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State blocks plans to reinstate county child abuse hotline

Where should residents call to report possible child abuse? The county or the state?

Since 2015, Monroe County residents have had to rely on calling the statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment. The county hotline is defunct. But County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo’s eight-point plan to overhaul the local child welfare system includes re-establishing the hotline.

NYS officials are blocking that move saying the county isn’t prepared to handle the hotline and “potentially compromised the safety of children” in the past because social workers screened calls that should’ve been investigated further before the hotline was discontinued. 

“Upon review, it was determined that MCDSS’s hotline staff had been screening out calls that should have been registered as reports rising to the standard of ‘reasonable cause to suspect’ and requiring investigation,” Acting Commissioner Sheila Poole wrote from the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. “This history coupled with the current challenges Monroe County is facing with staffing and achieving quality child protective practice, is deeply concerning.”

Dinolfo has since hired more caseworkers, approved an increase in their salaries and moved to get them the resources they need, including mentors and better technology. And local officials say the hotline isn’t meant to replace the state’s central register but offer a second option.

“Customers can choose to call the local hotline or they can call the state central registry so even when we had the local hotline there was still that option to call the state,” said Corinda Crossdale, Commissioner of the county’s Department of Human Services. “When we talk about going back to the hotline we’re not excluding the state central registry, it’s an added benefit to the community.”

Crossdale said callers who are unsatisfied with the results of their call to the county can still report the incident to the state. Additionally, the local hotline can connect callers with local resources if their complaints don’t amount to abuse:

“Here at the local level, if we receive an inquiry that doesn’t meet that statutory requirement we can do referrals directly from the local hotline, whereas the state wouldn’t know the resources that are available in Monroe County and they wouldn’t be able to make that direct linkage.”

But some people say the county is fighting the wrong battle. John Rabish is spokesman for the Federation of Social Workers and says there are more dire needs than a hotline—like hiring more caseworkers.

“The controversy over the hotline is kind of a secondary issue because if there’s enough staff to do the job then it wouldn’t matter if there was a local hotline or just the one at the state,” he said.

The county has not yet been able to fill all of the new caseworker spots. Rabish said the difficulty of the job and low pay make it hard to find new caseworkers. And on top of that, he says the job has a “huge learning curve." 

“You’re always playing catch up,” said Rabish. “The situation has been neglected so long to the point there are dozens and dozens of vacancies to fill that you will be playing catch up for who knows how long…there’s a constant vacancy issue.”  

And then there’s the issue of caseloads. The ideal caseload is 15, according to Rabish, but caseworkers often deal with loads of 20, 30 or even 40. He says in the long run, the county has bigger battles than the hotline.

County officials say they plan to continue fighting for the hotline. A spokesman for the county said the hotline was primarily driven from conversations with social workers- it’s not an idea generated from the top.

Crossdale said the next step is to appeal directly to the state: “Next up is a fair hearing, and that gives us the opportunity to go directly to the state and talk a little more in detail about why we think it’s a beneficial for our community to have the local hotline as opposed to going through the state registry exclusively.”

Monroe County would be the only county to have its own hotline. 

Dinolfo's eight-point plan and child welfare system overhaul is partly in response to the 2016 death of 3-year-old Brook Stagles. According to court documents, there were reports the toddler was being abused made to Child Protective Services but there was no intervention. The changes to the system, Dinolfo said, will improve CPS to minimize incidents like this.