The Perley fourth-grader was well known to the adults who work there, who had knitted their eyebrows in worry several times over the years with how dirty and smelly the little girl was when she arrived at school.
The girl was overweight and suffered from poor self-esteem. Jill Waggoner, who has been a licensed school social worker for more than two decades, says she once raised concerns with the girl’s mother, who responded, “We have clean clothes in the house. She’s just not choosing to wear the clean clothes.”
But then late last spring, a teacher found disturbing, sexually explicit drawings the girl had drawn.
Waggoner recalls that feces were discovered several times on the classroom floor near where the girl had been sitting.
The child denied anything was wrong. But Waggoner and others, recognizing what they have learned are alarm bells signaling possible sexual abuse, called the state child abuse hot line.
The person at the other end of the phone — a Department of Child Services specialist in Indianapolis — told Waggoner the agency would not investigate further.
Waggoner and her principal appealed to an administrator with the school system, who said, “I’m really concerned about this child,’ ” Waggoner remembers. So they reached a supervisor downstate and were again told, “No, it does not meet our criteria.”
That little girl’s story reflects a growing concern that DCS — in its efforts to make screening decisions more consistent and more in line with what other states are doing — is “screening out” too many tips of child abuse and neglect.
All things to all people?
In 2010, DCS centralized its child abuse hot line to a single call center in Indianapolis. Rather than county departments fielding their own calls, as they had for years, all callers are now routed to Indianapolis, where an intake specialist decides whether the allegation merits an investigation.
The centralization, which was gradually rolled out in 2010, making 2011 the first full year of all calls going to Indianapolis, has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of calls “screened out” statewide.
DCS Director James Payne says the screen-out rate before centralization was 16 percent; records show that rate was 39 percent from September through November 2011.
Payne says Indiana is now in line with the federal average 38 percent screen-out rate, and in achieving that, DCS has narrowed its responsibilities to what state law requires.
"We, as government, should be engaged when a child's physical or mental health is seriously endangered or impaired," he says.
“In the past, the department had become all things to all people,” Payne says.
“So, things that mental health should provide, things that education should handle, things that development should handle, and on and on” were being taken on by DCS, he says. “The department became the place where everybody turned to solve a problem. That’s why we were at 16 percent (screen-out rate).”
The call center is staffed 24/7 with 62 intake specialists, who ask callers for details about the child, parents, their home and family life. They also ask about medical, criminal and CPS history, whether other children might be at risk, and pages of other questions to determine whether the child is in serious danger.
Calls that are deemed to merit an investigation are forwarded to the appropriate local office. The rest are “screened out.”
Using the same guidelines
Before the centralized call center, counties varied widely in their screen-out rates, Payne says, to the detriment of children who needed help. One county might have investigated 80 percent of its calls, while another investigated close to zero, he said.
Also, a local call center might have become so familiar with false reports from a particular caller that they dismissed the allegation even when it was legitimate.