Plenty of concern is voiced regionally about the welfare of children, with tips flowing into an area child abuse hotline at the rate of about 150 calls per month.
The vast majority do not amount to anything, but every caller is thoroughly questioned by one of the two full-time screeners who take calls from a five-county area including Gilliam, Sherman, Wheeler, Hood River and Wasco counties.
The screeners, with the Oregon Department of Human Services child welfare division, try to learn as much as possible about the situation, said Linda Lawing, child welfare program manager for the five-county region.
A lot of calls to the tipline come from mandatory reporters — people such as doctors, teachers, police and daycare providers, who are required by law to report concerns. Some come from concerned family and friends, Lawing said.
The tipline, at 855-541-0042, is staffed Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. After hours calls go to law enforcement, and caseworkers and supervisors are on call 24 hours a day.
Of those 150 calls, about 35 are referred for an assessment, and of those 35, about 90 percent will be closed, Lawing said.
Just 10 percent, or about three to five a month in the five-county area, are opened, Lawing said.
“When I say open, that’s to assess if there’s a safety threat, and 80 to 90 percent of the time, there’s not a cause to keep the case open,” she said.
In a handful of cases, there is a safety threat, but the family is cooperative and child welfare is able to provide services to keep the children in the home, she said.
Maybe one to two cases a month would see children end up in foster care, she said.
“We have over the years shifted our policies and become much more knowledgeable and aware of trying to keep the children in the care of their parents if it can safely be done,” she said.
If a child does have to be removed, they try hard to place them with another family member, and to hopefully return the child to their parents as soon as possible.
If enough concern is raised during the initial screening call, child
welfare staff can contact “collateral” parties, such as schools or doctors, and will also check its own database to see if they’ve had previous reports on the same child.
“We try to put the pieces of the puzzle together before we make a decision to assign a caseworker to assess the situation,” she said.
The child welfare division has the equivalent of 50 full-time workers serving the five-county region. Of those, 20 are caseworkers.
As to what it takes to spur action, Lawing said a call that a child was at school and looked disheveled and their clothes weren’t very clean doesn’t rise to the needed level to get involved, she said.
“It has to rise to a certain level of safety concerns,” she said.
A case last fall was publicized of a family living in a shed. Lawing said that in and of itself would not warrant involvement from her agency.
“If we had a screening call into our child abuse hotline and the call was regarding a family being homeless, we would not respond to that call,” she said. “It could be they’re managing it to where the child is safe.
“If they called regarding the family was homeless and the children had bruises on their body and there were bruises that were concerning and the children talked about being hurt by their parents,” that call would be responded to, Lawing said.
In wintertime, homelessness could be viewed differently because children could be more vulnerable if it’s below freezing, she said. In that circumstance, it could become a safety concern if the children did not have adequate clothing, for example.
Most of the time, child welfare works with its sister program, the self-sufficiency division of the DHS, to see if the family is already getting services or benefits.
“We will do our best to help the family connect with housing services, or sometimes we’ll help them pay for housing.”
“Our goal is to help ameliorate the issues that brought the family to our attention,” Lawing said.
Most of the cases stem from domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness.
Lawing said, “There are a lot of housing resources in the area,” Lawing said. “The drawback for our five counties is not that there aren’t resources to help pay for housing, there’s no housing. There’s no affordable housing for our families, or very, very little, let me put it that way.”