It may be the first place to report suspected child abuse or neglect in the county, but if residents don’t know about Napa’s Child Abuse Hotline, they won’t be calling it.

The 2016-2017 Napa County grand jury took interest in the hotline following 3-year-old Kayleigh Slusher’s murder in 2014. Kayleigh’s mother, Sara Lynn Krueger, and her mother’s boyfriend, Ryan Scott Warner, were recently convicted of beating the girl to death. Their sentencings are scheduled for July 27.

Although Slusher’s death is what ignited their interest in Napa’s Child Abuse Hotline, the grand jury said that it wasn’t their intent to investigate one child’s death but to examine efforts to protect all children in the community.

The grand jury found that despite well-intentioned and committed staff, the current operation of the hotline is inefficient, untimely and contributes to worker burn-out. The grand jury also found that public awareness of the hotline is inadequate.

Carlos Solorio, management analyst with the Napa County Executive Office, said that he was not able to comment on the report’s findings. The county typically does not respond to grand jury reports until an official response is approved by the Board of Supervisors.

During regular business hours, phone calls to the Child Abuse Hotline are answered by social workers in Napa Child Welfare Services’ Emergency Response Unit. During off hours and on holidays, an off-site answering service takes the calls and refers them to an on-call social worker who may then need to travel back to Napa in order to respond to cases, possibly taking up to two hours to respond.

There is a plan already in place to improve after-hours effectiveness by creating a Crisis Stabilization Unit, where these calls would be answered, at the Napa Health and Human Services campus, the jury said. The jury went on to say that it is “imperative” that the Crisis Stabilization Unit be evaluated for effectiveness in improving after-hours functions.

“Most of the long response times are because many of the workers live outside Napa County,” the jury said. “The high cost of housing remains a well-known and ongoing factor in recruiting and retaining qualified staff to Napa County.”

The jury reported that core training and continuing education has been insufficient, noting that several staff members said it was difficult to meet requirements for licensing as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Because of this, the jury said that the department has begun focusing on “Back to Basics Training.”

Turnover at CWS is a problem due to changes in leadership and assessment protocols over a short period of time that have resulted in many of the social workers feeling stressed and frustrated, the jury said.

The department has seen some stabilization since the recent hiring of an acting director with experience at CWS, the grand jury said.

Last year the hotline received 1,307 calls, 127 of which – the most urgent – resulted in immediate investigation within 24 hours, according to the report. An example of an urgent call would be when a 911 call comes into law enforcement regarding a possible domestic violence incident that includes child witnesses, the grand jury said. In this case, the jury said, the law requires that CWS be informed.

An additional 346 calls were investigated within 10 days. As a result of these investigations, there were 132 confirmed cases of child abuse and 72 children were removed from their homes and placed with relatives, in foster care, or other out-of-home placement options.

During this same time period, 46 children were reunited with their families and 22 adoptions were finalized, according to the report.

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Calls that were not investigated were presumably closed or “screened out” – a decision that is made by Emergency Response Hotline workers, according to the report.

CWS uses state recognized tools, including Structured Decision Making Tools (SDM), in order to determine a call’s level of urgency and to manage resolutions of investigations resulting from calls. While SDM combined with the recently adopted Napa Intake Assessment has its advantages, the grand jury said that staff believes the intake process takes longer than it used to.

The grand jury found that the technology used for the hotline also had problems, including the fact that calls cannot be recorded. Being able to record calls would enable supervisors to analyze decisions made and review them with social workers, the jury said. Current employees reported that it would also be beneficial for training new staff, according to the report.

People may hesitate to report suspected abuse and neglect for fear that children will be removed from their families, the grand jury said. The grand jury said that residents need to know that CWS’s focus is on child safety and not to hesitate making a call to the hotline.

“Public awareness of the Hotline is inadequate,” the report said. “In order to protect children, Napa County residents must be better informed about the existence of the Hotline.”

The grand jury called CWS literature “incomplete” and in need of “updating.” According to the jury, the Hotline number isn’t even on all CWS literature. Awareness about Napa’s Child Abuse Hotline could be improved by advertising its services on radio stations, at public meetings, and on Vine buses, the jury said.

One of the jury’s recommendations is that the Department of Health and Human Services conduct a performance review of the effectiveness of the Crisis Stabilization Unit in handling after-hour calls and present its results to the Board of Supervisors by June 30, 2018.

The jury also recommended that efforts to increase public awareness of the Hotline must be made; technology in use should be evaluated and worthwhile, cost-effective upgrades should be included in budget requests to the Board of Supervisors for fiscal year 2018; and county supervisors need to continue to promote the development of affordable housing in the county and show evidence of those efforts by Dec. 31, 2017.

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Public Safety Reporter

Maria Sestito is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She covers breaking news as well as crime and courts. Maria came to the Napa Valley Register in 2015 after working at as a reporter and photographer at The Daily News in Jacksonville, NC. S