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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Vancouver lawmaker’s bill looks to bolster child abuse hotline

Legislation aims to create an online portal for reporting

By Wyatt Stayner, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 18, 2020, 6:00am

State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, has proposed legislation intended to improve Washington’s dysfunctional hotline for reporting child abuse.

The hotline — which is run by the Department of Children, Youth and Families — has struggled with long hold times when mandatory child abuse reporters, such as teachers and nurses, call in. Those wait times have led to high rates of abandoned calls, prompting concerns that child abuse is going unreported.

Cleveland’s legislation, Senate Bill 6556, has passed out of the Senate with 46 yeas, one absent vote and two excused votes. Her legislation would direct the state to create a web-based reporting portal, and a call-back mechanism, where mandatory reporters could leave a call-back number if they were placed on hold.

“Too often, we give our agencies responsibilities that are impossible to meet with limited resources,” Cleveland said in a press release. “This bill is aimed at providing direction and support to DCYF in order to address this critical need as a top priority.”

Last March, The Columbian spoke with three Kaiser Permanente nurses about long wait times with the End Harm Line, Washington’s hotline for mandatory reports of child abuse. In December, The Columbian reported that wait times on the hotline could frequently surpass 30 minutes, and that there were some months where thousands of calls were abandoned.

For Region Six — the hotline intake that covers Clark, Cowlitz, Skamania, Lewis, Wahkiakum, Pacific, Thurston, Grays Harbor, Mason, Jefferson and Clallam counties — 26 percent of calls were abandoned in September and 32 percent of calls were abandoned in October. That amounted to 1,137 abandoned calls.

A review of abandoned calls for the entire hotline in May 2019 showed that 26 percent of callers hung up.

Internal DCYF emails showed hotline staff were frustrated with the Legislature’s reluctance to provide more funding for additional hotline staff.

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“I still dream of a day where (headquarters) and Legislature provide us adequate resources to actually do the job,” one intake administrator wrote in an email.

Cleveland said she believes the online portal will be a good quality improvement to the reporting system.

“Mandatory reporters, who are often busy with other things, can’t devote hours of their day to this, because they are waiting on hold,” Cleveland said in a phone interview.

DCYF spokeswoman Debra Johnson wrote in an email that DCYF believes an online portal and call-back system “would allow mandatory reporters to report child abuse and neglect, or licensing issues, more efficiently,” because they wouldn’t have to wait on hold.

Cleveland said the online portal is already in use by the Washington State Department of Social And Health Services, handling 30 percent of all referrals for Adult Protective Services.

“We already have a template from this that has proven to be very successful,” she said.

Peigi Huseby, one of the Kaiser nurses who first spoke out about the hotline, said in December that she still had concerns with the online portal and call-back system. Huseby said she ultimately feels like hiring more hotline staff is necessary to handle child abuse and neglect reports, which rose by 31 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to state data.

Even with an online portal, staff will still need to dedicate time to sifting through the reports, Huseby said. DCYF said state funding for staff increases would be helpful.

“Increased staff for the intake lines would certainly allow us to improve callers’ experience in reporting,” Johnson said in an email.

Cleveland said the portal is a good first step, but did acknowledge that hiring extra staff could happen next year, when legislators put together the next two-year budget.

“I look at this effort as being multipronged and ongoing,” Cleveland said. “It’ll be something that I’m going to continue to make a priority and keep a focus on.”

Columbian staff writer