Vulnerable children in Hennepin County are "at risk'' because the county is failing to provide training and social services to certain parents who have been accused of child abuse or neglect, a county watchdog group has concluded.

Of parents referred to the county's voluntary "family assessment'' program, only 25 percent were offered the training and support the program promises. Of those parents, only two-thirds agreed to participate in support services, according to a report by the Citizens' Review Panel distributed to county commissioners late last week.

Hennepin County has received credit nationally for its aggressive use of family assessments as an alternative to help parents whose abuse or neglect accusations weren't severe or credible enough to warrant formal investigation.

While the approach appears to work, its success in Hennepin County rings hollow if most affected parents receive no actual help, said Denise Graves, a guardian-ad-litem who serves on the volunteer review panel.

"It does give a different representation -- like the county is really helping people, when it really isn't helping them," Graves said.

The risk, she said, is that untrained parents will be at risk for hurting their children again.

A county child welfare executive agreed that many parents steered into family assessment aren't offered the services. He estimated that half aren't offered services, a rate that is lower than what the review panel found.

"That's because there isn't enough money to offer them all services," said Don Sabre, the county's acting director of child welfare protection and assessment services.

A new tool

When a suspected case of child abuse is reported, the county's intake office must first decide whether to "screen out" the report or to screen it for further review. A supervisor's review of the allegation then verifies whether it is credible and severe enough to warrant a formal investigation and the potential placement of a child in foster care.

Before 2000, cases that didn't meet this investigatory standard were closed without action. Since then, Minnesota counties have had the additional option of referring parents to family assessments.

In 2011, Hennepin County received 13,295 abuse allegations, screened 4,379 in for further review, and referred 2,892 into the family assessment program. Only 1,426 received full investigations.

Caseworkers can recommend the family assessment program only when children are deemed safe and the risk of further harm is low to moderate, said Greg Gardner, supervisor for the county's child protection investigative unit.

Because the families can refuse the voluntary training services, caseworkers have to consider it acceptable that nothing more might happen once they make that recommendation.

"If we're uncomfortable with walking away from the situation," Gardner said, "then we should be opening the case up for a traditional [investigative] track."

Nevertheless, Graves said, the guardian-ad-litem's office has represented abused children whose families had been through family assessment more than once.

Voluntary services

The family assessment technique has been found through research to prevent repeat abuse and child-welfare allegations, said Erin Sullivan Sutton, an assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which oversees county child-welfare activities.

"We do see lower rates of maltreatment as well as fewer families going back to the system" following such training, she said.

It should be no surprise that many families decline the services when offered, Gardner added.

"They may feel the report was bogus or that it was an isolated situation and they don't need any help."

One way to increase participation in training would be to pressure the parents -- hinting at the possibility of a formal investigation if they don't sign up, Gardner said. However, he said that might be considered unethical, because the program was designed under state law to be voluntary.

The citizen review panel made several recommendations, including classifying cases as "screened out" when families are placed in family assessment but aren't offered support services. The panel also advised the county to track when families cycle through the family assessment program more than once, and to consider switching their cases to formal investigations.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744