Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) is in the hot seat after the agency’s child abuse hotline logged wait times of nearly an hour, prompting nearly half of all callers to abandon their attempts to report abuse. Nearly 53 percent of all callers to the Spanish-language hotline abandoned their calls, while the English-language hotline abandonment rate hit 44.3 percent. According to documents submitted to the legislature, the agency’s standard is to answer 98 percent of all calls in under 10 minutes.
According to the DCF’s October 2023 Monthly Report, the average wait time escalated from under seven minutes in the summer to about 25 minutes in September, then surged to 58 minutes in October. The extended wait times also come with more bad news: one out of every two callers is getting frustrated with the long wait and hanging up, raising concerns about the state’s capacity to respond quickly to allegations of child abuse.
When pressed for answers about what is causing the extended delays, DCF blamed the installation of new technology that, two months later, department staffers apparently still haven’t figured out.
“The Department implemented a new intake technology system in early October that contributed to some of the longer wait times initially as staff become used to the new system,” wrote DCF Communications Director Mallory McManus in an email to The Capitolist. “Since then, wait times have stabilized with the current average wait time being 34 minutes. Callers have the ability to request a call back in lieu of waiting on hold.”
She pointed out that the state has a strong track record for handling abuse claims and said that Florida stacked up well compared to other states.
“We take very seriously our responsibility to support strong families while protecting and ensuring the children in the state of Florida have a safe place to live, ” McManus wrote. “Florida has one of the fastest (3rd) response times in the country to reports of abuse.”
But the statement failed to provide any context for the claim of the third fastest national response time despite two additional attempts to reach out to the department for more information about the claim. Nor did McManus or DCF communications staff respond to follow-up questions seeking more information about department plans to get the abuse hotline’s long hold times under control.
The child abuse hotline is a critical component of Florida’s protective services, intended to provide an immediate response to suspicions of child abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Florida law mandates the operation of a hotline to facilitate the quick intake of reports to protect at-risk children. Often, the calls are referred to professional investigators who can intervene if the caller’s abuse report is substantiated.
A detailed analysis of DCF’s October report reveals that the spike in wait times began earlier this year and has since reached an all-time high. The trend suggests that the hotline, which is a potential lifeline for endangered children, is currently overwhelmed.
McManus said that part of the department’s challenge has to do with the school year. ,
“Call wait times for the Florida Abuse Hotline vary based on seasonality,” McManus wrote in her initial response. “The number of calls and wait time in the Summer varies quite differently from those received in the Fall; this trend is in direct correlation to the fact that teachers and school personnel are one of the top reporters, and school is out for the summer.”
But child welfare experts emphasize speed as being a crucial component in the success of a hotline to ensure the safety of vulnerable children.
“Hotline systems are the first point of contact between the public and the child protection agency,” says David Sanders, Executive Vice President of Systems Improvement at Casey Foundation, a national child welfare advocacy organization.”An effective hotline is responsive, timely, and consistent and must be designed to ensure that children who require investigation and/or services are identified in a timely way.”
Historically, though, Florida’s hotline has experienced challenges during times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, when families were confined to their homes. The current trend shows that October has far exceeded even the worst pandemic-era hold times, and is the worst month over the last five years:
DCF has set operational targets to ensure prompt response times for the hotline. However, the current performance, as indicated by the October report, is clearly not meeting those internally set benchmarks, and now, nearly two months later, wait times remain a major problem.
Despite repeated inquiries, the DCF did not not elaborate on the measures being taken to address the issue.
The upcoming 2024 Legislative Session, starting January 7th, presents an opportunity for lawmakers to address these operational challenges. Previous concerns about DCF’s management of the Medicaid redetermination hotline, which also experienced similar issues, indicate a pattern that legislators and advocacy groups have been looking to correct.