A sharp increase in the most serious allegations of maltreatment of vulnerable adults and children is leading to a growing backlog of investigations within the Minnesota agency charged with protecting them.

The number of reports assigned by the Department of Human Services for out-of-office maltreatment investigation or death review rose 10 percent, to 1,053, in the year ending July 1, 2012. In 2010 there were 883 such cases.

In a report released Monday, the DHS asked the Legislature for additional investigators to help tackle a backlog of cases that has nearly doubled to 724 in the last 18 months. The department is also concerned about potential new regulatory responsibilities for home- and community-based services for disabled and vulnerable people.

DHS Inspector General Jerry Kerber said Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal would add about a dozen positions, including eight investigators. The new jobs would come primarily from higher fees on businesses regulated by the DHS. That proposal has run into resistance at the State Capitol.

"It's a reasonable expectation of the public that we do these investigations of alleged maltreatment … and that we do it in a reasonable time frame," Kerber said. "We have that expectation of ourselves.

"We can't do it with magic. We need resources to do that work. We are hopeful the Legislature will recognize that."

Of the 4,500 to 5,000 maltreatment allegations and other licensing reports the agency receives each year, about 1,000 are assigned for field investigations or death reviews. Last year, the number of assigned cases grew, but the backlog had been growing for several years.

About 60 percent of the cases occur in adult foster care homes and programs, which serve people with disabilities that can include mental illness and mental retardation, as well as some physical challenges. About 17 percent involve child-care centers or adolescent treatment programs.

The agency had been failing to report the growing backlog, as well as other trends that affect the safety of vulnerable adults in DHS programs, to the Legislature on an annual basis, which it is required to do under state law. The last report was issued more than two years ago.

After the Star Tribune identified that reporting problem in a story earlier this month, the agency vowed to correct it. Kerber said his office will begin issuing an annual maltreatment report, probably each August.

Neglect up, abuse down

The report issued Monday showed more than 1,100 substantiated reports of maltreatment in the past five years, or about 225 per year. There has been an annual average of about 167 death reviews over the past four years.

The backlog of cases jumped from 379 in fiscal year 2011 to 629 in fiscal 2012, in part because the agency received 100 more reports that required field investigations. This increase, combined with a drop in the number of field investigations and death reviews completed, fueled the growing backlog. Kerber said staff departures and the government shutdown in the summer of 2011 also contributed to the problem.

The higher completion rate in fiscal year 2011 was due largely to overtime work by investigators.

Kerber said one proposal in the Legislature would shift some maltreatment investigations, such as those involving adult foster care programs, from state to county investigators to help ease the caseload on state investigators.

Monday's report said the number of neglect cases is increasing, while cases of abuse are "generally decreasing." The number of financial exploitation cases is relatively constant.

Kerber said the administration's proposal for higher fees to fund investigators and licensing work has run into resistance at the Legislature.

"We've got some work to do on this front in order to make the case that we need the resources to do this important work," he said.