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Midlands Voices: Put child welfare in Douglas, Sarpy Counties back in hands of the state
Midlands Voices

Midlands Voices: Put child welfare in Douglas, Sarpy Counties back in hands of the state

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The Nebraska State Capitol. The Legislature should prohibit private contracting for child welfare services in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, this Midlands Voices writer says. 

The Nebraska Legislature Special Investigative and Oversight Committee for the Eastern Service Area continues to examine ongoing problems with St. Francis Ministries, a Kansas-based nonprofit contracted to provide ongoing case management services to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Children and Family Services (CFS). As the investigation proceeds, it is imperative that the committee understand that it is fundamentally inappropriate to allow this work to be outsourced to an unaccountable third party.

The well-being and safety of vulnerable young Nebraskans ought to be in the hands of employees of the State of Nebraska, who are directly accountable to the taxpayers they serve.

To appreciate the gravity of the situation, it’s helpful to look at the history of the relationship between private contractors and CFS in Nebraska. Not long after its inception in 2007, CFS outsourced the responsibility of keeping vulnerable Nebraskan children safe to five private contractors, or one contract for each of the five service areas of Nebraska. Within six months, two of these contracts ended due to inadequate management and financial shortfalls. Within the first year, this was true for all but one contract, that of the Eastern Service Area, which is made up of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

As it turns out, an audit conducted by the State of Nebraska in 2012 determined that these private contractors had spent millions of more taxpayer dollars than expected. To make matters worse, an independent evaluation in 2014 conducted by Hornby Zeller Associates, Inc. determined that this outsourcing of State of Nebraska jobs ultimately “caused disruption and dissension ... within the community without obvious benefits to children and families.” The Eastern Service Area, though it remains to this day in the hands of a private contractor, has not fared much better.

Despite being the only contract to survive longer than a year, the organizations that have held this contract over the years have continued to fall short of expectations. Given the fact that they are responsible for providing care for children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, these shortcomings are unacceptable. Until recently, the contract was held by the nonprofit PromiseShip. As far as this contract is concerned, independent consultant the Stephen Group found in 2019 that this privatization effort was able only to “achieve comparable cost and performance outcomes to the other four in-source service areas.” In other words, State of Nebraska jobs were outsourced to a private contractor without producing “any measurable benefits,” to borrow the language of the assessment.

Without even touching on allegations that the current contract holder, St. Francis Ministries, underbid the state’s request for proposals, it is clear that outsourcing these state jobs has been a failure.

The shortcomings of these private contractors are, however, not even the core issue. What is really at stake here is much more serious: accountability. The fundamental problem with outsourcing CFS jobs to private-sector workers is that, unlike their state-employed counterparts, employees of a company such as St. Francis Ministries are not accountable to the taxpayers. Putting the well-being and safety of the children of Nebraska into the hands of an organization that is not accountable to the people of Nebraska is inappropriate at best and carries the risk of potentially perilous consequences at worst.

Just this week, DHHS stopped assigning new cases to St. Francis Ministries. For the next 60 days, qualified state employees will handle new cases. While this temporary step is important, a permanent solution is necessary. Going forward, the Nebraska Legislature ought to no longer allow DHHS to outsource CFS jobs to private contractors.

This step is not only in the best interests of Nebraska, but also is the only way to ensure that the children of Nebraska receive the attention and care that they deserve from accountable and dedicated state employees.

Justin Hubly, of Lincoln, is the executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees/AFSCME Local 61.

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