Only about half of last year’s nearly 92,000 calls to Missouri’s hotline to report abuse of the elderly were answered and the situation has only gotten worse, according to state records.

From January through April this year, only about 39 percent of calls to the Missouri Elder Abuse Hotline were answered, the records obtained by The Columbia Missourian and KBIA radio show.

“They’re not pretty numbers,” said Kathryn Sapp, policy unit bureau chief for the Division of Senior & Disability Services Adult Protective Services, a Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services division that operates the hotline.

Eighteen full-time staff and two part-time workers answer the calls from 7 a.m. to midnight every day. They collect reports of abuse, neglect or exploitation of people age 60 or older and people age 18 and up who have disabilities.

The department has added only one hotline worker in the past decade despite a 35 percent increase in reports of abuse or sexual exploitation.

Hold times averaged about 8½ minutes during the first four months of this year, but some callers have waited an hour or more.

The problems came to light about a year ago, after Jessica Bax became director of the division.

She said data provided before 2018 by Unified Communications, a division of the Missouri Office of Administration, didn’t support complaints that the department was hearing about long wait times and dropped calls. The data on call handle rates didn’t include dropped or disconnected calls, resulting in the department reporting a call handle rate of 98.8 percent for fiscal year 2018 and projecting an even better rate this year.

Bax said her management team worked with Unified Communications to ensure that in the future, the rate of calls handled would include dropped or disconnected calls.

The bureau has also told those required to report such abuse, such as law enforcement and in-home care providers, to skip the hotline if no one answers and fax their reports instead.

Faxes and other methods of reporting have accounted for about 1,200 reports so far this year, but the call handle rate hasn’t improved.

“That is my big fear is we’re losing folks because they couldn’t get through (to the hotline),” Sapp said. “They don’t call back. And so that means someone’s out there vulnerable.”

The department wants to add an online submission form but doesn’t have the funding. It is applying for a grant, trying to streamline the current reporting process and studying how other states run their hotlines.

The time that hotline workers spend writing up reports has been decreased to allow them to spend more time answering calls. And Bax said the department is allowing hotline workers to telecommute during undesirable shifts, which has decreased the staff turnover.

This year’s state budget doesn’t include an increase in funding to staff the hotline.

“This is something we need to address this summer or the fall to get the data together to give it to someone on the budget committee,” said Missouri House Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, who is on the newly-created Special Committee on Aging. “It seems to me like if it’s just a pure number of employees or number of people to answer the calls, we just need to get more people there.”

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