County child protection agencies failed to investigate 203 reports of suspected child sex abuse in Minnesota last year, the state Department of Human Services said Thursday.

Those reports were instead referred to a program called "family assessment" that's designed to encourage families to work with the county, and not hold the abuser responsible. State law requires social workers to investigate allegations of child sex abuse to determine if maltreatment occurred.

DHS revealed the problem Wednesday to members of Gov. Mark Dayton's child protection task force, which is examining the use of family assessment in the state. The Star Tribune reported in October how family assessment, intended for less serious cases, is now used in thousands of cases where children are at high risk for more abuse.

Jamie Sorenson, DHS' director of child safety and ​permanency, said in an e-mail to task force members that a "sampling" of some of sex abuse reports showed they were funneled to family assessment.

"This practice must change," Sorenson wrote. "This is where the department's guidance needs to be reformed and reissued to local agencies."

On Thursday, Sorenson told the task force at its meeting that he learned about the problem when he reviewed the data last month. Four agencies — Sherburne, ​Stearns, Wright and the multicounty Southwest Health and Human Services — were responsible for the majority of the cases, Sorenson said in an interview.

Sorenson said DHS will now review those cases to determine what happened to those children. DHS will also send out a bulletin to counties this month to "reiterate that family assessment is not an option" for sex abuse cases, he said.

The administrator for ​Stearns County Human Services, Mark Sizer, said he would be "very, very surprised" if his child protection department used family assessment to respond to child sex abuse cases. "That should never happen," he said.

Administrators for the other county agencies could not be reached for comment.

'Should be corrected'

Since 2002, the department has revealed in its annual child welfare reports that some sex abuse allegations were being routed to family assessment. But the reports came with the disclaimer that the cases were either wrongly reported as family assessments, or they were unfounded. Those disclaimers appeared each year, even as the number of sex abuse cases handled with family assessments rose from 8 in 2002 to 384 last year, accounting for about one in six reports.

Sorenson said Thursday that DHS will review only the 2013 cases. He said the agency does not have the resources to review earlier cases.

The agency will also start receiving monthly reports on current cases referred to family assessments, Sorenson said.

In an interview this summer, Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant DHS commissioner for child and family services, said the department lacked the staff to review whether child sex abuses were wrongly referred for family assessments. Last week DHS announced that Sullivan Sutton will be reassigned to a new position focused on housing. James Koppel, a state health official and longtime child welfare advocate, will take over as DHS' head of child protection on Dec. 17.

Assessment 'pressure'

Family assessments were put in place by the state Legislature in the early 2000s as an alternative response to less serious reports of child abuse. The program is designed to keep families together by offering parents voluntary services instead of punishing them for maltreatment.

Family assessment has since grown to become the predominant method of responding to abuse reports. Last year, about a third of the more than 14,000 families who went through the program were offered services.

As family assessment has grown, child protection agencies have moved away from investigating abuse. Counties investigated only 7 percent of abuse reports made in Minnesota last year. They "screened out" 71 percent of them, meaning they didn't provide child-protection services. The rest went to family assessment, which over the last two years has had a higher rate of children who were re-reported for abuse than the traditional model of investigating maltreatment.

During an interview in October, DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said the use of family assessment has grown in the state due to "experience and training" and that DHS has not pushed the use of family assessment.

"I am not aware of any conversation we've ever had like that," she said. "And I would be very concerned if somebody on my staff did that."

But officials from 21 counties told Dayton's task force members last month that DHS was pressuring them to assign cases to family assessment.

"Counties have been uncomfortable with the pressure from the department," said Judith Brumfield, director of Scott County Health and Human Services and a member of the task force.

The task force has until the end of this month to recommend system improvements to the governor.