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O.C. Loses 25% of Abuse Calls, Panel Finds

March 17, 1994|TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — One-fourth of the callers to the county's 24-hour child abuse hot line hung up last year after they got busy signals or were put on hold for as long as 40 minutes while waiting to leave a complaint, according to a new report by the Orange County Grand Jury.

In a study released Wednesday, grand jury officials reported that 11,591 of the 46,313 callers to the Orange County Child Abuse Registry between Jan. 1, 1993, and Dec. 1, 1993, never got through.

James Cooper, chairman of the grand jury's Juvenile Services and Education Committee, which issued the report, said those figures are especially disturbing because each call represents a potential case of child abuse or neglect. Although some callers may try again if they are not immediately able to reach someone to file a complaint, he said, many others will not bother.

"We can't say that the children were harmed but, of course, the threat is there when you have that many calls that are not answered," Cooper said.

The Grand Jury Report on Children's Services Registry was the culmination of a six-month study on the inner workings of the Orange County Child Abuse Registry. Administered by the Orange County Social Services Agency, the Child Abuse Registry provides a 24-hour hot line to field child abuse reports.

It also includes an Emergency Response Services section--a team of social workers that is dispatched to investigate child abuse complaints.

Children's Services Director Gene Howard said officials are aware of the problems with the hot line and have been working for the last several months to institute some of the grand jury's recommendations.

In recent months, the Child Abuse Registry has installed an alarm system that alerts a clerk whenever a caller has been on hold for five minutes, Howard said. When that happens, a clerk takes down the caller's name and number, and relays the information to a social worker, who calls back when time is available.

"We've been trying to move quickly," Howard said. "With child abuse cases, you're really dependent on people to call in and let you know what's out there, so we really need to minimize the calls that we lose."

In conducting the study, the members of the grand jury audited hot-line records, interviewed social workers and other staff members at the Child Abuse Registry and reviewed citizen complaints.

The committee made several recommendations for improving hot-line efficiency, including hiring more staff to take complaints, increasing the number of telephone lines for calls and encouraging mandatory reporting agencies such as police departments to file complaints by facsimile machines.

"Despite the commendable dedication of social workers, the registry needs improvements in both technology and staffing to improve effectiveness and response to child abuse calls," the report stated.

According to officials at the county Social Services Agency, the volume of calls that went unanswered reflects, in part, an alarming increase in the number of reported cases of child abuse in Orange County.

In 1989, the agency investigated 25,850 reports of child abuse countywide, compared to 36,000 in 1993.

"There had been the feeling for a while that we'd reached the plateau--we'd finally gotten the total number of calls that we'd ever get--but that hasn't been the case," Howard said.

So far, he said, the number of telephone lines at the Child Abuse Registry has been increased from six to 10. Six more social workers are scheduled to be transferred from other areas within the agency's Children's Services division between now and April 11 to help staff the hot line.

The move will increase the number of trained social workers taking complaints from 13 to 19.

However, Howard said, the irregularity of the call volume makes it difficult to predict staffing needs.

"You could have an hour in a day where you might have 36 people trying to call and then another hour where you have nine," he said.

However, some child abuse advocates expressed concern that people who are not immediately able to get through to a social worker would change their mind about making a complaint--potentially exposing a child to continued abuse.

"If they are tentative or a little bit nervous about it in the first place, it would certainly reduce the chance that they would call back," said Tim Bauer, vice president of Olive Crest, a nonprofit agency in Anaheim Hills that places abused children in foster care and group homes.

"Any time you're dealing with child abuse, you have a lot of emotional factors to consider. People know they're doing the right thing, but still it's something that they don't know a whole lot about and they'd rather not be involved."

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