Dakota County child protection received three reports over a year that an Apple Valley couple were beating and neglecting their adopted children, but offered services to keep the family together rather than investigating, according to juvenile court records.

Then, in August, police removed the children after allegations their parents beat one with a belt, forced them to stand in place for hours and chained kitchen cabinets shut to keep them from getting to food, court records show. The couple, Mary and Dwight Neal, lost their parental rights and were charged last month with child neglect.

Before the children were removed, social workers three times used a “family assessment” response with the Neals. Family assessment offers voluntary services to build on a family’s strengths, but does not identify whether a child was abused and who was responsible.

After the Star Tribune reported on child protection’s overuse of family assessment, the Legislature passed laws last year requiring more aggressive intervention in child abuse reports as well as consultation with county attorneys before closing cases. In the first half of 2014, family assessments were used to respond to three-quarters of abuse cases, but that’s dropped to less than two-thirds in the first quarter of 2016.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said the Neal case shows the value of the new approach.

“We are now consulting on these cases right away,” Backstrom said. “This is one of those cases that is perhaps why this law got changed, because the consultation did not occur until August 2015. Should it have happened earlier? Probably.”

Neither parent could be reached for comment for this story. In court records, both denied abusing their children. In November they voluntarily terminated their parental rights, making the children wards of the state.

Dakota County social services declined to comment.

Traumatized

The children, ages 10 to 14, are now struggling to recover from years of trauma, records show. They have been in and out of foster care since at least 2006, when the rights of their biological parents were terminated. They were adopted by their grandmother in 2008, but she died a month later.

They went through numerous foster homes until the Neals, their great-aunt and uncle, adopted the children in September 2012.

In May 2014, Dakota County child protection received a report that the oldest daughter, who was 13 at the time, threatened to commit suicide. Her father left her in her room with a bottle of pills, a cup of water and a knife, according to court records. He later went into the room and told her, “Are you sure you don’t want to take the pills? You are not dead yet,” court records show. Dwight Neal told child protection that the pills were candy and the knife was a butter knife that he did not leave with her.

“He said he was trying the ‘scared straight thing’ and admitted it was a bad idea,” according to the court report.

Child protection opened a family assessment and learned the children feared their parents. The county offered Mary Neal intensive in-home services to deal with their previous trauma, according to court records, but she declined, saying she would continue to work with an in-home therapist. The county closed the case.

In August 2014, Dakota County opened another family assessment after the 11-year-old boy said his father beat him with a pole. The father admitted using a plastic pole on the boy, while their mother said the children had behavioral problems and did not respond to physical discipline, according to court records. The county closed the case in January 2015 after the parents completed “in-home and individual services,” court records show.

In May 2015, Dakota County opened a third family assessment following a report that Mary Neal struck her son twice in the face and dragged him down the stairs. The mother denied the abuse. The county again offered voluntary services to the parents and developed a safety plan that included not using physical discipline, then closed the case.

‘Torture’

In August, the boy again reported that he had been beaten by his father, causing welts on his chest and back. This time an Apple Valley police officer and child protection investigator went to the home. The boy accused his father of beating him a belt and in one instance put a boot over his face and “threatened to squash him.”

He and the youngest sister told the investigators that his mother forced him to stand in a corner all day, which the oldest sister described as “torture.” The parents chained shut several cabinets in the kitchen, which the boy said was to keep him from eating the food.

All of the children have PTSD. In foster care, the oldest girl communicated with her siblings “using a ‘tap code’ or ‘click code’ similar to one used in prisons and POW camps” according to a court report. She has since been placed in treatment.

“The history of disruption and trauma both as individuals and as a group has left the children with a relationship that highly mirrors an abusive household,” their court-appointed advocate wrote in a report.

A task force formed by Gov. Mark Dayton last year recommended reducing the use of family assessment.

The Legislature followed suit by passing laws meant to require more investigation of abuse reports, but counties are resisting a task force recommendation that all cases identify whether a child has been abused. Counties counter that that would require an investigation in all cases.

“If your child runs out in the road, that’s a neglect issue,” said Phil Claussen, president of the Minnesota Association of County Social Services Administrators. “Would you want to be investigated the same way [as] if you sexually abused a child?”

Dr. Mark Hudson, a member of Dayton’s task force and advocate for more investigations, said the Apple Valley case demonstrates “how much more information is learned about children during an investigation rather than a family assessment.”