“It adds up to 22,000 abuse calls a year that in an average state would be screened in,” said Rich Gehrman, the executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a watchdog group for child welfare.
Nicollet County officials would not talk about the Hauer case, and the family declined to comment through their attorney, Tom Hagen. A public record provided by Gehrman to the Star Tribune shows that the county became aware of possible neglect of the boy in 2007.
“The report was screened by a child protection worker, but it was determined no neglect occurred, so Social Services decided an assessment was not necessary,” according to the record.
Then in October 2011, a passerby saw the boy walking by himself along Hwy. 169 and called law enforcement, according to court records. The boy told Nicollet County Chief Deputy Karl Jensen that he was hungry and walking to get a hamburger at a gas station, which Jensen said was about 7 miles from his home. The boy could not identify his parents, so the deputy took the boy to get food.
Jensen said in an interview that he tracked down the boy’s address and took him home. His mother, Jensen said, told the deputy that the boy was being punished and was supposed to be moving wood outside, but walked away when she went to check on their other children.
Jensen said the boy did not appear malnourished at the time, and he did not file a report with child protection.
Investigators later learned that around the time Jensen found the boy, the Hauers began sleeping outside of his room to try to stop him from stealing food, according to court records. They moved the boy to the basement, where an alarm on his door would go off if he left. The boy slept in a plastic container and then a sled because he was wetting the bed. In case he had to relieve himself at night, he was given a bucket, which he had to clean and empty each morning.
In October 2012, Mona Hauer brought the boy to the hospital after finding blood on his shirt. She told doctors that the boy had been regurgitating his food since December 2011. He stayed in the hospital for about a month as doctors worked to bring him up to a normal weight and treated him for brain atrophy and delayed bone growth from malnutrition. The boy told his doctors that he been eating his regurgitated food because he did not know when he would eat again.
After an investigation, Nicollet County moved to terminate the Hauers’ parental rights over the 8-year-old and their other three children. A judge granted the termination for the boy and placed him in foster care, and allowed the Hauers to retain custody of the other children while giving the county protective supervision. In October 2013, the Hauers each pleaded guilty to one count of child neglect.
A judge in February 2014 found that the Hauers were complying with the requirements of the protective supervision.
Gehrman of Safe Passage said the case is an example of the system missing a maltreated child.
Abuse screened out
In 2012, the Minnesota legislative auditor also found problems with the screening system, including wide variations in what reports that counties considered worthy of a response.
The auditor presented 10 sample scenarios to county child protection officials. Among them: A father threatens his son and shoots the family dog in front of him. A father chokes and punches a mother as the kids play video games. A mother drinks too much while caring for her child.
About half of Minnesota counties said they would decline to respond to those cases.
DHS sent out an advisory to counties in early March on what should be done in those cases. Counties should assess or investigate reports of a dog-killing father and a drunken mother. But DHS advised against investigating the case of the mother-abusing father, because no child was maltreated.
A Hennepin County task force in 2011 found that the person who makes the report also influences the decision to investigate. People who are not required by law to report abuse or neglect but do so anyway rarely get their complaints investigated, the task force found.
“They could have all of these things that are really concerning,” said Denise Graves, the former head of the task force. “But if they don’t really have explicit details, it won’t get screened in.”