Reports of abuse and neglect in state-licensed services for vulnerable Minnesotans increased sharply last year, new state figures show, a result of statewide reforms that make it easier to report maltreatment.

Maltreatment reports for vulnerable adults and children rose 35 percent, to 4,373, in the year ending June 2016, predominantly among people receiving services in their homes and community, according to a recent state report. Reports of neglect, the largest category of maltreatment, rose a startling 43 percent.

The surge is a clear sign that efforts to streamline Minnesota’s once-fragmented system for reporting maltreatment among adults are bearing fruit, officials say, and that people across the state are feeling more emboldened to call and report such incidents. In July 2015, the state began publicizing a single, statewide hot line for maltreatment reporting, replacing a county-based response system long criticized as antiquated and inefficient.

At the same time, advocates for vulnerable adults are raising fresh concerns that state regulators may be failing to keep pace with the growing influx of maltreatment complaints.

In the last fiscal year, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) completed 789 out-of-office investigations of maltreatment reports, down from 1,078 the previous year, state records show. The agency substantiated maltreatment in just 268 cases last year, down from 349 in 2015.

“This makes me wonder what we’re missing,” said Roberta Opheim, state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. “It’s disconcerting that we are doing fewer hands-on investigations in the face of the increased number of reports.”

State officials said a major reason for the decline is that DHS improved the timeliness of its investigations, eliminating a backlog of unfinished investigations.

Last summer, DHS launched a public campaign designed to raise awareness about maltreatment of vulnerable adults. The campaign, called “The Power of Could,” included a public service announcement sent to radio stations statewide that described signs of possible maltreatment. The ads promoted the state’s new Adult Abuse Reporting Center, a 24-hour call center where Minnesotans can report abuse and neglect. Previously, maltreatment reports were handled by an unwieldy network of 169 county phone lines across the state.

Under the new system, DHS-trained staff collect details on each allegation and refer cases to the appropriate investigative agency. If the alleged maltreatment occurred at a state-licensed program, such as an outpatient chemical addiction program or an adult group home, then the case likely would be referred to DHS or the Department of Health for investigation. More than half of the allegations are referred to local counties.

Since the call center was launched, DHS has seen a dramatic uptick in allegations of maltreatment. Neglect by caregivers has been the largest single category, accounting for 39 percent of allegations reported in the center’s first year of operation. That’s followed by self-neglect (23 percent), financial exploitation (17 percent) and emotional or mental abuse (10 percent).

“There is a possibility or probability that because we have made it easier to allege maltreatment or abuse, that we’re seeing reports that might not have ever been made before,” said Loren Colman, an assistant DHS commissioner.

Another factor may be a recent expansion of the state’s regulatory powers. After new state licensing rules took effect in 2014, the population of vulnerable people being served in home and community-based services licensed by DHS increased from 12,000 to 32,000 statewide.

Among elder advocates, however, the sharp rise in maltreatment reports has confirmed long-held suspicions that the problem is widespread but was underreported to local authorities, particularly among older people relying on home caregivers.

“Before, when we relied on 87 individual counties, there were a lot more opportunities for error,” said Amanda Vickstrom, executive director of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center in St. Paul. “From a public awareness standpoint, the new system is clearly working.”

Even so, the frequent lack of investigatory follow-up remains a cause of concern, advocates said. Although the new system makes it easier to report abuse, it does not guarantee that a state or local agency will conduct an investigation.

Sandra Bryant, 62, of Lake­ville, said she called the hot line to report unsafe living conditions in her senior apartment building after Christmas. A week later, she received a short, three-paragraph letter saying her complaint would not be investigated.

“I’m furious,” she said, clutching the letter. “No one even called me.”

Marc Fioravanti, the owner of a Senior Helpers franchise in Roseville, said he’s reported a dozen cases to the new hot line. In one case, Fioravanti said he found an elderly man in St. Paul living alone who had not showered or shaved in months, and whose bathroom was covered with mold. Yet county officials only followed up and investigated two incidents he reported, he said.

“You give them everything you’ve got, in as much detail as you possibly can and still they do nothing,” Fioravanti said. “The whole system builds up false expectations.”


Twitter: @chrisserres