Minnesota's legislative auditor came up with a fascinating way to test the consistency of the state's child welfare intake agencies. The auditor presented 10 fictional abuse complaints to 84 tribal and county child welfare agencies to see whether they'd agree about whether to investigate.
Below are five of the scenarios from the auditor's new report on child welfare intake. What would you do? Screen them in for investigations? Or screen them out and not use your agency's limited resources to investigate? 
Case 1: Sam North calls about his cousin, Johnny Maker. Sam says that Johnny was evicted from his apartment last month and is now staying in a trailer on private land with no plumbing or electricity. Sam says Johnny's two sons – ages ten and twelve – use the woods for a bathroom. Sam says Johnny does not have permission to stay on the land. Sam would like someone to check on the kids and their living conditions.
Case 2: Dr. Jones calls to report that Emily Blackdeer tested positive for marijuana after giving birth to a baby boy yesterday. He says the child's meconium was not tested due to a mix up. Jones reports that Emily also tested positive for marijuana during her pregnancy. Jones said Emily told him she smoked marijuana during her pregnancy to help her with her appetite.
Case 3: Police fax the following report: I responded to a report of five-year-old Davie Michaelson wandering in town. I met with Ann Johnson, a passerby who had found this child. While I was speaking with Ann, a man approached who said he knew the child. He directed me to a house at the end of the block. The yard was fenced, but the gate and front door were open. I entered the house and found Tammy Michaelson (Davie’s mother) sleeping on the couch. I awakened her and she explained that she had worked the third shift at the gas station last night and had left the boy to watch cartoons while she napped. The TV was on with a children’s DVD playing. Tammy said she had locked the door, but Davie must have unlocked it and left.
Case 4: Marcus calls with concerns regarding his four-year-old son Andrew. Marcus says friends have told him that Andrew's mother, Amber, is drunk every day to the point of throwing up and has withdrawal tremors from alcohol. Marcus reports that he and Amber are not together, but share custody of Andrew. He says Amber's friends brought Andrew to him the other day and told him Amber was too drunk to take care of Andrew. Marcus says that Andrew saw him smoking a cigarette the other day and said that his mom and her friends smoke a different kind of cigarette which his mom calls her "medicine." Marcus believes that this is marijuana. Marcus says he is caring for Andrew beyond what is ordered in the custody agreement because Marcus won't give Andrew to Amber when she is drunk.
Case 5: A high school counselor calls to report that Shaniqua Thomas, age 15, said she was afraid to go home and was going to run away. Shaniqua told the counselor that her father, Dante Thomas, "hates me" and that he pulls her hair, punches her on the back, slaps her on the back of the head, throws things at her, yells at her, and flicks her in the face. The counselor says she asked Shaniqua if she had any bruises or marks on her body and Shaniqua said she did not. The counselor says she has never seen marks on Shaniqua. Shaniqua told the counselor that she and her dad often fight about curfew and how well she is doing in school. The counselor states that Shaniqua is an "average" student and missed six days of school last year.
Here is the variation in responses among the county and tribal agencies:
  1. 29 percent of agencies would screen this in.
  2. 82 percent of agencies would screen this in.
  3. 54 percent of agencies would screen this in.
  4. 47 percent of agencies would screen this in.
  5. 43 percent of agencies would screen this in.
The results show some varying interpretations of state law, but also perhaps some regional and societal variations over what necessitates a child welfare investigation.
Differences even showed up at Tuesday's legislative committee hearing on the audit when the subject turned to spanking as discipline. Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, retold how he was spanked as a child, and noted that spanking remains legal in Minnesota. Yet he said social workers in some cases seem to presume that spanking isn't ever appropriate. (Once he said he was spanked by a school bus driver and he said he deserved it because he was being mean to a girl. There were silent cringes in the audience among those who didn't agree with this form of discipline.)
Legislative auditor James Nobles was diplomatic when Gruenhagen asked him if it was a problem that social workers and other mandated reporters of child abuse were misreading the law over spanking: "What we are presenting to you is a range of possibilities on where you want in law to intervene in the legal framework. If you think that is an area that needs clarification, and you think that's an appropriate role for the legislature, we think it is certainly your prerogative."
Nobles later added: "Even though there may be an impulse on the part of all of us to err on the side of protecting the child in responding to an allegation, I do think we have to keep in mind that that intervention is by government into a family situation. So I think very definitely it has to be a very disciplined and appropriate intervention based on the facts as best as they can be determined and measured against the law and the rules."
Audio of that intriguing exchange can be found here. The conversation starts at about minute 26 of the committee hearing.

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