LOUISVILLE -- In Kentucky, anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect is required by state law to report it to the authorities -- a law that also applies to suspected abuse of an older or vulnerable adult.
But attempting to follow the law is resulting in lengthy waits on hold and frustrating delays for people trying to call the state's abuse or neglect hotline, say those who have tried to use it recently.
"We thought that there was a safety net in our community for people who may truly be in danger," said Becky Smith, of Louisville, who said it took repeated efforts on her part to report an elderly, disabled woman at risk of harm. "That's a falsehood at this point."
Questions about the hotline have been raised before, most recently in July, when state Sen. Danny Carroll, a Paducah Republican, asked cabinet officials about it at a meeting of the legislature's Program Review and Investigations Committee.
Carroll, who is CEO of Easterseals West Kentucky, said his organization, which includes a child development center, had experienced problems in attempting to report suspected abuse through the hotline.
"I personally haven't been pleased with the response," said Carroll, the committee co-chairman.
Cabinet Chief of Staff Lesa Dennis told Carroll the agency is working to improve the system.
Carroll told Dennis he understands the agency has been strapped by budget cuts and is in need of resources.
"I'm acutely aware you all need more funding and more staff," he said. "I hope there comes a time when we can invest more in your work."
Smith, a semiretired social worker who assists older and vulnerable adults as private clients, said the state simply doesn't have enough staff to handle the volume of calls it receives, based on her conversations with current and former workers.
"They are totally overwhelmed with adult cases but are mandated to handle children's cases," she said. "There's very little they can do because they have no time to do anything."
Smith said her problems with the hotline began when she tried to report the plight of a woman she was assisting who had begun wandering outside her home at night, causing disturbances, and was living with little food and no working refrigerator.
After waiting on hold for half an hour trying to reach someone at the hotline on a Friday afternoon, Smith sent an email to the cabinet. When no one from the cabinet's Adult Protective Services agency, or APS, had checked on her client by Monday, she followed up with another email.
Smith didn't hear from a social worker until Thursday, six days after her initial report, when a worker said she had visited the woman but couldn't do anything for her right away.
The situation finally was resolved when the woman was hospitalized after a neighbor took out a mental inquest warrant, Smith said.
"APS did nothing about any of that," she said.
Kentucky has the highest rate of child abuse in the nation, a crisis detailed in a five-part series in August by The Courier Journal.
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the response time for callers to the hotline is "unpredictable" and said it's alarming that people are having trouble getting through to report suspected abuse.
"When you are in a crisis, you do not need to be put on hold," he said. "Ever. Period."
The website of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which operates the hotline, offers callers the option of faxing or emailing a report between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.
But that option is not available on weekends or holidays, and the cabinet website states reports by fax or email "will not be reviewed during evenings, weekends or state holidays."
Centerstone, a community mental health agency, operates the hotline under contract to the cabinet overnight and on weekends and holidays.
Centerstone CEO Abby Drane said lengthy waits on hold to report suspected abuse are unacceptable and her agency is working to improve its response.
"Long hold times and dropped calls are not acceptable and we are immediately addressing the system changes needed to improve our response times for these very important, lifesaving calls," Drane said.
The cabinet is in the process of upgrading the hotline by moving to a "statewide contact center" that will allow it to "ensure quality and timely services to individuals contacting the hotline," said spokeswoman Christina Dettman.
The agency gradually is adding its "service regions" around the state to the new system and plans to add Jefferson County in December. Future plans also include adding Centerstone to this same system, Dettman said.
She said the new system will allow the cabinet to better monitor call volume, wait times, abandonment rates and average call times. She said it also will allow the cabinet to better determine staffing needs and high call volume times in order to manage the hotline. Calls will be recorded in order to provide additional coaching and mentoring to staff as well as enhance quality assurance, she said.
Kentucky's hotline to report abuse or neglect is 877-597-2331 or 877-KYSAFE1. People may also report suspected abuse or neglect to the police.