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Barahona Tragedy Prompts DCF To Beef Up Its Abuse Hotline

The Florida Department of Children and Families is ramping up the state’s abuse hotline. The agency says the horrific death of a ten-year-old girl last year may have been avoided if it had coordinated its information better through the hotline. The child welfare agency says it has a new system that will better serve the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

"Thank you for calling the Florida Abuse Hotline. This is Passion. How can I help you,” asked Passion Ellis, who works for Florida Abuse Hotline.

Under the old system, data was collected by hand on paper forms, and investigators, at times, had to do double the work.

But, under the new child abuse reporting tool called FSFN, or Florida Safe Families Network, hotline counselors, like Passion, can get all the necessary information needed to proceed, in one online location, which cuts down on the workload for child protective investigators. 

"So, what happened," Passion asked the caller, as she types into the FSFN program.

Credit Sascha Cordner / WFSU-FM
Florida Abuse Hotline counselor Passion Ellis as she listens to a caller and takes down their information.

"The children were reading in the classroom and a teacher’s assistant was in the kids and was trying to remind the kids that they were supposed to be reading, and she tapped on the desk. And, the child was telling me that she [the teacher's assistant] slapped her on the hand," said the caller.

"Oh okay, which hand did she slap her on," asked Passion.

"The left," answered the caller.

"Is there any type of discoloration, any bruising, or swelling to the left hand," asked Passion.

Passion is one of about 300 employees who takes these types of calls and uses the new system to work hand-in-hand with investigators to make sure everything runs more smoothly. But, that wasn’t always the case.

“What we found originally is the hotline was measured on speed versus accuracy, and in taking calls about abuse and neglect, it’s not about speed, but it is about accuracy. So, we need to change the mentality about we go about collecting information,” said David Wilkins, Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Wilkins received millions of dollars from the Legislature to hire more hotline counselors and child investigators as well as enhance the hotline in response to the horrific death of Nubia Barahona, who along with her brother, was abused by her adoptive parents. Only her brother made it out alive. The department found that a lot of the problems that led to Nubia Barahona’s death were because of its call center.

“With Nubia Barahona, there was a long history with that child. And, so what happened that day, there was a call coming in, but they didn’t have access to all the past history, which showed there were numerous calls before," said Wilkins. "

"There was also a separate call coming in from another mandated reporter, and another, but those two calls weren’t connected in terms of pulling that information together.”

He says inaccuracies and incorrect information led to multiple investigators being sent out. Those investigators often did not coordinate with one another, but child protective investigator Lana Hawkins says that’s not the case anymore.

“Technology improvements here at the hotline have made a big difference in that we don’t get duplicate people and duplicate reports, so we don’t have investigators in the same office running around looking for the same family and wasting time doing that,” said Hawkins.

Investigators can now get up-to-date information on the background of a family.  The Hotline’s Command Center is also available 24-7 for investigators so they can appropriately place a child with a relative as opposed to the foster care system at any time.

Last year, the Florida Abuse Hotline received about 430,000 calls. More than 70-percent calls were about child abuse.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.