And the agency responsible for looking into those complaints has failed to report the problem to the Legislature as the law requires.

The backlog of pending maltreatment investigations had grown to 724 cases at the end of 2012, according to figures contained in a report this week by the Department of Human Services (DHS). The agency is responsible for overseeing licensed programs that serve thousands of vulnerable adults, including those with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

“If the backlog is doubling, that means they are not doing the investigations they need to get done,” said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who chairs a committee that oversees the agency’s budget.

“That means it’s going to cost more money because you presumably have to hire more investigators to do the job. It’s important to protect the well-being of the people in our care.”

DHS Inspector General Jerry Kerber said the growing backlog does not mean the agency is unable to protect vulnerable adults. He said investigators prioritize cases, taking the most serious allegations first; some cases that may be delayed are less urgent or do not involve an immediate threat to safety, he said.

Kerber said, however, that agency officials are not satisfied with the backlog and do hear from families of vulnerable adults and others who aren’t getting investigation results as quickly as they’d like.

He said the agency has proposals before the Legislature to address the backlog. The proposals would restructure some licensing and monitoring functions in home- and community-based services. The agency, he said, is meeting its statutory requirements by notifying those involved when investigations stretch on.

“We would like to complete more investigations in a shorter period of time,” Kerber said. “We struggle with the resources we have available to do this work.”

The office has 24 investigators and intake workers and is charged with investigating maltreatment and abuse complaints involving nearly 9,000 adult foster care programs and other licensed DHS programs that serve developmentally disabled and other vulnerable Minnesotans. Complaints range from neglect to abuse and even deaths.

Roberta Opheim, a state consumer advocate for people in mental health and developmentally disabled programs, said the growing backlog is troubling.

She said she plans to inquire what’s causing the backlog because timely investigations are important.

“People tend to slide in their performance when no one is watching,” Opheim said. “They need to know when something goes wrong somebody is going to say, ‘What’s going on here?’ That keeps all of us on our toes.”

DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson is required by law to report to the Legislature and the governor each year on types of maltreatment cases her agency is investigating, whether investigative backlogs exist and other trends that could affect the safety of vulnerable adults.

Last report was in 2010

The department’s last maltreatment report was issued in 2010; the one before that was in 2008 and the report for 2012 still has not been submitted. Jesson was unavailable for comment Thursday.

“We failed to get the report out,” said Chuck Johnson, DHS’ chief financial and operating officer. “We’re working on the report and we’ll have it out soon. ... I think we’re certainly all concerned about the backlog and concerned that the report had not been issued.”

Huntley said it’s important that state agencies meet their reporting obligations to the Legislature because it can help uncover problems that allow lawmakers to make corrections. He cited the spike in deaths that went on for years in licensed child care facilities without attention because of inconsistent reporting.

Huntley said he plans to ask about the maltreatment report at a committee meeting Friday where Kerber is scheduled to appear.

“We have very good department people. Not everything is perfect,” Huntley said. But “we need to know what the failures are and how we can improve.”