started putting callers on hold.
Officials say that this time of the year, the telephones ring constantly and the anxiety level reaches new heights for the workers who answer those calls.
It is particularly stressful for the 10 or more operators because the number of calls may increase by as much as 25% or more on a daily basis.
"When that red light goes on that little panel, you know there is someone on that line that needs you," said one of the hot-line operators, who are known as "CAR" workers. CAR is an acronym for Child Abuse Registry.
Officials of the hot line theorize that the number of calls increases this time of the year because the school term is ending and many teachers take the opportunity to report their suspicions before their students go on summer vacation. Teachers are required to report cases of child abuse to authorities.
Another possibility for the increase in calls is that tax time causes stress in homes and children sometimes become the targets of violence, said Ray Gallagher, a supervisor at the hot line.
But officials admit they really don't know why the number of calls increases the way they do this time of the year.
"Right now is our busiest until June. We usually have 250 calls a day. Yesterday, we had 320," Gallagher said last week.
Even though the hot line has hired three more people to handle the increase in calls, officials said it is not enough.
"We are still not meeting the demands with the three people we just added. I guess you could say we are at the bare bones," said Nathan Nishimoto, the program director for the hot line, which is available 24 hours.
Nishimoto said he is worried that longer waits on the telephone could result in a caller hanging up, and in the worst scenario, a child physically beaten or killed while waiting to get through.
"We don't have numbers on how many life and death situations happen each day. But I would say at least one or two a week," Nishimoto said.
Each call has to be handled carefully and deliberately because so much is at stake, officials said. Sometimes, people call the hot line to get their neighbors or people they don't like in trouble with the police, officials said.
When a call comes in, operators, who are trained social workers, determine if the call is valid and decide whether it needs further investigation. An additional 10 people help by obtaining records from files and getting information to CAR workers when they need it.
The CAR workers review each call and determine what level of risk the child faces, officials said. The workers decide whether the calls warrant an immediate response, a 10-day follow-up or merely filing a report of the complaint.
Gallagher said the three categories of response for the hot line operators are:
* An emergency or immediate response is ordered when there is "imminent danger" for the child victim. Sexual abuse or injuries such as bruises or broken bones are reasons for immediate and emergency response.
* A 10-day response is given to those cases where the child experienced some form of abuse days, weeks, months, or years ago but is not in immediate danger by the alleged abuser.
* If the alleged abuse cannot be proved, the information is put into the computer on a report under the suspect's name and filed in one of the hundreds of thousands of files stored in the building. It is not illegal for the agency to keep those files, officials said.
Carolle A. Lundberg, 49, has spent five years on the hot line and said it is sometimes very difficult to deal with some of the calls.
"Some people are hysterical," Lundberg said. "You try to calm them down, try to get through their fears and try to assess the situation."
Rohn Williams, 35, the lead operator for the hot line, said the abundance of calls makes each one difficult because operators have to be more careful to avoid letting an incident slip through.
Williams, who has worked the hot line seven years, said operators can't make decisions and involve the authorities on "gut feelings."
He said each call has to be carefully reviewed before any action is taken.
"Sometimes you have a case where there are false allegations. It happens more often than we would like," Williams said. "If we can establish that (the call) was with malicious intent, we can turn it over to the district attorney."
Gallagher said the child abuse hot line is not like a police tip line, and callers are asked to give their names in order to follow up on cases. Anonymous calls are received but officials said it is difficult for them to do anything because they need some kind of evidence other than anonymous accusations to take action. The caller becomes part evidence.
Another CAR worker, Janet Gutierrez, 29, who has been working on the hot line for six months, said sexual molestation calls are the worst for her to deal with.
"Sometimes they hang up. They don't want the police involved. . . . When this happens, I wonder if they ever got help. You wish you could reach into the phone and drag them back on (the telephone). They are being abused," Gutierrez said.
As Gutierrez sat in her 6-foot-by-6-foot cubicle, she looked down at the phone and a little gray box with a red indicator light blinking on and off.
"The red light never stops blinking," she said.
Flood of Abuse
Calls to the Orange County Child Abuse Registry have steadily increased over five years. There were 91% more calls received in 1992 than in 1988. During the same period, the registry's annual budget increased 65%. The largest single jump came last year when eight employees were added. Telephone Calls 1992: 36,014 Annual Budget 1992: $836,893 \o7 Source: Orange County Social Services Agency\f7