An email account created to support a Colorado hotline for child-abuse and neglect reports went unchecked for years, the state's Department of Human Services said. (Colorado Department of Human Services/Colorado Department of Human Services)

An email account set up by the Colorado government for reports of child abuse and neglect went unchecked for four years, leaving more than 100 messages about mistreatment concerns unanswered and allowing five cases that needed follow-up to go without investigation.

The email account was set up in 2015 to support a phone hotline and then forgotten, allowing reports to slip through at a time when the state worked to increase reporting of child abuse and emphasized a speedy response to concerns through a 24/7 hotline. That phone number received a record number of calls last year, four years into a public awareness campaign aimed at teaching more Coloradans about the state’s resources.

“It’s of great concern that we had five [cases] that did not reach the level of attention they needed in a timely way,” Minna Castillo-Cohen, director of the state Department of Human Services’ Office of Children, Youth and Families, said in a statement.

A May 15 internal audit discovered the problem. By the time the department looked at the neglected email account, 321 messages had piled up, including 104 about concerns that children were being abused or neglected, department spokeswoman Madlynn Ruble told The Washington Post. Many of those emails were duplicates or had already been addressed through other channels, Ruble said.

But a handful, about alleged child neglect, should have been passed on to county caseworkers.

“The emails were immediately reviewed, first to address each case, but also to remedy the issue and prevent this from happening in the future,” Ruble added.

The email account was created as a resource for government staff to coordinate. For example, employees who received a report about possible child mistreatment would advise the person bringing a concern to call the state hotline and also send an email documenting the concern, Ruble said.

The address went unchecked because it was quickly replaced with another email account in 2015, after the department learned that it had used the wrong format, Ruble said. But some department staff members kept sending emails to the old address, and no one deleted or checked its messages after the switch.

The address was never shared outside government, according to Ruble, who said none of the unanswered emails detailing concerns were sent by members of the public.

Ruble said the neglect reports are being handled now, but she declined to give details about cases, citing their confidentiality. She could not say when the five emails that required attention were sent.

The old email address has been deleted now, and auto-responses for the Department of Human Services and other groups indicate the correct way to report child mistreatment, according to Ruble.

Calls to Colorado’s child-abuse and neglect hotline rose about 5 percent from 2017 to 2018. Based on those calls, the state says, county social services staff checked on more than 57,000 children last year and found that more than 13,000 had been abused or neglected.

Those rising numbers are encouraging to Department of Human Services officials who want to see concerns reported and addressed, even as they demonstrate the scope of the problem.

“The fact that more than half of Colorado’s counties now believe strongly enough in the Hotline County Connection Center to trust them to screen all of their child abuse, neglect and child sex-trafficking inquiries and reports represents a wonderful vote of confidence in our system,” Castillo-Cohen said in a statement this year.

The unchecked-email issue is an opportunity to think about other ways the state’s reporting system could be improved, said Katie Facchinello, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Illuminate Colorado, which works to prevent child mistreatment. Illuminate Colorado is one of 150 organizations partnering with the state on its public awareness campaign.

Facchinello said Colorado can become better at taking concerns outside its phone hotline — through text or social media, for example — as people’s habits shift.

“Even though there may be gaps in process, we still have a very effective child-abuse and neglect reporting system, and [people] should in no way have any concerns about reporting,” she told The Post.