The world of child protection in Pennsylvania has turned upside over the past year or so with two dozen new laws put in place to bolster child safety along with new systems installed for reporting child abuse and neglect.
Given all those changes spurred at least in part by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale wants to take a look at how well the ones affecting ChildLine are working.
DePasquale announced on Wednesday his auditors last month began the first-ever state audit of this program overseen by Department of Human Services that runs the state’s child abuse hotline and processes applications for child abuse clearances.
“We’ve seen too many times in Pennsylvania and nationally where laws protecting children have not done enough,” DePasquale said. “Improper execution has led to children being harmed so we’re going to do our part to make sure that at least this piece of state government is doing everything it can do to protect children.”
Child welfare advocates welcome this independent look after hearing assurances from department officials over the years that the system is working and yet they still get reports of dropped calls to the hotline or calls going unanswered and long wait times to speak to a ChildLine employee.
Additionally, complaints were heard earlier this year about the delays in processing applications for child abuse clearances since a law took effect on Dec. 31, 2014, making the clearances mandatory for a wider universe of employees and volunteers who work around children.
The Department of Human Services has implemented some technological changes in the past few years and added employees to address complaints. DePasquale said he wanted to wait to initiate the audit until those corrective actions were in place to measure their effectiveness. The audit will focus on the time period beginning January 2014 and ending when auditors complete their field work, he said.
Department spokeswoman Kait Gillis said the department is cooperating with the auditor general and admits the audit will cover “a period of time where performance was unacceptable.” But Gillis went on to say the auditors also will see “a dramatic improvement” in ChildLine’s performance that have been made by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration.
An example she cited is the turnaround time for processing a child abuse clearance has decreased from 26 days in January to four days. State law says it should take no more than 14 days.
The audit’s initial objectives will look at the effectiveness of the intake process for the child abuse reporting hotline and determine whether the processing of calls is in compliance with laws, regulations and policies. But DePasquale said auditors reserve the right to explore other issues that crop up as they go about their work.
Child advocacy groups applauded the auditor general for taking what they consider a long overdue look at this aspect of the child welfare system.
Angela Liddle, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-area Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance , called it wise and prudent.
“Routine checks and balances are a good thing. There’s always room for improvement,” she said.
Cathleen Palm, principal of the Berks County-based Center for Children’s Justice, said she is hoping the auditor general will explore what, if any, difference a web-based portal for making child abuse reports that became operational this year has had compared to the hotline for reporting child abuse. She also hopes they dig into some of the hiccups she had heard that online reporting system has had.
She also would like to see auditors weigh into the quality of the screenings being done by ChildLine employees given the volume of calls they receive and how promptly law enforcement is receiving information that comes into the hotline about an abuse case that requires their involvement.
Palm said she wishes the audit would have been done before the state’s Task Force on Child Protection completed its work in 2012 to help inform its review of the state’s child protection system and recommendations for improving it. “But we should all be excited by the fact that now it’s happening,” she said.
“The beauty of this is it is the first time that I can think of that there will actually be that kind of scrubbing of information and data that is told by an independent source,” she said. “A new set of eyes may suggest new ways to do something.”
DePasquale reminded that his auditors can share their findings and recommendations with the Legislature and governor but whether any change results is up to them. No timeline for the audit’s completion was announced.