Child abuse tips silenced for months by DCF computer glitch

Law enforcement got notice of some reports only when the monthslong backlog was cleared.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco addresses the media in December. Speaking this week about a state software glitch that delayed release of child abuse tips to law enforcement, he said his agency does not yet know the impact to Pasco children. "As all law enforcement agencies know, a delay like this is never a good thing," he said.  [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco addresses the media in December. Speaking this week about a state software glitch that delayed release of child abuse tips to law enforcement, he said his agency does not yet know the impact to Pasco children. "As all law enforcement agencies know, a delay like this is never a good thing," he said. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]
Published May 10 2017
Updated May 10 2017

TAMPA — Hundreds of reports about potential child abuse may have been overlooked for months because of a Florida Department of Children and Families computer glitch.

About 1,500 tips to the Florida Abuse Hotline ­— the state's front line for child protection — were not sent electronically to law enforcement agencies between February and April because of a software problem, DCF officials said. That included roughly 230 cases in the Tampa Bay region.

Reports of abuse or neglect by parents, which are handled by child welfare investigators, were not affected. But tips on abuse by others, including neighbors, teachers or strangers, stalled in the DCF's computers.

Some of those cases may still have been investigated, DCF officials said. Even though the software failed, abuse hotline operators were still able to transfer calls to 911.

But local law enforcement agencies received notice of some reports only when the backlog was resolved on May 3. In some cases, agencies are still wading through them to determine if an investigation is warranted.

"As all law enforcement agencies know, a delay like this is never a good thing," said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco. "We will not know the impact to Pasco children until a thorough review of all the cases is complete, and that review is ongoing."

DCF officials said at least half of the electronically delayed reports reflected a special situation, such as an absent parent or child-on-child sexual abuse. Those calls were relayed to the same child welfare investigators who review complaints against parents.

The glitch was caused by a software update made on Feb. 4 to the system used by hotline operators. It was not detected until April 28.

After the problem was fixed, the backlog of reports was sent to local sheriff's offices across Florida on May 3.

"The department is working with the software vendor to implement an alert system to notify the department anytime a backlog is created in the future," said DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims in a statement. "The department is continuing to work with our partners in law enforcement to appropriately investigate these allegations and we remain committed to ensuring the safety of all children and vulnerable adults in Florida."

The 1,500 reports included 113 from Hillsborough County, about 70 from Pinellas County and 32 in Pasco, according to the DCF.

Pasco officials disputed that number, saying they had received more than 100 delayed reports.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said most of the backlogged calls his office received were forwarded to police departments in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo.

Of 22 reports in unincorporated Pinellas, only two were new cases, he said.

"Any time anything like that happens it gives you some concern," he said. "With all the technology we have, sometimes systems do have issues."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office responded to 65 delayed reports, said spokesman Larry McKinnon.

"Our goal is always to get the information as quickly as possible so we can respond as quickly as we can," he said. "We're glad they were able to get the system fixed.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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