BY VIRGINIA BLACK
South Bend Tribune
SOUTH BEND —
In 2011, the Indiana Department of Child Services began fielding all its 800-number phone calls of abuse and neglect into one centralized call center in Indianapolis.
After media reports of fewer calls being investigated and longer call wait times, legislators allocated money for more hotline employees, and DCS placated local officials with a policy that sent all final reports to local offices for review.
Then last summer, under new DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura, DCS unrolled a plan in its annual report to legislators to open four regional call centers around the state in addition to the central office in Indianapolis — including a call center in South Bend that has opened in the last few weeks with a skeleton staff of 11 employees.
By the time it is fully staffed this fall, it will employ 20 intake specialists -- social workers who are trained family case managers with additional call center training — and four supervisors, DCS spokesman James Wide said. The South Bend call center is at 300 N. Michigan St., in the same building as the county DCS office.
More hiring will be done in April, he said.
The three other regional call centers are in Vanderburgh County (Evansville, in the southwest corner); Blackford County (Hartford City, between Fort Wayne and Muncie); and Lawrence County (Bedford). All of the call centers will operate 24/7.
Vanderburgh, which will also have 20 intake specialists and four supervisors, will not be up and running at all until this fall, Wide said. The other two are operational with five intake specialists and a supervisor.
But calls will not be answered regionally, Wide said, instead being assigned randomly by computer. So that means if you call 800-800-5556 — the child abuse hotline — from a South Bend phone, it might be answered by a person sitting in Evansville.
He points out that the call center workers all benefit from the same training and the same database of information.
Wide said there was no particular rhyme or reason as to why Vanderburgh, Lawrence, Blackford or St. Joseph counties were chosen to house the regional call centers, except an attempt to broaden the cultural nature of the work force.
“We’re a statewide agency, so you want to cover the state,” he said.
The DCS annual report identified the ever-increasing numbers of reports to the hotline, the high turnover of hotline employees and the need to hire more workers. But it does not explain why those four sites were chosen.
Earlier Tribune reports quoted doctors, social workers, law enforcement officials and judges in St. Joseph County complaining their reports to the centralized hotline were too often disregarded, follow-up was nonexistent and wait times were long. Many of these concerns followed the much-publicized torture death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis in South Bend.
State Sen. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, was an outspoken hotline critic and a member of the legislative study committee that recommended changes to the centralized call center. (Riecken did not respond to a request for comment last week.)
“The folks here in Indianapolis do not have the flavor of the different areas around the state, so built into the system of a centralized hotline, to me, is defeat,” she testified in 2012.
And DCS tried out some pilot programs in Lawrence County, DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan told the study committee in September 2012. Residents of that county, including the sheriff, had objected publicly to changes in the call center.
Before the hotline was centralized, each county had its own system of taking calls. When the centralized hotline was developed, it standardized how information was collected and disseminated.
As of last year, all hotline reports are sent to local DCS offices for review, and those that are “screened out” are sent to local “child protection teams” that include others in the community, such as law enforcement and education, to discuss what reports are being made locally.
These are all changes that so far please agencies that work with DCS, said Cathleen Graham, executive director of the Indiana Association of Residential Child Care Agencies.
Two years ago, her board was concerned about the hotline issue and others, Graham pointed out in an email last week.
But the 87 member agencies her organization represents have not raised hotline concerns lately, she said, and she’s not sure how call routing will change that.
Otherwise, she said, the group is finding DCS to be more collaborative generally.
“One more positive aspect may be the ability of DCS to recruit from a larger pool of potential staff for the hotline from diverse areas of the state,” Graham said, “since the Indianapolis area was the main source of staffing prior to these more regional sites.”