Minnesota's child welfare system needs stronger guidance to ensure that vulnerable children are treated consistently from one county to another, a legislative audit concluded Tuesday.

Testing county and tribal child-welfare agencies with 10 fictional cases of abuse and neglect, state auditors found wide variations in whether local officials deemed investigations necessary. It was a virtual 50-50 split, for example, on whether agencies would investigate a claim of a small child found wandering a block from home. And 64 percent said they wouldn't investigate as maltreatment a domestic abuse incident that occurred while a child was in another room.

Despite these so-called "gray area referrals," many of the state's child-welfare intake workers made reasonable and thoughtful deliberations, said Carrie Meyerhoff, the lead author of the report for the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor.

Child welfare advocates sought the audit because of wide regional variations in screening decisions -- and because Minnesota is unique, nationally, for the low rate of child abuse complaints that it "screens in" -- or flags -- for investigation or intervention. In 2010, Minnesota screened in a third of abuse complaints for further action; nationally, the figure was two-thirds, according to a federal Child Maltreatment report. Minnesota had the nation's third-lowest screen-in rate.

The report encouraged the Legislature to clarify the legal definition of "risk of harm," and urged the Department of Human Services to increase its training for evaluating and screening child maltreatment allegations.

Counties, for example, varied in whether they accepted anonymous child-welfare complaints, the auditors found. Meyerhoff said some county officials thought that the statute might prohibit anonymous reports. Erin Sullivan Sutton, an assistant commissioner with the state Department of Human Services, said the State Supreme Court has determined that anonymous reports are valid if they meet all other legal requirements.

The audit didn't address the question of teen neglect or abuse, but Rich Gehrman of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota said counties are inherently more protective of young children.

"Once you are above a certain age, at least some counties are not going to screen you in no matter what the circumstance," he said.

'Small boats'

Minnesota is one of 11 states that empower counties to manage and help finance child-welfare services. One lawmaker at the hearing questioned whether decisions on abuse allegations would be standardized by creating a single state-run system. Neither Gehrman or Sullivan Sutton endorsed such an approach. Sullivan Sutton said the 11 county-run states have enacted some of the nation's most promising child-welfare reforms.

"It's sometimes easier to move 84 small boats," she said, referring to the number of child-welfare agencies in Minnesota, "than one large ship."

The report did not address why the state screens out more child abuse claims than most other states. Meyerhoff said unreliable data made such a comparison too difficult.

At least one observer said he thinks Minnesota might be doing things right. For example, said Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, only 15 percent of the screened-in reports in Minnesota are turned away.

About 17 percent are substantiated, which means they become official child-welfare cases -- and kids can potentially be removed from their homes -- while another 65 percent receive alternative services to train parents and stabilize families.

"Minnesota caseworkers spend far less time spinning their wheels and more time actually providing help," Wexler said.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744