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Nebraska state officials skip legislative hearing about $197 million child welfare contract

Nebraska state officials skip legislative hearing about $197 million child welfare contract

Nebraska Medical Center received 3000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday morning.

LINCOLN — Nebraska child welfare officials did not show up to answer questions Wednesday concerning the state’s $197 million contract for the care of Omaha-area children and families.

Representatives of St. Francis Ministries, the embattled Kansas-based agency that holds the contract, also skipped the legislative hearing called by the Health and Human Services Committee.

Their absence left state lawmakers to raise unanswered concerns about St. Francis’ performance in managing the care of 2,500 abused and neglected children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties and about the state’s contract monitoring efforts. St. Francis began taking over cases from an Omaha-based contractor in October 2019. The transition was completed by Jan. 1.

State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, the committee chairwoman, questioned how long the State Department of Health and Human Services will allow St. Francis to exceed state-mandated caseload sizes for its workers.

An evaluation released Monday by HHS showed that, from January through September, more than half of the nonprofit agency’s workers had caseloads above the limits set by state law. The agency’s contract with Nebraska requires them to meet those limits.

“How long are we willing to tolerate a contractor who continues to not meet the expectations of the contract?” Howard asked. “How long will we go before we consider it a breach (of contract)? Where is our line?”

Howard said she worries that exceeding caseload limits could make it harder for Nebraska to get federal child welfare dollars or, at worst, lead to a child being harmed. Heavy caseloads make it harder for workers to give children and families the attention needed.

In a letter, HHS CEO Dannette Smith said department leaders could not attend the hearing because they were responding to the pandemic, distributing coronavirus relief dollars and working on their state budget request. An information sheet said that HHS officials are working with St. Francis on a corrective action plan to address caseloads.

Howard said St. Francis officials told her they had “been advised” not to attend.

The hearing was set before details of a whistleblower’s report about mismanagement at St. Francis came to light. The report said that the agency had to borrow to pay foster parents while spending money on such things as $80,000 worth of Chicago Cubs tickets last year, at the same time as it was taking on the major Nebraska contract.

The St. Francis board launched an internal investigation two months ago after learning about the whistleblower’s report. The investigation ended last month with the departure of the agency’s top two officials.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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