A spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Children and Families confirmed this week that a call center for child abuse reports had trouble keeping up with the volume of calls it received in September but denied the center had a “backlog.”
Foster care contractors learned of the issue in a Sept. 22 email sent by a DCF employee that said the call center was “experiencing a backlog in processing new reports of abuse or neglect, due to a severe staffing issue.”
The email asked family preservation workers with KVC Kansas, one of two foster care contractors, to use an online form for reporting child abuse and neglect instead of calling the Kansas Protection Reporting Center. The email has since been shared on social media and with Heartland Health Monitor partner KHI News Service.
Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for DCF, confirmed that the email did come from a DCF employee but said the call center wasn’t experiencing a “backlog.” She said she defined a backlog as employees being unable to answer or respond to calls.
“That is not the case and was not the case in September,” she said.
However, Freed said employees were “struggling to keep up with the volume of calls” in September, because school was back in session and teachers are required to report signs of abuse or neglect.
At that time the call center had employees assigned to follow up immediately on “priority” calls, such as when a child had suspicious bruises, and family preservation workers were asked to use the online system to keep phone lines open for members of the public, she said.
Freed didn’t respond to questions about staffing levels at the call center in September. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, DCF said last week that the agency had 463 staff positions open.
Sarah Coats, who said she recently was fired from her job as a family preservation therapist for KVC Kansas and shared the DCF email on social media, said at times the call center staff didn’t call her back about a report for several days or never called back.
KVC officials declined to comment Friday on whether Coats had worked there.
Coats said she had difficulty getting someone from the call center on the phone for about a year. She said she never received a follow-up email indicating the call center backup had been resolved.
The online form also wasn’t an ideal situation when she was meeting with children, Coats said, because she couldn’t easily set aside time to write a report.
Several recent child abuse cases have drawn attention to how DCF handles child abuse reports.
A Legislative Post Audit report released in July found DCF hadn’t always responded to calls in a timely manner from July 2013 to January 2016. Auditors took a sample of 40 cases that involved calls from more than one person and appeared to be high risk, based on the severity of the allegations.
In 30 cases, DCF followed up within the required time, which could be one day, three days or 20 days, based on the type of allegations. In five cases, staff didn’t follow up in time, and the evidence was unclear for the other five cases. The call center handled about 170,000 reports during that time period.
“Even though we found only five investigations where follow-up was not timely, that number is still concerning,” the audit report said. “That is because the report center is a primary method used to help ensure that child abuse and neglect reports are addressed.”
Freed said anyone who suspects a child is being abused or neglected should continue to call the reporting center at (800) 922-5330.
Meg Wingerter is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC