Counties 'screen out' most child abuse reports

  • Article by: BRANDON STAHL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2014 - 11:48 PM

Bill would require better tracking of child abuse cases that are screened out without investigation.

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The casket of Demond Reed, 4, during a wake at The Shiloh Temple in Minneapolis on Monday night. He was beaten to death by his aunt.

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Minnesota’s counties received nearly 68,000 reports of child abuse or neglect last year but closed most of those cases without investigation or assessment.

A review of state and federal data by the Star Tribune shows that the number of child abuse reports being screened out without any protective action rose last year to the third-highest rate in the country.

In all, the state screened out more than 48,000 such abuse reports last year ­— and authorities often made their decisions after only gathering information from a phone call or a fax.

What happens to those cases is largely unknown. Records are not open to the public. Many counties also don’t keep track of closed cases, potentially resulting in multiple reports of abuse of a child without intervention. A bill advancing through the Legislature would require counties to keep information on screened-out cases for a year to spot recurring child abuse.

“We’re finding gross discrepancies in what one county does vs. another,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.

Red Lake County in northwestern Minnesota screened out nearly 93 percent of its cases last year, the highest in the state, taking in only three of the 41 child abuse complaints it received, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). Le Sueur County, about an hour south of ­Minneapolis, was second highest, rejecting 89 percent of the 453 abuse reports it received.

Houston County in ­southeastern Minnesota closed only 5 percent of its complaints without investigation, the state’s lowest percentage.

The screened-out reports can be an early warning. Nicollet County received a report in 2007 of suspected child neglect by Mona and Russell Hauer but chose not to investigate, records show.

Five years later, Mona Hauer brought her 8-year-old son to a Mankato hospital. His bones pressed against his skin and he weighed just 35 pounds. Doctors admitted him to intensive care and diagnosed him with failure to thrive and anemia. Authorities accused the parents of starving the child and confining him in a basement, and charged the two with child neglect.

Only six counties screened out a higher percentage of their reports last year than Nicollet.

“This is something to be extremely concerned about,” said John Mattingly, a senior fellow at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which studies child welfare. “It’s happening because the initial criteria they have set allows too many cases to be dismissed before you even take an initial look at them. If you want to know what that’s about, it’s about controlling caseloads.”

Erin Sullivan Sutton, DHS’ assistant commissioner for children and family services, defended the state’s record of investigating child abuse and neglect by pointing to a state audit released in 2012.

That audit found child protection agencies made decisions on whether to investigate in a “reasonable and deliberative manner.”

Sullivan Sutton said screen-outs have nothing to do with caseload or budgetary concerns. Rather, she said the majority of the abuse reports don’t meet the statutory requirements for a county response.

“We cannot intervene or interfere with families unless statutory thresholds are met,” she said.

Sleeping on a sled

Counties fielded reports of possible child abuse or neglect an average of seven times an hour last year in Minnesota, one of the highest rates in the nation. Child protection agencies must determine if those reports meet the legal threshold of abuse. If so, the law requires the agencies to intervene by investigating whether abuse occurred or assessing the child’s safety and risk for maltreatment.

County child protection agencies closed 71 percent of abuse reports without investigation last year. Nationwide, the average number of screened-out calls was 38 percent in 2012.

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