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Two Years After Barahona Murder, DCF Debuts New Abuse Hotline

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Legislative Session Coverage

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – Inspired by the merciless killing of a 10-year-old girl by her adoptive parents in 2010, the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) debuted a revamped Florida Abuse Hotline.

DCF Secretary David Wilkins showed reporters through the statewide call center and explained the improvements motivated by Nubia Barahona’s death – a reworked system that quickly researches a family’s history and sends crucial data to child protective investigators, reports the News Service of Florida.

“Today we are talking about the implementation of one of the most significant change programs that we have ever undertaken at DCF,” Wilkins said, “which is a complete rewrite of our call center and abuse hotline operations for the state of Florida.”

The improvements are the result of a scathing report by the blue-ribbon panel that investigated the Barahona case, and Wilkins said many of the problems happened at the call center.

Shortly before Nubia’s death, a caller reported that the girl and her twin brother, Victor, were bound and imprisoned in a bathroom.  The hotline staff wrongly flagged the call for a 24-hour follow-up instead of an immediate one.

“Some of the information was not collected,” Wilkins said. “Some of the data was incorrect. We couldn’t connect the different calls, so we actually sent multiple investigators out on the case.”

Days later, on Feb. 14, 2011, Nubia Barahona’s decomposing body was found in a black garbage bag in the back of her adoptive father’s pick-up truck on I-95. Victor was convulsing in the passenger seat. Both had been doused with toxic chemicals.

The 2012 Legislature appropriated $20 million to redesign the call center. Hot line operators are no longer rewarded by how quickly they handle calls, but how effectively. Supervisors monitor the calls in real time to ensure that they get a proper emergency response.

Wilkins said the old reporting system wasn’t able to connect the data available on the Barahonas.

“Because we didn’t have that history, the call was not coded as what we call an immediate call, which was, ‘Get out there right now.’  And so the worker did not get out there until a couple of days later,” he said.

Nor was it efficient. Wilkins said hotline procedures hadn’t changed much in the last 30 years, but the redesign changes the role of the call-taker significantly.

“The way the call center worked back then was, it was a collection of information which we then sent down to an investigator who then had to go research the case,” he said. “The hotline was mainly a data-entry operation, and there was minimal value added by the counselor who was actually taking the calls.”

Under the redesign, the hotline staffers don’t just collect data but analyze it, researching the child and family. By following a series of prompts, call-takers use the technology to assess the risk factors, so that when the report goes to the child protective investigator, he or she can go right into the field, if necessary with a law enforcement escort.

On Wednesday, call-taker Luc Toussaint walked a Marion County law enforcement officer through a domestic violence report. He asked about conditions in the home, the cleanliness of the child and whether the woman reported having been beaten.

“Was he aggressive with her?” Toussaint asked.

“She’s basically clammed up,” came the reply. “She was visibly shaking.”

Toussaint put the officer on hold and went into several databases for the family’s history. The technology concluded the report should be accepted, and it went from Toussaint’s computer to the investigator, who could jump right into action.

The abuse hotline has 236 counselors, whose starting salary is $31,000, and a total of 300 employees. They work in shifts, some at home. They answered 429,308 calls in 2011-2012, more than 70 percent about children; the rest were about disabled and elderly adults.

A key part of the redesign is getting better information from the call-takers to the investigators.

“It helps me to determine if children are at risk quicker, because I get more information up front,” said Lana Hawkins, an investigator for 11 years. “The assessment starts here at the command center. It doesn’t start at my desk anymore.”

The additional background information and demographics save her time in the field, Hawkins said. “I can look for those families more quickly.”

The new system also takes reports online, which saves time and money at the hotline. Increased efficiency is needed for two reasons.

First, a Florida law that many call the toughest in the nation for reporting child abuse went into effect on Oct. 1, 2012. The Protection of Vulnerable Persons law – also known as the “Penn State” law – ups the ante on the state’s previous reporting obligation, requiring anyone who suspects that a child has been abused to report it to the hotline. The law also increased the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony for failing to report, with financial penalties increasing as well – in the case of universities to upwards of $1 million.

Since the “Penn State” bill passed, the hotline has seen about a 15 percent increase in the number of calls alleging child abuse. In September, there were 24,290 reports; in October, there were 29,194.

Second, in exchange for $10 million to recruit and train more investigators and $20 million to upgrade the hotline, Wilkins promised lawmakers to use DCF employees more efficiently.

The Barahona findings showed a 37 percent turnover among investigators in some areas of the state, so the 2012 Legislature also increased their base pay and ensured that qualified investigators work the most demanding cases.

The redesign also includes an improved online abuse reporting tool (www.floridaabusehotline.com) to save time for mandatory reporters such as law enforcement and school personnel.

(©2012 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service Of Florida contributed to this report.)

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