State social workers must conduct more thorough investigations where child abuse and neglect are suspected, as well as improve methods of locating the clients if children are to be protected, legislative auditors say.

In a performance audit report released Monday, the Office of the Legislative Auditor General found that, in general, the Office of Community Operations' child protection and foster programs function well, but the report suggests they could do better.In a review of 71 random case files, experts pointed to 18 in which they were not "convinced by documentation or action that the worker had done enough to protect the child," according to Craig Monson, auditor. "In four cases they did not meet with the child."

Monson referred to a case where a caller alleged children were living in a dirty, rat-infested home. When the mother told the case worker the family was moving, the case was closed without even a visitation.

"Although the case had prior substantiated referrals, this referral was closed as unfounded without an initial or follow-up home visit to assess the conditions in the home or the potential treatment needs of the children," according to the report.

The audit also showed a "large variation" in the results of the workers sampled. "Unable-to-locate" rates varied between 1 and 17 percent, while substantiation rates (documenting the allegations) ranged from less than 5 percent to almost half.

To solve those problems, the report recommends more thorough supervisory review (and more comparative information for the supervisors) and additional - and specific - policy guidelines.

The report criticizes the offices for inefficiency and recommends that additional support staff be hired to do some of the tasks that monopolize caseworkers' time to free them up to deal with clients. For example, support staff could transcribe notes, complete forms and run miscellaneous errands.

Case workers could also reduce their travel time by better planning, combining field visits and attempting to contact clients when they are most likely to be home, the audit says.

Auditors indicated that "too much paperwork and too many forms" were a problem and suggested the OCO come up with ways to reduce duplication on forms. It also asked management to devise an ongoing system of analysis to identify and correct problems.

Tim Holm, state director of the OCO, said that the audit was helpful to him and his staff. "It is our intention over the next year to 18 months to try to implement the recommendations," he said.

But Holm also said some of the problems would not be easy to solve. Excessive paperwork, for example, is a problem created in part by federal requirements that must be met in order to draw down matching federal dollars.

The report was presented to the Audit Subcommittee of the Legislative Management Committee.