MIAMI (AP) - Child welfare officials are overhauling the state abuse hotline, adding faster technology and retraining staff so they can provide investigators with more updated information about alleged abuse and a family's background before a home visit.
But officials for the Department of Children and Families warned Wednesday of lags at the statewide hotline in the interim as they train about 60 command center counselors, meaning fewer people are answering phones since training started last week.
"Until we get ourselves fully staffed we're going to be in this interim period where it's going to be difficult to answer all the calls coming in ... you will see a difference and a slow down," said hotline director Kim Barrett.
Barrett addressed DCF employees and child advocates from across the state at a conference that kicked off in Orlando on Wednesday.
More than 300 hotline employees are slated to be trained by November. Typically, about eight percent of the roughly 1,600 daily callers get tired of waiting for a counselor to answer and hang up the phone. That figure has jumped to about 38 percent since training started, said Barrett.
But the average wait time is still only a few short minutes and the majority of callers are professionals - teachers, law enforcement and medical staff - and most will hold or call back, she said.
Despite a three-month slowdown, DCF officials said the hotline's overall accessibility will improve dramatically in the long run.
"We're doing a lot of things and we want to do it right and you can't just train everyone in one day," said Barrett.
The troubled system has come under scrutiny in recent years for screening out critical calls, responding too slowly to serious allegations and for relying on incomplete data.
Last year, DCF Secretary David Wilkins said he was astounded by the disorganized, scant paperwork that investigators often use as background information for families after he rode along with a child protective investigator making home visits.
Under the new system, technicians will beef up the information packet given to investigators, adding details from the health department, whether the family receives food stamps or other welfare and whether there are other children in the home. They will also make sure that basic information - names, birth dates and Social Security information - is correct. Operators will refer to a new set of questions for different abuse scenarios, including drug use and neglect, to guide them through a call.
Officials said the system is plagued by incomplete and duplicate information, making it difficult sometimes to share information with the schools, courts and law enforcement.
The state signed a five-year contract with IBM worth nearly $35 million to manage the hotline's technology.
DCF is also launching a two-way chat feature in November, allowing people to report abuse to the hotline online.
Longtime child advocate and attorney Andrea Moore warned officials were missing "a huge red flag" in the overhaul process by not collaborating more with school officials to report abuse.
They have information that "children were coming to school dirty, the children were hungry...they could tell you things that your folks did not know," said Moore. "Getting that information has been a problem across the state."
DCF officials said the new system will include school officials, along with a proactive approach for training teachers.
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