Working with advocates, Del. Eric Luedtke came up with what seemed like an easy way to protect children: Create a single number that anyone can call, from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, to report possible abuse or neglect. Legislation he introduced, which is due for a hearing tomorrow , would take advantage of Maryland's existing 2-1-1 system to centralize reporting. The number could be widely publicized — as any manner of other hotlines are — so that people would know where to call without having to figure out the number for the local department of social services in the county where the child lives.
But the proposal has run into strong resistance from local DSS directors, all 24 of whom signed on to a letter opposing it. The legislation as drafted was not entirely clear in whether it was intended to create a centralized switchboard to re-route calls to the appropriate county or to completely privatize the screening function for reports of possible child abuse, but the DSS directors opposed either interpretation.
Total privatization would clearly be problematic, as the local DSS employees who take such calls now are highly trained and have access to confidential databases of case files on children who have come to their attention in the past. The 2-1-1 system is run by a specially chartered non-profit, so providing access to the kind of information DSS workers have would likely be impossible. Particularly in the case of small communities, DSS workers often have direct knowledge of the families in question, which helps them make fraught decisions about when and how to intervene. Some calls are literal life-and-death situations that require immediate action. Others aren't, and unnecessary or inappropriate intervention can destabilize families.
The bill's backers say privatization is not their intent, and they are preparing amendments to clarify the point. But the DSS officials object even to the idea of a centralized switchboard. "Screening is not a customer service function, and adding an additional step introduces risk into this process when the stakes are too high," they write. "It would invariably increase the response time for children who desperately need us."
We're sensitive to the idea that every second can count in cases of possible child abuse, and 2-1-1 is not the same as 9-1-1. The 2-1-1 system is the product of a national effort by the United Way to create a centralized referral service for health and human services resources. Workers there are trained to connect callers with a wide variety of public and private resources to help with everything from utility issues to filing taxes. In all, the system connects callers with 5,000 different agencies and programs. It does receive calls related to urgent situations — in 2016, it fielded about 8,500 calls about domestic violence, shelter and support and suicide and crisis —but that is the distinct minority of the 332,000 calls it logged .
The bigger problem, though, is that the 2-1-1 system is already swamped. The rate of "abandoned calls" — that is, those that are not answered — has steadily grown and reached 16 percent in fiscal 2016. "As the volume and complexity of calls has grown, staff capacity has not kept up, presenting real challenges," the system's most recent annual report says. "Without additional funding to increase staffing, more callers must wait longer for help and may continue to give up, abandoning the call."
That said, the legislation's backers are right that having a single, easy-to-remember access number to report possible child abuse — one that quickly routes callers to the appropriate local DSS — would have real advantages over the current system, in which each local agency has a different number. Seconds count when a centralized switchboard is transferring a call, but they also count when the person doing the reporting is trying to figure out what number to dial.
There should be a way to resolve the competing concerns of the backers and opponents of this legislation, but it's going to take some careful thought. The stakeholders involved need to determine whether 2-1-1 is the appropriate entity to handle such a task and, if so, what training and additional resources it would need to make sure no calls reporting children at risk fall through the cracks. We believe the system can be better, but we also can't take the risk that well intentioned reforms actually make things worse. The stakes are simply too high.