Relentless stories of child abuse and neglect eat at us. So, if you had a unique opportunity to create a safer world for vulnerable children, would you grab it?

The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) is seeking "everyday citizens" for a Hennepin County panel formed to find the best ways to strengthen families in crisis. There is urgency in their request, as the panel shrinks in size.

The work is voluntary and often tough on the gut. But panelists say they'd sure rather be on the inside than on the outside feeling helpless.

"As a citizen, this isn't something you usually get to do," said ­panelist Cletus Maychrzak of Minneapolis. "Neglect, abuse, kids. How much more emotional can you get?"

The concept came from a congressional mandate in 1996, requiring states to establish at least three citizen review panels to receive Child Abuse and Neglect State Grants Program funding. Panels also operate in Chisago, Ramsey, Washington and Winona counties. They, too, seek volunteers.

Panelists are selected after an interview process and are appointed by the DHS commissioner or county commissioners to two-year, renewable terms. While many members have years of experience in social work or related fields, this is far from a requirement.

DHS assistant Commissioner Erin Sullivan Sutton said a variety of ­cultural, ethnic and economic ­backgrounds makes for "a richer panel."

Panelist Denise Graves agrees, encouraging those "who don't trust the system" to apply. "It would be helpful to see how the system affected them and how they want to improve it."

A volunteer guardian ad litem with three grown children, Graves said there was a huge response when the Hennepin County panel formed in 2009, leading to as many as 20 members. Since then, it's shrunk to eight. Volunteers, who must live in the county where they serve, are trained, then charged with evaluating different aspects of the child protection system and ­making recommendations to the counties and DHS.

Some panels have taken on prevention campaigns or helping kids stay in school, since truancy is considered neglect.

Sometimes the DHS response is, "No thanks," Maychrzak said with a laugh. But he's feeling bullish about real changes he's seen since joining the Hennepin County panel at its start.

Maychrzak, who grew up in North Dakota, is the single father of a 21-year-old son with special needs. He also served as a Kinship mentor for 10 years. He saw a posting for the panel and wanted to apply but assumed that his business background — he's a manager at ING U.S., a financial services company — would disqualify him. Far from it, he began as vice chair and is now serving his third term.

The panel includes a school psychologist and a few attorneys. Most members are in their 40s to 60s. Younger voices would be welcome.

Maychrzak said his biggest struggle is accepting that his definition of child abuse and neglect isn't universal. "It's very regulated by statute. If kids have clothes and aren't starving to death, it's not neglect.

"It's hard for me," he said, "but if the government stepped in every time a kid was possibly being neglected, there would be outrage. But when they don't step in, there's outrage."

The panel steps in to see the forest through the trees. Sometimes those on the inside "are too close to the thing," he said. "I'm not questioning them education-wise. But it helps to bring someone in to say, 'This is crazy. Why are you doing this?' "

Graves and Maychrzak agree that their proudest accomplishment is a huge change in how families are assessed after a report of possible child abuse. Formerly, ­at-risk families were sent to outside agencies, where few followed up on services. Thanks to recommendations by the panel, all family assessments are now done in-house, leading to greater oversight, attention to families' unique needs and fewer families ­circling back.

Sullivan Sutton is pleased that this change occurred through a focused collaboration between citizens, community agencies and child protection professionals.

"What we've learned over the years is that the safety and well-being of children is based on the safety and well-being of their families," she said. Some families do need foster care. But the majority are likely better served by addressing underlying issues, such as poverty, chemical dependency and mental health struggles.

"They are more likely to avail themselves of services if they don't fear they'll lose their kids," she said.

Meetings are held the ­second Monday of the month, beginning at 4:30 p.m. to allow working people to attend.

"Sometimes it's frustrating because you feel like, dang, this is just going nowhere," Maychrzak said. "But you just keep plugging away.

"At least I'm doing what I can and not staying home and complaining about it. I like to be part of a solution." 612-673-7350