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Kids can now report abuse via text line. Experts will study its success in Missouri

Childhelp’s national child abuse hotline launches first text line

The non profit Childhelp, which operates the nation's most frequently used child abuse hotline, recently launched its first text line to cater to younger people who might be more comfortable reporting abuse or struggles via text than the phone.
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The non profit Childhelp, which operates the nation's most frequently used child abuse hotline, recently launched its first text line to cater to younger people who might be more comfortable reporting abuse or struggles via text than the phone.

The nation’s top child abuse hotline found that the majority of the people calling in were adults.

So this month it launched a service young people would be more likely to use: a text line.

And Missouri will be one of the key states to help determine how well it’s working.

This month, the nonprofit Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline launched its first text line, created as part of ongoing efforts to reach more young people, particularly those unable or unwilling to ask for help over the phone.

Since the phone hotline launched in 1982, the majority of people calling in were typically adults speaking on behalf of children, said Michelle Fingerman, Childhelp’s national director. Rarely did children call in to report their own abuse or abuse affecting family or friends.

But the nonprofit’s informal tests of text lines in recent years attracted almost entirely a new demographic: More than 80 percent were under 18, Fingerman said.

“It confirmed what we were suspecting,” Fingerman said. “That youth weren’t calling, because they were comfortable reaching out in other ways … including text.”

Missouri ranks third in the nation behind Washington, D.C., and Arkansas for calls made per capita to the Childhelp line. But the numbers aren’t an indicator of higher abuse rates. In 2017, Missouri’s rate of substantiated abuse cases dropped to 3.3 percent, well below the nation’s rate of 9 percent, according to data from the hotline, federal statistics and the census.

In a state with 1.4 million children and a strong history of using the national hotline, Childhelp leaders say the text line’s success in Missouri will be a key to understanding — and perhaps ultimately improving — the best ways to provide support through texts and live chats.

They are planning to study what works for text line counselors helping Missourians, as well as people in other states that have used the hotline often.

Kansas, with fewer than half the number of children Missouri has, is not one of the states the nonprofit will spend extra time studying. The number of substantiated child abuse calls in Kansas jumped to 5.8 percent from 2016 to 2017, mainly because of new laws that eased the burden of proof in cases of abuse and neglect, experts say.

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Childhelp

A three-year, $3 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services will support Childhelp’s research, and pay to train more counselors to address those reporting sexual and physical abuse, as well as neglect.

But while expanding technology will help Childhelp reach more people, it doesn’t necessarily make its work more efficient.

Text lines provide unique challenges for trained counselors who must collect critical information in a short amount of time. Texts and live chats make it difficult for hotline operators to convey tone or inflection that can be comforting or helpful to a caller. The time alone is an obstacle for a hotline that provides counselors 24 hours a day.

The average call to a hotline lasts around nine minutes. Text conversations can exceed 45 minutes.

“Our counselors have found that it can take an hour of texting to get the same level of critical information that you can get from someone on the phone in minutes,” said Rebecca Cooper, Childhelp’s vice president of public affairs.

But hotline staff say expanding their services is worth the time. Teens or children in crisis may not be comfortable or able to vocalize what they are experiencing. Or, like many American youth, they don’t consider phone calls when looking for ways to communicate.

That’s why the group is promoting the text line in a place teens and children congregate — on Internet and streaming services.

On Monday, promotions for the text line ran on all of Spotify’s music channels, and a hopeful and upbeat female voice encouraged listeners to reach out to people “ready to help” at a text line “free, confidential and available 24/7.”

The text line will be promoted on other digital platforms, such as Instagram and Snapchat.

The text line, which officially launched on Friday, is available at the same number as the phone line: 800-422-4453 (800-4-A-CHILD).

Fingerman said she hopes the text line provides an outlet for youth who might have “nowhere else to turn,” whether that’s helping them through a difficult moment or referring them to resources in their state.

“For us it is leveraging technology in a positive way,” Fingerman said. “If we know if this is how youth connect at this point, I think our priority is to meet them where they are at.”

Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.
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