Pa.’s child abuse hotline is now run out of employees’ homes, but receiving far fewer tips than normal

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In a trend that seems to confirm child welfare advocates’ worst fears, data provided by state officials show that calls to Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline have been cut nearly in half in the weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools and daycares to close their doors. 

The precipitous drop in call volume is consistent with the warnings that child abuse experts sounded to the Capital-Star last month, when they said that social distancing orders put in place by the Wolf administration would cut children off from teachers, day care providers, and other adults who are mandated by law to report suspected child abuse to the authorities.

Those adults are typically the leading source of tips to ChildLine, the 24-hour abuse hotline operated by the state Department of Human Services.

Now that they aren’t seeing children any more, ChildLine is fielding 50 percent fewer calls than it did prior to March 19, when hotline operators transitioned to work-from-home operations, Erin James, a department spokesperson, told the Capital-Star last week.

James said the transition to teleworking — which began on March 18, just days after Wolf closed schools and daycare centers across the Commonwealth — did not disrupt ChildLine’s services.

The Human Services Department is instead attributing the low call volume to “the lack of interaction between children, their teachers and other [adults]” in school settings, James said in an email last week. 

ChildLine is currently staffed by 69 caseworkers and seven supervisors, James said, who are all working from home to answer incoming calls. 

The trained specialists are the first line of defense in Pennsylvania’s child welfare system, and decide whether to forward abuse tips to county human service agencies, law enforcement officials, or state regulators who oversee daycares and other child and youth programs. 

But the child welfare investigators who respond to these tips say they’re still not getting the protective gear they need to perform home visits and in-person interviews with children and their families.

Caseworkers told the Capital-Star last month that they were not getting gloves, masks and hand sanitizer that would help them make home visits safely. 

Even though county emergency management agencies have since begun to distribute protective equipment to first responders, including police and firefighters, child welfare workers still remain largely unprotected, said Bryan Bornman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrators.

“Masks and gloves are really hard to come by,” Bornman told the Capital-Star last week. “Realistically, child welfare is pretty far down the pecking order in terms of getting access to [protective] equipment.”

The dip in new cases and in-person visitations has allowed some caseworkers to catch up on paperwork and other job responsibilities that can get left on the backburner during busy workdays, Bornman said.

But Bornman said the new conditions have largely hamstrung case workers, who rely on face-to-face interactions with children and their families to determine if abuse tips have merit. 

He also fears that long-term interruptions to children and youth services could decimate the industry’s workforce, which is already plagued with high turnover. He said diminished demand for child welfare services has led some caseworkers to be furloughed as county governments try to cut back spending on personnel.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, which represents county government officials across the state, launched a mask drive to collect homemade and donated masks for county caseworkers. 

While homemade cloth masks aren’t as effective as professional-grade gear in preventing transmission of the virus, Bornman said they’ll be better than nothing as case workers try to reenter the field.

Without protective equipment, caseworkers have to weigh the urgency of their work against the risks of infecting themselves and their families — as well as the families they’re investigating.

“Any time it’s more difficult to get out and lay eyes on kids, it’s concerning,” Bornman said. “At the same time, many of the families we work with are the least prepared to handle exposure to COVID-19, so it’s really hard to find that balance between making sure kids are safe without risking the safety and health of families.”