A majority of callers to Illinois' child abuse hotline — a front line in protecting battered and neglected children — don't initially get through to someone who could dispatch an investigator, the Tribune found.
Instead, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services took messages for the majority of its more than 236,000 calls logged over an 11-month period ending May 31.
The percentage of callers who reach a specialist on the crucial first attempt has plummeted over the last 11 years. It's now less than 40 percent, compared with nearly 70 percent in 2001, the newspaper determined.
Authorities said the agency does not track average callback times, but hotline workers as well as police, teachers and doctors told the Tribune it can take several hours during peak periods to get a response.
Experts say the system is fraught with potential risk for children who may be left in dangerous situations longer. In fact, inadequate staffing of the hotline was cited in the death of one child in Kankakee in 2010.
The inability to handle a call promptly also takes a toll on workers who struggle with chronic understaffing.
"When school was in, there were times when we were running five to six hours behind," said Kim Abner, a 14-year specialist. "We were working a lot of overtime. It was nothing to stay two to three hours after your shift ended to try to help your co-workers get caught up."
Ed Cotton, who helped set up the hotline in 1980 and now advises other states as a child-welfare consultant, said the message-taking system was used sparingly early on to whittle down the number of calls left on hold at the busiest times. The idea was to reduce hang-ups, but it was never supposed to be standard operating procedure, he said.
"It's horrible," Cotton said of the Tribune's findings. "That's not a hotline, in my opinion."
DCFS officials said budgetary constraints, constant staff turnover and outdated technology have fueled problems.
The Tribune examination of the hotline also found:
•An increase in complaints to DCFS' inspector general's office during the last two years.
•Calls no longer are recorded for quality assurance because of broken equipment.
•A committee of medical professionals, frustrated with delays, has asked DCFS to set up a separate phone line dedicated to police, hospitals and other mandated child-abuse reporters.
Problems with response times at what Director Richard Calica calls his agency's "front door" underscore continued challenges as DCFS also struggles with high caseloads for critical front-line staff members who investigate the hotline reports.
The investigators are mostly meeting their requirement to try to find a child within 24 hours, according to agency statistics. But in recent months, the Tribune has reported that their caseload levels are often double what they should be, and that investigations languish without resolution longer than legally allowed.
The newspaper also has examined troubling child deaths and exposed the agency's failure to conduct timely inspections and background checks at day care facilities.
In January 1980, Illinois was among the first states in the nation to centralize its child abuse hotline with a single toll-free number that rings into the call center, within sight of the Capitol.
Because of highly publicized deaths and public campaigns to raise awareness, especially about child sexual abuse, calls to the hotline skyrocketed in the 1990s.
A record number of calls, 377,551, were recorded in 1994-95. The annual call volume then repeatedly dropped and has held steady for the last several years at below 260,000 — still making the Illinois hotline one of the busiest in the country.
Callers dial 800-25ABUSE and reach a "call-floor" specialist who assesses whether the allegation meets the legal requirements for the state to intervene. If the specialists are backed up and it's not deemed an emergency, a worker asks the caller to provide a name and number, and the hotline calls back.
Kendall Marlowe, DCFS' spokesman, acknowledged the problem of using message takers, but he said the alternative is more abandoned calls. Less than 3 percent of hotline calls in the 11-month period resulted in a hang-up, the newspaper found, reflecting the best rate chronicled in more than a decade.
The national average is about 5 percent.
"We very rarely put calls on hold because that doesn't accomplish anything," Marlowe said. "If the child is not in immediate danger, we get the caller's name and number and call them back. The hotline needs to be properly staffed so that we're taking live calls and not relying on a callback system."
Besides Illinois, 33 states have a toll-free child abuse hotline, according to federal government statistics. Officials in Florida, Indiana and New York report that most of their hotline calls are answered within minutes. In Michigan, for example, the average wait is three minutes. None reported a similar message-taking system.
About 700 calls on average are logged daily at Illinois' State Central Register, as the hotline is formally known. Workers said they answer about 20 calls per shift on a summer day, but the workload can double during the school year, when injuries are visible to more mandated reporters.
State law requires DCFS to operate the hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If a caller's information meets specific legal criteria, specialists take a formal report and immediately relay it to the appropriate DCFS office. An assigned investigator then must make a good-faith effort to locate the child within 24 hours — or immediately in the most serious cases.
A death in Kankakee
The calls, workers say, can be horrific — reports of children being beaten, burned, molested and neglected.
On occasion, a child is on the other end of the line. A 17-year-old girl recently called to say she had nowhere to stay. A boy, who at 10 is a veteran in the system, called to complain about his mother.
