A task force examining Minnesota's child protection system spent its first meeting Monday discussing what critics say is its chief failing: a general reluctance to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect.

The task force was created by Gov. Mark Dayton last month, in the wake of a Star Tribune report about a 4-year-old Pope County boy who was killed by his stepmother despite repeated warnings to child protection.

Dayton, who appeared at Monday's meeting, urged the group to respond to the "significant increase in the number and severity of child abuse" with recommendations to the Legislature on how to improve the child protection system, which lawmakers could take up in 2015.

The Star Tribune has found that Minnesota screens out 71 percent of all abuse reports — one of the highest rates in the country — and investigates only 7 percent of all reports. The remaining cases are referred to "family assessment," a less confrontational approach intended to keep families together.

Some task force members questioned how a Legislative Auditor's report released in 2012 could say that child protection agencies make decisions in a "reasonable and deliberative manner," despite those same agencies not responding to most of the reports they receive.

Leaders of child protection agencies and the Department of Human Services have cited the report as evidence that the screening process works.

But Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles told the task force that the report did not examine the effectiveness of the screening decisions. The audit did suggest that DHS clarify screening guidelines because they could be confusing.

Task force members also questioned a new law, passed by the Legislature this year at DHS' urging, that made it more difficult for agencies to investigate maltreatment cases. The law prohibited child protection agencies from considering rejected reports when considering whether a new report has merit.

Call for repeal

DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, co-chair of the task force, has said the law codified what child protection workers were already doing. But many legislators who voted for the bill said they did not know what they were voting for, and now say they want it repealed.

Task force member Dr. Mark Hudson, a child abuse specialist and medical director of the Midwest Children's Resource Center, said many child protection workers do consider a family's history of abuse when determining what to do with a new report.

"Why are we taking away a tool that they were already using?" Hudson said.

When the screening law was passed, Cletus Maychrzak, a member of the Hennepin County Child Protection Citizen Review Panel, said he was "horrified."

"It was amazing to me that we would codify something that says you can't look at prior history," Maychrzak said. "I think that is horrible."

Task force members said they would like to see more transparency and funding for the child protection system, better training for social workers and consideration of the long-term health damage from abuse and neglect. Other members also said they want to examine the use of family assessment in the state.

As reported by the Star Tribune on Sunday, the use of family assessment, where social workers do not investigate whether abuse happened, has become the predominant method for handling cases across the state. Thousands of children considered high-risk for abuse have been funneled into family assessment, a program originally intended for less serious neglect.

"There has been a shift of too many cases going to family assessment," said task force member and Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Fischer.

Two task force members who are social service directors said that the best way to improve the state's child protection system is to build on its current strengths.

Judith Brumfield, Scott County director of health and human services, cautioned the task force that the decisions made by child protection agencies are never easy and often result in angry parents.

"The most impactful thing that the government does is interfere with how a parent raises their children," she said.

The next meeting will be held at 11 a.m. on Oct. 22 at Duluth City Hall.