by Daniel T. Zanoza
Statistics may vary, but many experts agree child abuse has reached epic proportions in America and, for that matter, worldwide. On the Internet, there are literally thousands of web sites devoted to child pornography. Drug addiction and substance abuse has contributed to a social disease which has made the most vulnerable in our society the targets of individuals who look at children as either possessions or valuable commodities rather than the precious future which they represent.
Thankfully, there are organizations like Catholic Charities which diligently work to place at risk children in loving foster care. And government, through organizations including the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), has the daunting task to identify children who are in jeopardy regarding physical and emotional abuse.
As a former children's outreach worker in a southwest Chicago suburb, I personally witnessed the literal terror some young people live under every day. One of our organization's mission statements was to counsel children who were the victims of child abuse.
The federally-funded organization I worked for was frequently overwhelmed by a caseload which included stories about abused children which often broke my heart. We received the wreckage of bad parenting and neglect. I'm sure we never heard about the many cases of abuse that went unreported and, eventually, led to the emotional destruction, physical abuse and even death of children who left this world not knowing what a loving family was all about.
To help deal with child abuse, DCFS created a toll-free Child Abuse Hot Line, the purpose of which was to help Illinois residents report the mistreatment of children under confidentiality. The number 1-800-25-ABUSE [1-800-252-2873] literally receives thousands of phone calls each day. Each report of child abuse is taken by an intake worker who passes along the information to DCFS workers who decide whether or not to take action on a complaint.
One of the reasons the hot line worked was indeed because of confidentiality. For reasons too numerous to list here, those calling the hot line would not do so if they could not remain anonymous. People might be in fear of those abusing children or they simply may not want to get directly involved, but their conscience and the promise of anonymity permits them to do the right thing.
Earlier this year, I called the Child Abuse Hot Line regarding a possible case of neglect concerning a neighbor. I used a service provided by most Illinois phone companies which allows the caller to block his or her phone number, therefore, prohibiting those answering the call from identifying my personal information, i.e., name, phone number and address.
I was surprised when a DCFS caseworker told me to call back in a moment. I, again, used the blocking feature on my phone and called DCFS only to get the same response. It quickly became obvious to me the fact I was preventing DCFS from seeing my phone number was the reason why my call wasn't being taken by the agency. I reported the problem to the Department of Health in the County where I live and hoped my concerns regarding the children would be addressed through County services.
Months later, I noticed the same situation existed regarding the family which prompted me to call DCFS in the first place. However, upon blocking my number, this time I received a recording which told me my call, "could not be completed as dialed." I tried to call the DCFS hot line again, using the blocking apparatus, and I achieved the same results.
I suspected DCFS had purposely disabled the blocking device and I proved this fact with my next phone call to the hot line. When I dialed 1-800-25-ABUSE without blocking my number, an intake worker answered my call immediately.
Obviously, DCFS' policy regarding anyone trying to contact the agency under true anonymity had changed. What is reported to be a confidential abuse hot line is truly not confidential. Indeed this is contrary to what is stated on the DCFS web site which reads, "Members of the general public may make reports without giving their names." http://www.state.il.us/dcfs/FAQ/faq_faq_can.shtml
The consequences of this policy may be dire. There must be thousands of individuals, who, in an attempt to do what's right, give up on their efforts to report child abuse because of this policy which, in essence, requires the identification of callers. Subsequently, I contacted DCFS to obtain a policy statement on this problem regarding the true confidentiality of the toll-free hot line. A source for DCFS, who, ironically, preferred to remain anonymous, told me the agency prohibited a caller's ability to block their number when reporting abuse complaints because DCFS needs a contact number to follow-up on reports of child abuse.
I told the DCFS source this policy defeats the purpose of the confidential abuse line. Furthermore, I said instances where children suffered abuse most certainly went unreported in some cases. I don't know how many, and I shudder to think about it, but if one child continued to suffer or died because of this policy, DCFS needed to re-evaluate its thinking on the matter.
After further investigation, I found DCFS frequently received false reports of child abuse to their hot line. In fact, in some circumstances, neighbors or relatives would occasionally use 1-800-25-ABUSE to settle a score which had nothing to do with the abuse of children. I believe the latter explanation is the true reason why DCFS decided to change its policy regarding hot line confidentiality. But this decision, most certainly, has had--and will have--deadly consequences. The moral and philosophical question is: If ten phone calls to the DCFS child abuse hot line are not valid, but one call could save the life of one or more children, is the "no confidentiality" policy flawed?
There is a possible resolution to this problem. State legislators could introduce laws which would assign heavy penalties to those who intentionally file false charges of child abuse, including fines and possible jail time. I'm sure such sanctions would cut down on those who abuse such an important resource meant to fight child abuse.
In these days of high technology, I'm positive there are resources available that would drastically curtail those who misuse the child abuse hot line, while at the same time protect the confidentiality of those who report legitimate cases of child abuse or neglect.
Also, in these days of the Internet and advanced technology, DCFS discourages reports of child abuse via e-mail. According to a Public Service Announcement in the Belleville News-Democrat, posted Nov. 19, 2006, "e-mailing an allegation of child abuse may cause delays." [http://www.bnd.com/lethal_lapses/story/7828.html].
Of course, this claim is counter-intuitive. Every day, Americans are told to expedite matters by using the Internet. We are told to use the Internet in all sorts of dealings with the government--from the filling of tax reports to applications for Social Security benefits and other government-related services.
As it stands today, the confidential child abuse hot line is not confidential. The unknown is...how many children are suffering, have suffered, or are no longer alive because of this DCFS policy?
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