By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean
Improvements to Tennessee's child abuse phone line have allowed
more calls to be answered and dramatically decreased the time callers
wait on hold - reversing trends that alarmed officials, child advocates
and lawmakers last year.
New data from the Department of Children's Services
show it usually took less than 40 seconds for a call to be answered
during the past four months. That's down from an average wait of just
more than three minutes in 2012, and average waits of more than five
minutes in the call center's worst-performing months.
DCS also shortened the hotline's prerecorded message, which had included 15 seconds of silence.
change - and adjustments to staffing - cut the number of hangups. In
recent years, a quarter of calls were abandoned during low-performing
months, but during the past four months less than 5 percent have gone
"We would like to continue to drive that down," said
Larry Martin, a special adviser assigned to DCS by Gov. Bill Haslam.
"The key metrics certainly indicate improvement, significant
improvement. I think we can continue that."
Each year, about
165,000 abuse and neglect reports come into the DCS hotline, whether
from a neighbor, teacher, doctor or police officer. Almost two-thirds
prompt a caseworker to respond. The other third of calls are "screened
out," meaning investigators are already working the case or didn't
receive enough information to warrant a check, officials said.
call center began missing more calls in 2010. Problems persisted
through October 2012, when the center's director resigned and two
non-DCS groups were asked to examine what was going wrong. DCS officials
said then that more calls, clunky computer software and high staff
turnover contributed to answering the calls.
The department added staff and got new computers and phones, which made some difference, officials said.
since October have been guided by the state's Office of Customer
Focused Government, which seeks government efficiency. That office also
tapped three unpaid experts to help, looking at everything from the
typing speeds of call takers to phone technology.
really have trained call center managers," Martin said of DCS. "We had
people that were good, knowledgeable at the subject matter that DCS is
'Like 911 calls'
Martin described improvements to lawmakers during a special hearing
last week, taking to the podium after Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Antioch,
asked about the "big problem" of missed calls.
Among key changes, Martin said, was examining peak call times so that enough staffers can be scheduled in those periods.
DCS also found problems with the 90-second recorded message callers first heard.
you endured that, then at the end of the message, there was a roughly
15-second silent period," Martin said. "Fifteen seconds, if you're on
the phone, is a long time. People would hang up, thinking they had been
The agency cut the silence and trimmed the message to 15 seconds.
has also turned to the call takers, whose work consists of listening to
graphic details of abuse allegations for hours on end. They must know
how to question hesitant or emotional callers for details that determine
how DCS will investigate.
In addition to recruiting more staffers
with child welfare and customer-service experience, the call center now
hosts daily meetings and monthly briefings to show call volume trends
and identify training opportunities.
Martin said the new DCS goal is to answer 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds - a standard used by emergency dispatchers.
"We're trying to set a standard that is higher, because these are more like 911 calls," Martin said.
also has a new way to connect high-priority callers to call takers
trained in handling calls from professionals. The department has used
special phone lines for police, doctors and teachers, although Jones
suggested last week that too few people know of them.
"I don't think there is any question that we need more marketing out there," said DCS Interim Commissioner Jim Henry.
such goals will fall to the center's newly named director, Dimple
Dudley, who served as interim director since October.
Office of Customer Focused Government completed its work, the child
welfare nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation has not yet delivered
recommendations about the call center that officials anticipated by the
end of 2012.
The federal government also examines state child welfare agencies
based on the percentage of calls screened out from call centers, which
don't prompt investigations.
In 2011, Tennessee screened out 37 percent of calls - below the national average by 2 percentage points, federal numbers show.
spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said employees at the call center answer
standard, computerized questions at the end of each call to determine
which ones should be screened out. Calls may be screened if callers
don't identify specific perpetrators or locations, if DCS is already
involved with a family (the information is entered into the case file),
or if multiple calls come in rapidly on the same day.
through 2012, six Tennessee children died sometime after a call about
their safety was screened out by call takers, DCS reported in response
to Democratic lawmakers' recent questions.
One child was the
subject of three screen-outs in 2011. Of those three, one call was
disconnected before information was provided. The other two arrived
after DCS was already investigating the child's well-being, allowing
information to be added to the file. The child died almost a year later,