Abstract: A New Way to Seek Help: How Text and Chat Services Are Assisting to Reveal Gaps and Provide Opportunities (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

448P A New Way to Seek Help: How Text and Chat Services Are Assisting to Reveal Gaps and Provide Opportunities

Saturday, January 15, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Marisol Diaz, PhD, Senior Research Analyst, Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center at Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Wendy Wolfersteig, PhD, Research Associate Professor, Director of Evaluation, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Diane Moreland, MS, Research Analyst, Arizona State University, AZ
Esther Gotlieb, MPH, Research Analyst, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Background/Purpose: With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about child maltreatment are greater than ever. In 2019, Childhelp’s National Child Abuse Hotline was granted three years of funding to target youth help-seekers (ages 13-24), a population not accessing the Hotline. Unlike any other national hotline, Childhelp offers call, text, and online chatting services with trained counselors 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Childhelp’s text and chat services are critical, especially now due to the effects of the pandemic and growing awareness of structural inequalities within our child welfare, educational, healthcare, and legal systems. Study results indicate that (1) youth prefer texting and chatting for help over calling, (2) the Childhelp Hotline saw a surge in the number of help seekers since the start of the pandemic, despite decreases in child abuse reports, and (3) the presenting issues have been intensified by the pandemic creating more stress for our youth. Further, this research has already influenced a state child welfare agency to make changes and use technology to serve youth and victims better.

Methods: A randomized trial is not an option when evaluating a crisis helpline. Thus, an innovative quasi-experimental design was created to compare help seeker responses based on contact mode (text, chat, and call) to measure outcomes. Demographic data are collected through pre and post-surveys that also asked help seekers to evaluate their text/chat/call session with questions about their perceived level of help, hopefulness, and stress. During the sessions with the help seeker, counselors captured essential data such as presenting issues.

Results: This presentation will provide a full year of results along with a comparison of contacts pre and post-pandemic. During June and July 2019, there were 10,630 contacts to the hotline. In June and July of 2020, there were 14,921 contacts to the hotline. For text, the contacts increased considerably from 453 in 2019 to 976 in 2020. For chat, the contacts increased from 38 to 1,392, and calls also increased from 10,139 to 12,553. Furthermore, two focus groups were conducted with hotline counselors to collect qualitative data to help identify how the pandemic and increase in volume has impacted their professional quality of life, particularly compassion fatigue. Counselor focus groups also identified new child abuse concerns related to COVID-19 that help seekers reach out about, including custody and legal issues that address social distancing and mask-wearing policies. This research has already led to social change. The State of New Mexico’s Children, Youth, and Families Department recently launched text messaging to connect youth and child abuse victims with child welfare workers.

Conclusions/Implications: As few hotlines offer text or chat capabilities, Childhelp has developed an innovative way to evaluate its services and is uniquely situated to provide valuable data that can help shed light on help seeker behavior. Technology has changed the way adolescents seek help, and understanding the utilization of these technologies by adolescents will mitigate risk factors, increase protective factors such as stress reduction, increase hopefulness, and connect youth to support information and services.