Long wait times, dropped calls on Pa. child abuse hotline

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Shocked and horrified by the sins of Jerry Sandusky, a motivated legislature passed 21 laws aimed at protecting children in the aftermath of the notorious case.

The last of them took effect January 1.

“Some of them included redefining what child abuse is, who’s a perpetrator, and who’s required to report suspected abuse,” said Carlisle attorney Jason Kutulakis, who was a member of Governor Corbett’s Task Force on Child Abuse that recommended many of the new laws.

“We’re no longer a statistical outlier in Pennsylvania,” Kutulakis said with pride. “We’re now leading the fight to end child abuse.”

But perhaps those new laws are too effective.

Mandatory reporters like coaches, teachers or doctors who suspect child abuse are supposed to call the Pennsylvania Child Line at 1-800-932-0313. Lots of folks are calling the number.

The first three weeks of January 2015 saw nearly 7,000 more calls than the first three weeks of January 2014, according to the Department of Human Services, which oversees ChildLine.

ABC 27 has gotten complaints of dropped calls or reporters being put on hold for as long as 45 minutes.

“It’s a huge problem,” Kutulakis said. “If I’m an emergency room doctor and I’m a mandated reporter, I cannot afford to stay on the phone for more than a couple minutes because I have to attend to that child’s needs and other people’s needs, so it’s important that we get the information quickly.”

Kutulakis also worries that those reporters who have a bad experience the first time will be reticent to call a second, third or fourth time.

Department of Human Services spokeswoman Kait GIllis concedes there’s a problem. She released a statement that, in part, said, “While the department expects some of the increase to be temporary and subside over time as individuals get more familiar with the new electronic system, we are in the process of hiring six employees to address the additional call volume.”

ABC 27 called the ChildLine twice about 2 p.m. Monday afternoon.

There was a recorded message, hold music, then a transfer to another recording that said: “Sorry, we are unable to continue with this function at present. If the problem persists, please advise your system administrator.”

The call was then cut off.

We called a second time and were on hold for seven minutes before being transferred to a live person.

Kutulakis is concerned that laws with good intentions that are getting good results are being hamstrung by bad implementation..

“They – ChildLine –  are swamped, they’re overworked, there’s no doubt about that’s accurate information,” Kutulakis said. “Unfortunately, that’s not good enough.”

Gillis said the line is being clogged by people who shouldn’t be calling. The ChildLine is only for reporting suspected child abuse. Unfortunately, she said, there are mandatory reporters calling with questions about their background checks or clearance applications.

The number to call regarding applications is 1-877-371-5422.

For assistance with accounts or other technical issues, call 1-877-343-0494.

The Department of Human Services hopes these growing pains will be ironed out soon as folks understand the new system. But Kutulakis wonders if six new hires answering phones is enough.

“They need more,” Kutulakis said. “You need 20-25. Whatever the need is, we need to hire to make sure kids are safe.”

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