Minnesota's counties received nearly 68,000 reports of child abuse or neglect last year but closed most of those cases without investigation or assessment.

A review of state and federal data by the Star Tribune shows that the number of child abuse reports being screened out without any protective action rose last year to the third-highest rate in the country.

In all, the state screened out more than 48,000 such abuse reports last year ­— and authorities often made their decisions after only gathering information from a phone call or a fax.

What happens to those cases is largely unknown. Records are not open to the public. Many counties also don't keep track of closed cases, potentially resulting in multiple reports of abuse of a child without intervention. A bill advancing through the Legislature would require counties to keep information on screened-out cases for a year to spot recurring child abuse.

"We're finding gross discrepancies in what one county does vs. another," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.

Red Lake County in northwestern Minnesota screened out nearly 93 percent of its cases last year, the highest in the state, taking in only three of the 41 child abuse complaints it received, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). Le Sueur County, about an hour south of ­Minneapolis, was second highest, rejecting 89 percent of the 453 abuse reports it received.

Houston County in ­southeastern Minnesota closed only 5 percent of its complaints without investigation, the state's lowest percentage.

The screened-out reports can be an early warning. Nicollet County received a report in 2007 of suspected child neglect by Mona and Russell Hauer but chose not to investigate, records show.

Five years later, Mona Hauer brought her 8-year-old son to a Mankato hospital. His bones pressed against his skin and he weighed just 35 pounds. Doctors admitted him to intensive care and diagnosed him with failure to thrive and anemia. Authorities accused the parents of starving the child and confining him in a basement, and charged the two with child neglect.

Only six counties screened out a higher percentage of their reports last year than Nicollet.

"This is something to be extremely concerned about," said John Mattingly, a senior fellow at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which studies child welfare. "It's happening because the initial criteria they have set allows too many cases to be dismissed before you even take an initial look at them. If you want to know what that's about, it's about controlling caseloads."

Erin Sullivan Sutton, DHS' assistant commissioner for children and family services, defended the state's record of investigating child abuse and neglect by pointing to a state audit released in 2012.

That audit found child protection agencies made decisions on whether to investigate in a "reasonable and deliberative manner."

Sullivan Sutton said screen-outs have nothing to do with caseload or budgetary concerns. Rather, she said the majority of the abuse reports don't meet the statutory requirements for a county response.

"We cannot intervene or interfere with families unless statutory thresholds are met," she said.

Sleeping on a sled

Counties fielded reports of possible child abuse or neglect an average of seven times an hour last year in Minnesota, one of the highest rates in the nation. Child protection agencies must determine if those reports meet the legal threshold of abuse. If so, the law requires the agencies to intervene by investigating whether abuse occurred or assessing the child's safety and risk for maltreatment.

County child protection agencies closed 71 percent of abuse reports without investigation last year. Nationwide, the average number of screened-out calls was 38 percent in 2012.

"It adds up to 22,000 abuse calls a year that in an average state would be screened in," said Rich Gehrman, the executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a watchdog group for child welfare.

Nicollet County officials would not talk about the Hauer case, and the family declined to comment through their attorney, Tom Hagen. A public record provided by Gehrman to the Star Tribune shows that the county became aware of possible neglect of the boy in 2007.

"The report was screened by a child protection worker, but it was determined no neglect occurred, so Social Services decided an assessment was not necessary," according to the record.

Then in October 2011, a ­passerby saw the boy walking by himself along Hwy. 169 and called law enforcement, according to court records. The boy told Nicollet County Chief Deputy Karl Jensen that he was hungry and walking to get a hamburger at a gas station, which Jensen said was about 7 miles from his home. The boy could not identify his parents, so the deputy took the boy to get food.

Jensen said in an interview that he tracked down the boy's address and took him home. His mother, Jensen said, told the deputy that the boy was being punished and was supposed to be moving wood outside, but walked away when she went to check on their other children.

Jensen said the boy did not appear malnourished at the time, and he did not file a report with child protection.

Investigators later learned that around the time Jensen found the boy, the Hauers began sleeping outside of his room to try to stop him from stealing food, according to court records. They moved the boy to the basement, where an alarm on his door would go off if he left. The boy slept in a plastic container and then a sled because he was wetting the bed. In case he had to relieve himself at night, he was given a bucket, which he had to clean and empty each morning.

In October 2012, Mona Hauer brought the boy to the hospital after finding blood on his shirt. She told doctors that the boy had been regurgitating his food since December 2011. He stayed in the hospital for about a month as doctors worked to bring him up to a normal weight and treated him for brain atrophy and delayed bone growth from malnutrition. The boy told his doctors that he been eating his regurgitated food because he did not know when he would eat again.

After an investigation, Nicollet County moved to terminate the Hauers' parental rights over the 8-year-old and their other three children. A judge granted the termination for the boy and placed him in foster care, and allowed the Hauers to retain custody of the other children while giving the county protective supervision. In October 2013, the Hauers each pleaded guilty to one count of child neglect.

A judge in February 2014 found that the Hauers were complying with the requirements of the protective supervision.

Gehrman of Safe Passage said the case is an example of the system missing a maltreated child.

Abuse screened out

In 2012, the Minnesota legislative auditor also found problems with the screening system, including wide variations in what reports that counties considered worthy of a response.

The auditor presented 10 sample scenarios to county child protection officials. Among them: A father threatens his son and shoots the family dog in front of him. A father chokes and punches a mother as the kids play video games. A mother drinks too much while caring for her child.

About half of Minnesota counties said they would decline to respond to those cases.

DHS sent out an advisory to counties in early March on what should be done in those cases. Counties should assess or investigate reports of a dog-killing father and a drunken mother. But DHS advised against investigating the case of the mother-abusing father, because no child was maltreated.

A Hennepin County task force in 2011 found that the person who makes the report also influences the decision to investigate. ­People who are not required by law to report abuse or neglect but do so anyway rarely get their complaints investigated, the task force found.

"They could have all of these things that are really concerning," said Denise Graves, the former head of the task force. "But if they don't really have explicit details, it won't get screened in."

Voluntary assistance

After screening out a report, counties can refer families to voluntary Parent Support Outreach Programs, which began in 38 Minnesota counties in 2005 and have since spread statewide. About 50 percent of families referred to the programs choose to participate, according to DHS.

Joan Najbar, who works with a Twin Cities-based PSOP, worries that counties too often turn to these programs, which she said can be an inappropriate response to children in danger.

"Most Minnesotans assume we have systems in place to help families and keep kids safe," Najbar said. "We don't."

Najbar said Isanti County asked her in February to work with a family that it declined to investigate. Family members reported that the caregiver was drinking daily, kept firearms in his home, and became psychotic and heard voices telling him to kill people when he got drunk, Najbar said.

Najbar said she refused to take the case and asked the county to reconsider its decision to screen out the case. She doesn't know what has happened to the family since then.

Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626