An audit of Santa Clara County's child-abuse hotline reveals anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of calls for help went unanswered.
The unanswered calls continued for at least a year, according to the audit, which was ordered by the county after employees apparently tipped off people.
"We're dealing with teens often who are calling who are desperate for help," said Sparky Harlan, CEO for the Bill Wilson Center in Santa Clara.
Harlan said the hotlines receives 38,000 calls each year, with a 100-percent response rate by three to four people working the phones.
"For us, it's like a fire or police station -- you answer those calls," Harlan said.
The county's hotline is staffed by about 18 people on each shift, answering roughly 10,000 fewer calls yearly.
Despite a larger staff and fewer calls, the audit found the county hotline only answered 50 to 60 percent of their calls.
"If the call isn't answered, will that neighbor report again?" Harlan said. "Probably not. That's probably it. There's one chance to get some of these calls. I wonder what's happening to kids who might be calling and not getting an answer who are in trouble."
Bruce Wagstaff is the top department head overseeing the county hotline. He said the reason for the poor response rates was staffing.
Wagstaff said the hotline response rate has improved to nearly 90 percent.
"We were doing different things during the course of the audit," Wagstaff said.
The changes included bringing new staff in, shifting staff to other parts of the department and monitoring peak times to try and make adjustments, he said.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese said the department dropped the ball and failed countless people who needed help.
"Anything less than 100 percent responsiveness to kids in this community, especially those that need help the most is unacceptable," Cortese said.