COLORADO SPRINGS — A system created to prevent tips about child abuse and neglect from slipping through the cracks instead created a big one: Scores of messages sent to Colorado’s statewide hotline piled up unread for four years because of a mistake in an email address.
The problem started in 2015, not long after Colorado created a statewide telephone and email hotline for reporting suspected cases. The Department of Human Services set up an email account, and then made a seemingly minor change, adding an underscore and the department’s initials to the email address to bring it in line with department standards, according to the Denver station KCNC-TV, which first reported the problem.
The new address was released to the public, but nobody thought to deactivate the old one. So instead of bouncing back to the sender, messages sent to the old address landed in an unattended inbox. By May, when the department realized what was going on, there were 321 unread messages in that account.
Most of them were spam, the department director, Minna Castillo-Cohen, told KCNC-TV. But her staff found 104 emails that were related to abuse or neglect, she said, including five that warranted urgent action.
“It’s of great concern that we had five that did not reach the level of attention they needed in a timely way,” Ms. Castillo-Cohen told KCNC-TV. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
In a statement, a department spokesman said that none of the 104 pertinent emails sent to the outdated email address had come directly from the public. They had all come from state employees who were trying to forward concerns about suspected cases to the proper department, but had unknowingly addressed them incorrectly, the statement said.
When an internal audit found the problem, the statement said, “the emails were immediately reviewed, first to address each case, but also to remedy the issue and prevent this from happening in the future.”
Even though the number of overlooked reports was relatively small, it raised alarms with child welfare advocates.
“Seeing the glitch was very startling, I hope no one is dead or injured because of it,” said Linda Newell, a former state senator who introduced the legislation that created the hotline. “These numbers may be small, but in anybody’s opinion, one child is too much.”
States across the country have run into problems establishing and running hotlines to collect tips on child abuse. In Pennsylvania, the state auditor general announced in 2016 that 42,000 calls to a child abuse hotline had gone unanswered the previous year, and that some callers had waited as long as 27 minutes to speak to someone on the phone. The auditor general, Eugene DePasquale, said lawmakers had lowered the bar for reporting suspected child abuse without providing funds for additional hotline workers to handle calls.
In 2013, the administration of Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona was widely criticized after it came to light that more than 6,000 tips about child abuse and neglect had been marked as not worthy of investigation over a period of four years. Ms. Brewer had taken credit for overhauling the state’s hotline to give priority to the most urgent cases, but critics said the overhaul amounted to systematically throwing thousands of reports in the electronic dustbin.
Creating one place to report all child welfare concerns in Colorado was intended to be an improvement. Before 2015, tracking child abuse was left solely to Colorado’s 64 counties, which range from sprawling, urban Denver with more than 600,000 residents to mountainous San Juan County with only about 700. Practices varied widely from county to county, and often left gaps that endangered children.
Over several years, The Denver Post published a sustained campaign of articles exposing failures in the state’s child protective services, and in 2015, the State Legislature responded by setting up and publicizing the statewide hotline, among other measures.
Those efforts have paid off, according to Becky Miller Updike, director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center. She said that despite the email error, the state had generally seen steady improvements in detecting and intervening in child abuse.
“Lost emails are certainly a concern, but the hotline got over 222,000 calls in 2018, so I think people are still able to get through,” she said.
According to the state’s Human Services department, those calls led to social services agencies investigating the safety of more than 57,000 children last year.
Ms. Miller Updike said while there was room for progress, better coordination between state and local agencies and community groups was yielding better outcomes for children.
“In this field, we’d all like to work our way out of a job,” she said. “But in general we’ve made real improvements in the last 20 years.”
Dave Philipps reported from Colorado Springs, and Farah Stockman from Boston.
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