Authorities have one word of advice for people who suspect they may have witnessed evidence of child abuse: Call.

In an average year, child protection or social service agencies in Minnesota receive more than 50,000 reports of possible child abuse, but only a minority come from relatives or neighbors of an endangered child. Most come from people required by law to report it, such as police, health practitioners, teachers, social workers and counselors.

"The common factor I see in nearly every child abuse case that ends in a fatality is that a neighbor or relative suspected abuse, and they may have not reported it," said Cmdr. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, whose department recently investigated the death of 3-year-old Devin Drake. "If you have any concerns, err on the side of the child and not the potential abuser."

On Tuesday, murder charges were filed against Anthony W. Urban, 24, an Andover man accused of physically abusing Devin. Urban, the boyfriend of Devin's mother, Elizabeth Moorman, had been charged with assault. Moorman, 40, has been charged with neglect.

Neighbors in the family's Anoka apartment building said they had recently grown suspicious when they saw that Drake had a black eye. One said she had planned to go to authorities the day Devin was taken to the hospital, several days before he died.

According to complaints filed Friday, Urban told police he had struck the boy on the side of the head after the child bit down on his fingers as Urban helped him brush his teeth. Urban said the boy's head then hit the bathroom floor, according to the charges. Authorities said Moorman offered three versions of how the boy became injured. Both remain in jail.

Also Tuesday, police said they were investigating a suspicious fire Monday night in front of Moorman's apartment door. Nothing inside the apartment was damaged.

Safeguards built in

Officials say they have no way of knowing whether a report would have made a difference in the case of Devin, who died Saturday. County social service workers had had previous contact with Moorman over alleged drug use; there were no reports of child abuse at that time.

Anoka County received about 7,500 child abuse reports last year. Nearly one-third of the cases are assigned to an investigator or resolved through a family assessment by social services intended to correct a problem.

Authorities also acknowledge that reporting child abuse can be difficult but say there are safeguards built in for all parties. People can anonymously tip off law enforcement or child protection agencies, but it's easier to follow up if there is contact information, authorities say. Some county protection agencies won't accept anonymous reports, instead referring callers to a law enforcement agency.

How the process works

Each call to a child protection agency is screened by a worker to determine whether it meets criteria for an investigation or family assessment, said Pam Orren, a child protection intake worker for Hennepin County.

High-priority cases would involve children with obvious injuries from either physical or sexual abuse or a case in which a victim or witness comes forward. The child's immediate safety is assessed, and law enforcement is called if action is needed, she said.

In the most urgent cases not turned over to police, a social worker will respond within three hours. Even if a case doesn't meet the criteria for an investigation or family assessment, those reporting the allegations are counseled on available services to help the child's family or on ways to protect the child in the future. About three-quarters of abuse calls in the county come through official channels, Orren said.

"If a child is screaming in the apartment next door, you may be scared to knock on the door," she said. "But you could call police and they could do a health and welfare check."

If children are considered to be immediately at risk, police or social workers can remove them from their home for three days. If more time is needed, foster homes are arranged. In the most extreme cases, the court can terminate a parent's rights to his or her children.

An abuse report made to a child protection agency will also create a report to local law enforcement. The Minneapolis Police Department's child abuse unit receives about 1,800 calls a year.

Investigating an initial report of child abuse is challenging because the suspect is often related to the possible victim and doesn't have to talk to police, said Minneapolis Police Lt. Greg Reinhardt, head of the abuse unit. Investigators can find other ways to reach possible victims, such as talking to them at school, he said.

Reinhardt stressed that callers can remain anonymous and that they wouldn't be held liable if anything happened to the child.

"Some people might think it's a burden on police or they fear retaliation if the person found out," he said. "They might think if they are abusing a kid, they might hurt me."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465