It's a big misconception that county child protection services take young victims of neglect and abuse out of their homes.

"We cannot place children involuntarily; only police and a judge can do that," said Rick Backman, division manager of Washington County Children Services. "Picking up the kids and walking out, it doesn't happen that way."

Backman spoke to Washington County officials at a March 26 workshop, where he stated that law enforcement, schools and medical personnel are the three top mandated reporters who report child maltreatment.

The department shared recent data and trends with County Board and explained the difference between family assessment versus the investigation process.

"Most of our cases are now family assessment," Community Services Supervisor Don Pelton said, adding that only the most serious cases, such as sexual abuse, fall under the investigation category.

Washington County data states that 46 percent of child maltreatment cases are classified as neglect, while 29 percent are physical abuse, 23 percent come as sexual abuse and 2 percent are medical neglect.

"More kids die from neglect than all those categories added together," Pelton said, adding that poverty is a large factor.

Additionally, failure to provide shelter, clothing, hygiene, food or nutrition, education and medical care are other contributing factors.

Neglecting to protect children from criminal acts, abandoning children or not providing proper supervision are major causes as well, Backman said.

"Sometimes parents drug deal, they have weapons in their home, they commit crime when the children are with them," he added.

When an investigation is not required by the county child protection services, a family assessment is a "friendlier approach."

Sarah Amundson, community services supervisor, said it's a comprehensive strengths-based approach to working with families in which there have been reports of alleged child abuse or neglect.

It's more about "what can we do to help," she said, in addition to safety planning.

Amundson said the county receives two new cases a week and has about 10 to 15 open family assessment cases at any given time.

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, of the total estimated 63,000 children living in Washington County, about 576 were reported as alleged maltreatment cases in 2011. Of those, the county conducted 361 family assessments and investigated 227. In the end 101 cases determined maltreatment.

Washington County budgeted about $3.5 million annually for out of home placement costs between 2008 and 2011 and stayed on track for the most part except for spending close to $4.5 million in 2008, according to figures provided by the department.

Last year, the budget was down to a little over $3 million and in 2013, it was set at $2.5 million.

Officials say it's one of the most unpredictable aspects of the community services department: "On occasion, we're kind of like the idling ambulance waiting for that call to come in," Backman said.

"We're going to do the right thing for the kid every time," added Dan Papin, director of Community Services for Washington County.