More than 60 percent of calls to Illinois' child abuse hotline - a resource designed to protect the state's neglected and battered children - are answered by a message service instead of a welfare specialist, according to a published report Sunday.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services recorded messages for the majority of the 236,000 calls logged over an 11-month period ending May 31, the Chicago Tribune reported (http://trib.in/RGPzfx ).
State law requires the department to operate the hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, insufficient staffing has been reported and was cited in the death of a child in Kankakee in 2010.
DCFS doesn't track average callback times, but workers and police told the Tribune that it can take several hours during peak periods to get a response.
"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."
The percentage of callers who reach a specialist on the crucial first attempt has plummeted over the last 11 years. Less than 40 percent reach one on the first try now, compared with nearly 70 percent in 2001, the Tribune determined.
DCFS spokesperson Kendall Marlowe acknowledged the problem of taking messages, but said the alternative -- putting callers on hold -- leads to more abandoned calls.
"The hotline needs to be properly staffed so that we're taking live calls and not relying on a callback system," Marlowe said.
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.
Experts call it a broken hotline system that is fraught with potential risk for children who may be left in dangerous situations longer.
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. He describes the agency's current inability to answer callers as "horrible."
Inadequate staffing, budgetary constraints, constant staff turnover and outdated technology problems sit at the root of the state agency's problem, DCFS officials said.