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Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare

Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare

A policy perspective on addressing the mental health needs of child abuse hotline workers

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An article highlighted in a recent Child Welfare in the News listing from Child Welfare Information Gateway discussed issues with Illinois' child maltreatment reporting hotline: Child abuse hotline callers must leave messages. The article states that

"[m]ore than 60 percent of calls to Illinois' child abuse hot line...are answered by a message service instead of a welfare specialist" and that "it can take several hours during peak periods to get a response."
DCFS officials blamed inadequate staffing, budgetary constraints, constant staff turnover, and outdated technology problems for this issue.

0023.jpgAfter reading this article, I felt compelled to discuss this issue from a policy perspective. In addition to heightened risk of serious child maltreatment occurring due to this delay, imagine the emotional toll this is taking on worker mental health. Our annual conference this year focused on secondary traumatic stress among workers and advocates; although the problems cited by DCFS were agency issues and not directly aimed at workers, those problems impact worker mental health and thus outcomes for clients. See pp. 6-7 in our 2012 CW360°, and my previous blog post on secondary trauma & worker mental health.

Illinois' central child maltreatment reporting hotline issue could be addressed through policy change, as legislatures are responsible for passing budget laws. For example, the Florida legislature recently passed a law that would require everyone to be a mandated reporter of child maltreatment, effective October 1. Recognizing that this would increase child maltreatment reports to the state's child maltreatment hotline, the legislature also added 47 new hotline intake positions and more than $2 million in funding.

Adding new positions and funding to respond to a child welfare issue may sound like an obvious solution (and in Illinois, it would address "inadequate staffing," "budgetary constraints," and "outdated technology problems"), but it will not work if those who implement these policy changes do not also consider worker wellbeing. For example, making available resources aimed to enhance worker mental health, such as staff training on recognizing signs and symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and burnout and coping strategies for both, may more effectively address the issue of turnover in an agency.

However, one must always be wary of making fast policy changes in response to media reports exposing problems within child welfare systems, as unintended consequences might arise due to inadequate time spent on thoughtfully considering all possible outcomes.

I'm interested in your opinion. What policy changes might you suggest to administrators, lawmakers, and others in order to address this issue?

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