Missouri’s elder abuse hotline has been deluged by concerned callers but the department has only been able to answer half of those calls. The hotline also serves residents with disabilities (18-59) and those 60 years and over, reports are collated on neglect, abuse and exploitation. Last year over 17,000 calls were disconnected following a recorded message while a further 10,000 calls were dropped and/or hung up prior to being answered. Other reasons were put forward as either unknown, poor mobile reception or staff error. A joint investigation by The Columbia Missourian and the KBIA confirms only half of the 92,000 calls to the elder abuse hotline were answered while from January to April of his year around 39% were answered.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services admitted the numbers weren’t encouraging. Over the past ten years there has been a 35% increase in exploitation and abuse while over this period one call handler had been added to the elder abuse hotline. The hotline’s site reports concerning instances of caller’s detail including an elder living in a roach infested home and a son who severely beat his 70 year old mother for 3 hours. However while these figures may not fill Missourians with confidence it’s worth remembering that Missouri is one of only 18 States that currently offer online reporting of elder abuse. Those tasked with call handling are 2 part time and 18 full time staff. The surge in reports to the department is attributed to awareness of The Elder Abuse Hotline (Jefferson City) and an increasing elderly population. Missouri is not the only State facing these reporting difficulties alone as recently reported in respect of the backlog in Minnesota.

Issues with the elder abuse hotline weren’t realised until late on in 2018 by The Division of Senior and Disability Services. At any one time 4 people can be on hold any additional calls may be dropped. The average hold time was around eight minutes (January to April 2019) but some have waited over an hour to make contact, the longest call duration being recorded in February at 1 hour 22 minutes. The Division of Senior and Disability Services became aware of issues from complaints but the data they had to work with wasn’t correlating with those complaints. The data is obtained from Unified Communications but data prior to 2018 did not detail disconnected calls giving an inaccurate picture. The department has worked together with Unified Communications to ensure, moving forward, they are in charge of more detailed and specific data.

The hotline opens daily from 7am through to midnight but those calls that are unanswered (after line closes) are not tracked. The bureau has also advised care providers and law enforcement (mandated reporters) to fax reports if no call handlers can be reached. This method of reporting accounts for around 1200 reports in 2019 however the call response rate has not improved. The concerns remain that if callers do not persist the vulnerable remain at risk and that a fax facility is not always readily available to an abuse victim. Lack of funding restricts an online submission form while the department tries to streamline the current process and a grant has been applied for. They are also referring to other States operations and prior to requesting funds for additional workers the bureau is addressing hotline inefficiencies essentially reducing time spent writing up cases to spend more time answering calls. Staff turnover has also decreased owing to workers telecommuting during “undesirable shifts”. The current State budget does not make provisions for additional funding for the hotline. However if the immediate issues can not be addressed there remains the option of requesting additional future funding. The integrity of any forthcoming or revised data will be relied upon for the budget committee this summer.

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