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Colorado’s child abuse hotline will not change policy to accept tips via text, email, Facebook or any other social media, based on recommendations from a statewide task force that reviewed the 4-year-old hotline system. 

The review came after an internal memo a year ago raised concerns that the child welfare division was letting texts, social media tips and emails slip through the cracks. 

The group of state and county leaders discussed the memo in January, February and April, then revisited the issue this month after media reports publicly revealed the memo and disclosed that more than 100 emails alleging abuse and neglect sat in a black-hole inbox that went unchecked for four years.

The hotline is set up to take tips only via phone, and it will stay that way at least for now. The system records every call and ensures a live screener asks questions to help determine whether the call is credible and whether county child welfare workers should launch an investigation. 

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The child protection task group — after researching other states’ hotlines and other types of Colorado hotlines — recommended no changes to the “current methods of gathering information,” according to a memo sent last week to all counties by the state child welfare division. The group did not find any other states that use social media reports of child abuse to launch a review, and members determined the child abuse hotline is different from the state’s mental health crisis line or Safe2Tell, which are set up to respond to immediate crisis. 

Live screeners at the child abuse and neglect hotline want the children and parents’ names, their location — home, a grocery store or a parked car — and the severity of the abuse. For example, they ask the caller to rate on a scale of one to 10 how badly the child needs help immediately. Callers can remain anonymous.

“It lends itself to a little bit more critical thinking,” said Laura Solomon, who is the state co-chair of the group and the intake administrator for the state division of child welfare. 

Despite maintaining the status quo, the group recommended a few changes to help make sure future child abuse reports are not missed. Caseworkers or other child welfare employees who receive tips via Facebook message, email or text must dial the hotline to make a recorded report, and then forward the written tip to the hotline center. 

The hotline’s Facebook page and website from now on should include the hotline number across the top of the page at all times along with a disclaimer that the page is not monitored around the clock and that people must call the hotline to report abuse. The state is also hoping to set up a system that would send an automatic reply to any Facebook message or email stating that a person must dial the phone number to make a report. 

Finally, the task force said it will research and possibly revisit adding a live-chat option on social media or a text-a-tip option. If another state comes up with a social media-tip system that works, Colorado officials will look into it, Solomon said. 

The point, she said, is that tips are useless if county caseworkers don’t have enough information to even figure out where the child is. 

“We want to be on the cutting-edge, but we also know that we have to do this well,” Solomon said, noting the state “can’t be subpar on gathering information on child safety.” 

The hotline — 1-844-CO-4-Kids — launched in 2015 to give Coloradans a single, toll-free number instead of expecting them to call in tips to one of 64 different counties.

A memo that circulated the state child welfare division in August 2018 said the division needed to improve the way it kept track of emailed and social media tips about abuse and neglect. The memo’s author, Katie Facchinello, who no longer works for the state child welfare division, wrote that “there are enough gaps in this system that concerns are bound to fall through.” 

In a previous interview, she described trying to capture all of the messages and videos sent to the hotline’s Facebook page and forward them to the hotline center. 

In July, it was revealed that more than 100 internal emails alleging abuse and neglect went to a defunct inbox that went unchecked for four years. The emails were sent to a group address for hotline staff that was created internally so child welfare division employees could forward emails and social media tips to the hotline. But because of a technological error, there were two similar addresses that went to two different inboxes — one that was checked and one that wasn’t.

The defunct inbox was discovered during a routine information technology audit to delete emails of employees who no longer worked for the Colorado Department of Human Services. A team reviewed its contents and found five neglect cases that warranted review by county caseworkers. 

MORE: Colorado email account for child abuse reports went unchecked for four years

Jade Woodard, executive director of the child abuse prevention organization Illuminate Colorado, said she hoped child advocates would get to participate in future conversations about modernizing the system. “It is incumbent upon us all to ensure that our systems continue to evolve as needed,” she said.

Illuminate, which now employs memo author Facchinello, will “continue to advocate for the best possible system to both protect children and provide a resource to strengthen families,” Woodard said.

But Stephanie Villafuerte, the state’s child protection ombudsman, called the state’s decision a “prudent course of action.” 

“I certainly don’t think that we should be accepting social media child abuse referrals,” she said, noting that the state would first need substantial research to determine how to ensure social media or texted tips were reliable. 

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...