A decade ago, Nebraska’s child welfare system plunged into years of crisis. The state’s effort to shift to private providers was a troubling failure, and it took years to put services back on a positive path.
That awful experience, policy experts emphasized, provided a key lesson for Nebraska: As an ongoing obligation, the state government must do everything it can to promote stability in the child welfare system.
Yet, in 2021, the state and a major provider have failed that duty. It’s been a series of disappointments:
The state selected St. Francis Ministries as the child welfare provider for Douglas and Sarpy Counties on the basis of a woefully low bid — $197 million over five years, which was nearly $150 million less than the other bidder, Omaha-based PromiseShip. St. Francis has continued to fall short of meeting the state-mandated caseload cap for case workers, to the detriment of vulnerable children. St. Francis’s two top executives exited last year after a whistleblower revealed numerous irregularities and extraordinary financial mismanagement.
St. Francis has fallen into outright financial crisis. The provider had to draw on its Kansas operations to sustain its Nebraska ones, and without an infusion of some $35 million from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, it will run out of money for its Omaha-area operations by Feb. 12.
This situation is the very opposite of the stability needed for Nebraska child welfare. The blame falls squarely on the state HHS and St. Francis.
HHS is now set to draw up a new contract, replacing the current one with St. Francis. The state should agree to only a short-term contract, not a five-year contract as is currently the case, given St. Francis’ past behavior and financial uncertainty. There is a huge cloud of uncertainty about St. Francis; if it expects more than a short-term contract, it must prove itself and do so convincingly.
HHS must ensure that St. Francis finally meets Nebraska state law’s cap on the number of cases a child welfare case worker can have. That mandate is crucial to ensuring proper care for these children, who have done absolutely nothing wrong. St. Francis has sidestepped this requirement for too long, to the detriment of service in the Omaha area.
St. Francis has additional obligations. It must provide information showing how it intends to achieve financial stability. And it must pledge to cooperate fully with audits by the Nebraska inspector general and with the investigation by a special committee created by the Legislature to look into this entire situation.
The Legislature, in turn, must follow up its recent hearing with additional questions to HHS and to St. Francis. For example, St. Francis must provide fuller, clearer answers on how it will meet its service obligations in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Lawmakers need to understand the details of the Nebraska corporation formed by St. Francis, separate from a Kansas corporation by the provider.
St. Francis and HHS are both on probation right now, given these failures. It’s time they deliver, at last, the stability these Nebraska children need and deserve.