JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — For years, callers with out-of-state area codes couldn’t connect with Missouri’s toll-free hotline to report cases of potential child abuse and neglect, an issue advocates worried could discourage good Samaritans and mean some kids might not get the help they need.
It took a phone call from Missouri’s first lady to fix that.
After reading a complaint about the problem in a 2014 Office of Child Advocate report, first lady Sheena Greitens called the hotline with an out-of-state number to test it herself. A robotic voice told her, “The number you have dialed cannot be reached from your calling area.” Then the call disconnected.
So she called the governor’s office, and a staffer there contacted the Department of Social Services. Officials at the agency said they would fix it within days. When Greitens checked again in early June, she got through.
“We know that there’s a lot of work to be done on the child welfare system,” Greitens said. “This is a step, but we think it was something that was easy to fix and we thought it was important.”
Missouri was one of the last states with child-abuse hotlines that didn’t accept calls from out-of-state area codes, which the first lady said can cause problems for people who move to another state without switching phone numbers. Now only Nevada has a statewide hotline that only accepts in-state calls, according to the nonprofit national child advocacy organization Childhelp. But 10 other states do not have statewide hotlines and instead refer people to county authorities, according to Childhelp, which also has its own hotline and helps guide people who want to report potential child abuse to the right state or local authorities. Nevada also has separate hotlines for the Las Vegas and Reno areas.
A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services did not answer why the agency did not act sooner on recommendations for change dating back to 2013 from the Missouri Office of Child Advocate, a state watchdog agency.
Karla Delgado, systems advocate at the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services, said she’s confident that people outside of Nevada or state residents with out-of-state phone numbers find alternatives when they can’t connect through the in-state-only hotline. They can report abuse to the state division directly, one of its nine rural units, the Clark or Washoe hotlines as well as Childhelp’s hotline.
Missouri also had a number for out-of-state callers, but Greitens said finding it took extra time and could have meant a long-distance charge. Advocates say hurdles like that could mean people who want to report potential abuse might not make the effort to jump through another loop.
“Making a hotline call is not an easy decision, especially for a relative to make,” said Kelly Schultz, director of Missouri’s Office of Child Advocate. “Anything that would discourage them from calling a hotline, including not being able to get through the first time, puts children at risk.”