LA's Child Protection Hotline Center on the front line of protecting kids

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- One of the most distressing stories to report on is also one that is difficult to watch: cases of child abuse.

As part of Child Abuse Prevention Month, Eyewitness News is looking at how you might be able to intervene to save a child at risk.

In an exclusive tour of LA's Child Protection Hotline Center, we talked to experts who are on the front line.

"The responsibility on the social workers that answer the phone is tremendous," explains Jennie Feria, the director of the Child Protection Hotline for the LA County Department of Children and Family Services. "Obviously, it's regarding reports of abuse and neglect of the most vulnerable population of LA county: the children."

Usually, by the time there is news of a child being mistreated, it's often too late. And, Feria says, what we hear is not the worst of it.

"I have been here for 23 years and you think that you have heard it all and there is always something that surprises you or shocks you."

The LA Child Protection Hotline is the largest in the nation. Last year, it received 225,937 calls and generated 80,000 referrals for investigation. Feria says there has been an increase of 23.8% in calls in the last 10 years.

"I think the more difficult calls involve the details of abuse and neglect, and the trauma," Feria describes. "Even though they may not have seen it firsthand, the caller describing the details of the abuse and the injuries, that can become daunting after a while."

The hotline center is a hub for police, hospitals and schools to report mistreatment of children. But intervention requires more.

There are 2 million children under age 18 in LA County. A neighbor or a member of the public might be the only witness to a child neglected or hurt in time to supply vital information.

"I think society doesn't realize that children are abused by their own parents and sometimes the severity of it can be really, really great," Feria explains.

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Jennie Feria, director of the Child Protection Hotline for the LA County Department of Children and Family Services, is discussing how the services works to protect kids who may be subject to abuse.

She says the social workers ask open-ended questions in an effort to elicit the most amount of information from the caller. "We would ask: Can you described the injuries to me? What did the child disclose about the injuries? How long ago did you see the injuries?"

Maybe a child is expressing unusual behavior, Feria says, such as crying, shying away or they might have withdrawal symptoms.

Feria says that if somebody is out in the community, at a store for example, and sees children with injuries, marks or bruises that are not typical of accidental injury, they should call the hotline and report it. "We always encourage people to call."

They can also ask the following questions to draw out details: "Have you been hurt by anybody? Are you afraid of anything? Is anything worrying you?" Feria explains.

The hotline center is not like a 911 dispatch. You don't have to have an emergency to call. You may just have a question and the social workers can help guide you to make the proper determination.

All 161 people taking the calls have a bachelor's or master's degree in social services. They assess needs on the spot. Depending on the level of endangerment, they may seek more information or request a check on the child in as little as a few hours. And, by law, all callers remain anonymous.

The hotline number is (800) 540-4000 and they can take calls in English and in Spanish. It operates 24/7 with a mission to protect children when their parents won't.
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