Most of the workers became emotional when describing what they hear, especially when the calls come in too late. All suspicious child deaths are reported to the hotline.
"When you hear mom is prostituting her child for cocaine, or if a child dies and I know we should have been there but we weren't because no one called us, that's tough," said Bruce Dubre, vice president of his local union who, for most of his 22-year career, worked on the hotline.
Specialist Tracy Reasonover said another hard part of the job is deciding whether the tip meets the criteria to take a report.
DCFS launches formal investigations in one-fourth of all hotline calls. Most of the other inquiries result in referrals for voluntary community resources.
"It's a judgment call sometimes, and if you make the wrong call, it can be life or death," Reasonover said.
The hotline is considered fully staffed when it has 95 trained call-floor workers, all of whom are required to have a college degree related to social work. DCFS employed 80 of these specialists at last count, officials said.
Staffing shortages were cited in a 1-year-old Kankakee girl's death in February 2010. Alma Perez was fatally beaten and suffocated 16 days after the hotline accepted a report, records show.
Her mother, Gregoria Perez, 25, is charged with first-degree murder.
The original hotline caller spoke Spanish and hung up because a bilingual specialist wasn't available to speak to her, as is required, according to a DCFS inspector general's report. Two days passed before the same caller tried again and reached someone, the report said.
DCFS has an automated translator service that workers can call in such situations, agency officials said.
It's impossible to know how the two-day delay affected the case, but Inspector General Denise Kane said her office has investigated an increase in hotline complaints in the last two years.
Most recently, Kane noted, a Cook County school principal complained because the hotline rejected a teacher's report involving a 13-year-old girl who said her father fondled her. The sobbing teen told her teacher it happened twice while her dad was intoxicated.
Though the hotline specialist accepted the teacher's report, a supervisor questioned whether the girl misunderstood her father's touch and canceled the report.
The inspector general's inquiry into the incident was complicated because calls are no longer recorded.
"It's ridiculous," Kane said. "Can you imagine if it was a 911 call and the police didn't have a recording?"
Calica said the agency has been unable to record hotline calls for quality assurance since the equipment broke in May 2011, and the equipment is so outdated, it can't be repaired. Plans to upgrade hotline technology are on hold because of budget cuts.
Taking messages can be especially troublesome because 1 in 5 callers are anonymous.
Workers said they do their best to coax nervous callers into providing a name and number.
The majority of hotline calls are made by police, school and hospital staff who are required by law to file a report if they suspect a child is in danger.
Frustrated with the delayed responses, a state committee of medical professionals asked Calica to set up a separate phone line dedicated to mandated reporters. Agency officials argue that would create more bureaucracy.
Lauren Baugh, an elementary school counselor who just left a job in an impoverished region in southern Illinois, said she rarely made it through to a specialist on her first attempt in the estimated 100 times she called the hotline in the last two years.
DCFS has a near-perfect record in meeting its 24-hour mandate to investigate after the hotline report is taken, according to agency statistics. But professionals such as Baugh worry about what can happen before the clock starts ticking, as callers wait for the hotline to call back.
"I waited until 11 o'clock one night for a callback," she said. "We train kids to tell us if they are being harmed, but what message are we giving them when we send them back home to their abuser because DCFS is running behind?"
Faced with such delays, hospitals and police departments have come up with their own safety plans to help endangered children.
Staff members at Edward Hospital in Naperville say they have admitted children with suspicious injuries overnight rather than release them before DCFS arrives to investigate.
"We realize they're overwhelmed, but it makes us feel helpless," said nurse Sheri Hey, an assistant ER manager. "There's a lot of kids falling through the cracks."
Gov. Pat Quinn said the Tribune's hotline findings are "absolutely" troubling and pledged to find more funding for the struggling child welfare agency.
DCFS was dealt another blow in recent weeks when the state Legislature reduced its staffing by 375 workers. In the state budget he recently signed, Quinn recommended shifting as much as $57 million from prisons to DCFS to try to avert cutting programs and personnel, a proposal that will require legislative approval.
The threat of mass layoffs came as Calica was reorganizing the department's 2,900 employees to transfer more workers to critical child protection assignments.
If necessary, Calica plans to cut prevention services. But the move, he said, could increase foster care rolls and drive up hotline calls.
Despite the stress of their jobs, hotline workers such as Abner said they know they can save defenseless children, which keeps them reaching for the phone.
"It can mean the difference between life or death," she said.
Tribune reporter Bill Ruthhart and freelance reporter Dennis Sullivan contributed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun