Colorado’s statewide hotline to report child abuse and neglect has no process in place to accept texts, social media tips or even emails, a concern raised by an employee a year ago in an internal child welfare division memo.
The hotline — launched in 2015 to give Coloradans a single 800-number instead of expecting them to call in tips to one of 64 different county phone numbers — was never set up to include email.
That fact has child advocates raising questions after the alarming revelation last week that more than 100 emails alleging child abuse and neglect sat in a hotline inbox that went unchecked for four years. Five child neglect allegations are now under review after officials recently discovered the unchecked inbox and read its contents.
The emails, first reported by KCNC-TV, were sent to a group address for hotline staff. The email address was created internally so that child welfare division employees could forward email and social media tips to the hotline. But due to a technological error, there were two similar addresses that went to two different inboxes — one that was checked and one that wasn’t.
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A memo circulated within the state child welfare department in August 2018 raised concerns about the haphazard way the department was trying to keep track of emailed and social media tips about child abuse, The Colorado Sun has learned. State and county officials discussed the memo, and the gap in communication, but did not change policy.
The unchecked emails have sparked questions about whether it’s time for Colorado to modernize its child abuse hotline to include electronic tips, similar to a statewide hotline for people in mental health crisis and the Safe2Tell network for teens to report bullying and suicidal classmates.
At the same time, the email debacle has raised concern about why the state child welfare division was forwarding emails to a hotline that was set up strictly to take recorded phone calls.
“There are enough gaps in this system that concerns are bound to fall through,” Katie Facchinello, who wrote the memo as communications manager for the Colorado Department of Human Services and point person for the hotline’s public awareness campaign, said in an interview Monday. “We need to be proactive and preventative to ensure the safety of kids.”
Colorado child abuse hotline
The hotline can be reached at 1-844-CO-4-KIDS
“It wasn’t assigned to anyone, anywhere”
State child welfare officials learned about the black-hole email account in May after an information technology audit to clear out email addresses the state was no longer using.
“We said, ‘Wait a second. That one doesn’t exist,’” recalled Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families. “It wasn’t assigned to anyone, anywhere.”
The inbox contained 321 emails, and Castillo Cohen “quickly made a plan to review what they contained.” All of the emails were internal, although some were spam. None were from the public, because the email address was never shared publicly.
Facchinello, who now works for the nonprofit child abuse prevention organization Illuminate Colorado, recalled finding child abuse, neglect and sex trafficking allegations sent via private messages on the hotline’s Facebook page. She took screenshots of the messages or cut and pasted them into emails that she then sent to the hotline center.
As time passed, tips came via social media more and more often, “as everybody has evolved and we are all living our lives online,” she said. Facchinello and her team would follow up with the hotline center if they did not receive confirmation within about an hour that their forwarded tip had been received.
But not everyone in the Colorado Department of Human Services followed up after they forwarded an email — there were 104 unopened emails in the unchecked inbox that concerned child abuse and neglect.
A disturbing child abuse video prompted the memo
Facchinello drafted the memo calling for a better process after a video depicting child abuse landed in the hotline campaign’s Facebook message inbox. She was a new mom at the time, sitting on the floor at home breastfeeding her newborn.
“It was a disturbing video, to say the least,” she said. And the process of downloading it from FB and getting it into email form to send to hotline staff was time-consuming. “I remember having an overwhelming sense that these types of reports were increasing.”
Facchinello questioned why the state at that point was running a mostly digital public awareness campaign, yet telling people to report child abuse only via phone. Under statute, the state has to accept child abuse and neglect tips in any form, and besides, Facchinello felt obligated to collect all videos and written tips for the screening staff at the hotline center, based in Prowers County.
The memo sparked discussion among county and state child welfare leaders on a task group, yet no plan to upgrade the reporting system.
At the time, no one realized that on top of the headache involved in collecting the electronic tips, some of the emails were going to an inbox that was not checked.
How the emails ended up in a black hole
A state task force charged with setting up the hotline in 2015 decided from the start to stick with a phone-only system. The point was to develop a single number to prevent the system from “getting child abuse calls 64 different ways” in 64 different counties, said Stephanie Villafuerte, Colorado child protection ombudsman and a leader in creating the hotline.
Calls are routed through one call center, where they are recorded. Trained staff ask questions and enter the information into a central database. The call center employees try to determine names, addresses, the jurisdiction in case a call to 911 is necessary and the exact nature of the allegations.
Part of the reason it’s a call-only system is that it’s difficult to get all of those details via social media. Imagine an anonymous tip that describes a parent hitting a kid at a grocery store, without names or details and no way to follow up. Should the hotline employee call 911?
“We are talking about child abuse and neglect, not about when we should meet for a cup of coffee,” said Villafuerte, who cautioned against any knee-jerk reaction to revamp the hotline system. “We better be darn sure we have a way of capturing this important information.”
Indeed, the hotline — 1-844-CO-4-KIDS — has been highly successful. The hotline received a record number of calls again last year, with more than 221,000 tips. That was 10,000 more than the prior year.
The unchecked emails went to a defunct email address that wasn’t part of the hotline setup, but the result of an internal decision to create a group email catch-all to make it easier on staff who were trying to keep track of social media and email tips. A second group email that functioned better was created to replace it, and the first one was not deleted.
That meant that staff trying to email the hotline would sometimes inadvertently send a tip to the wrong address.
“Let’s respond to the right problem,” Villafuerte said.
However, Villafuerte said she supports reopening the discussion about electronic reporting and would want to start with examining the Safe2Tell system to see whether texts or social media posts are effective.
Counties have 60 days to investigate child neglect cases
Child welfare officials reviewed the memo last year and now are reassessing the ideas it contained to improve the system. The state released a copy of the memo to The Colorado Sun upon request Monday.
“The current process of forwarding emails to a group email is difficult when social media is involved; the process is unclear and has not been universally communicated to all those that manage a social media channel or website; and gaps in communication may be a liability concern or, worse yet, result in a child failing through a crack in our system,” Facchinello wrote.
She suggested the state create an online form, at co4kids.org, that would allow people to submit reports of abuse, as well as photographs and videos. Also, communications staff managing the hotline’s social media accounts should receive training and guidance that there is “no wrong door for reporting a concern about a child,” she wrote.
Every email in the defunct inbox received a thorough review, Castillo Cohen said. Of the 104 that pertained to child abuse or neglect, 98 were screened out by a review team and five were sent to the counties where they occurred for followup. The counties have 60 days to conduct those assessments.
Castillo Cohen said she is open to discussion about whether the child abuse hotline needs an update, but there are serious issues still left to consider, same as there were when the memo was drafted. Mainly, she is concerned that texted tips about child abuse and neglect — such as a person anonymously reporting that parents are drinking alcohol in a park and not watching their children — are not as detailed. If a person witnesses serious abuse, they should call 911, not send a text tip and forget it.
The email account has been deleted.
“We check it every day to make sure it’s really gone,” Castillo Cohen said.