Hennepin County was once hailed for its ability to keep troubled families intact and keep kids out of foster care. But an increase in reports of children suffering repeated maltreatment at home is forcing the county to change its approach.

Fewer parents accused of maltreatment are agreeing to participate in the county’s voluntary family assessment program, which diverts families from the foster care system and gives them support services and classes.

The result: Many parents end up with the same problems and return to the child welfare system accused of hurting their kids again, said Janine Moore, who directs the county’s assessments of maltreatment claims and placements of abused children.

“To no surprise,” she said, “those families [who declined help] were coming back into our system.”

Almost one in eight families in the county who are the subjects of “accepted” maltreatment claims — which means the county suspects they might be true — ends up with new claims of abuse or neglect in six months, according to state child welfare data for 2012.

Last week, Moore announced changes to motivate families to take advantage of services that range from anger-management classes for abusive parents to affordable-housing referrals for parents whose neglect is linked to poverty. The changes start in 2014.

Program worked at first

Beginning in 2000, Hennepin County offered the program to parents who had likely committed abuse or neglect but who didn’t severely harm their children or appear at risk of repeating the maltreatment.

Instead of opening formal child welfare investigations, the county sent a worker to the home along with someone from one of three private social service agencies to determine how to fix the causes of maltreatment.

An initial study of the program in Hennepin and other counties found that it worked. Once coaxed into family assessment services, parents felt more comfortable asking for help. Repeat cases of child abuse and neglect declined. Counties saved money because they didn’t have to put as many children in expensive foster care.

Family assessment surged in every Minnesota county. The number of families diverted to this type of child welfare alternative in the state increased from 1,762 in 2001 to 16,984 in 2011, according to the latest federal Child Maltreatment report. Fewer investigations meant fewer substantiated cases of abuse or neglect — that number dropped over the same period from 7,879 to 3,369.

Problems emerged five years ago, when Hennepin faced budget shortfalls and stopped sending county workers on the initial family visits. That left the work to the three private agencies, which lacked the training and staffing to identify the needs of troubled families, Moore said. Parents also felt less compulsion to cooperate if a child protection worker wasn’t telling them what to do.

In the first half of 2011, 69 percent of families offered services through family assessment took advantage of them. So far in 2013, only 20 percent have opted to participate.

While some families declined services, others received support that failed to address the causes of child abuse, Moore said.

“The family might say something like, ‘You know what, if you pay my car insurance, I can continue to get to work.’ The problem is that getting to work might not have a direct correlation to the allegation of maltreatment, although it was a great service for the family.”

County workers at the door

Moore said she gradually will be diverting county staff to this role and training them to identify the services parents need to avoid future abuse or neglect of their kids. She orchestrated a similar change when she was working in Ramsey County’s child protection division.

Putting county workers at the doors of these families should make a difference, said Denise Graves, a guardian ad litem who represents foster children in Hennepin County in court cases. She co-authored a 2012 report by the Hennepin County Citizen Review Panel, a child welfare watchdog, that was critical of the county’s family assessment approach.

“Someone from child protection is coming to call?” Graves said. “That might straighten out some people right there and then.”

If the county succeeds in persuading more troubled families to participate, that will increase the cost to the county and state of providing services. Last year, the county spent more than $900,000 on these services — with two-thirds of the funding coming from the state.

Moore said the county could gain $2 million per year in federal funding by taking over the role of assessing families. She also believes a more effective program will save money by reducing the number of families who end up back in the child welfare system.

“Families understand what child protection is. Families understand who a Hennepin County Child Protective Services worker is,” Moore said. “That in and of itself comes with its own set of perceptions and beliefs that, ‘Wow, I had better pay attention.’ ”