This article originally appeared in NOISE on Dec. 14, 2021.
The state of Nebraska is cutting short Saint Francis Ministries’ nearly $150 million dollar child welfare contract. Today, (Tuesday, Dec. 14) the CEOs of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Saint Francis Ministries (SFM) announced, in their words, “a mutual agreement” to end the case management contract more than a year early. This marks the end of an emergency contract signed in January 2021, originally intended to extend to February 2023, a month after Governor Ricketts leaves office.
This announcement comes one day before the Nebraska legislative Investigative and Oversight Committee is set to release its recommendations on how the state should proceed with Saint Francis Ministries. It also comes one day after the Episcopal Church of Chicago announced it will discipline the former leader of SFM, Father Bobby for what it calls his “poor judgment”.
CASE MANAGEMENT TRANSFERS FROM SFM TO DHHS WILL BEGIN ON JANUARY 3RD 2022. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME IN OVER A DECADE THAT THE STATE OF NEBRASKA WILL BE MANAGING CASES IN THE OMAHA AREA AS IT DOES IN THE REST OF THE STATE.
In an act of public relations theatre, the Nebraska DHHS invited individual reporters for private meetings to break the news in the morning, and asked them to “embargo” the information until 2 p.m. Later, Saint Francis employees were informed over Zoom, and the state senators on the committee investigating SFM were contacted around 2 p.m. by DHHS.
STATE SEN. MACHAELA CAVANAUGH WHO WROTE THE BILL FOR THE INVESTIGATIVE COMMITTEE TOLD NOISE THAT SFM EMPLOYEES “SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE FIRST TO KNOW…”
Each news outlet was allotted 15 mins with Dannette Smith, CEO of DHHS, William Clark of SFM and Khalilah LaGrand, DHHS’s director of communications. The meeting itself was scarce on financial details. None of NOISE’s financial questions were answered in the brief meeting. According DHHS’s news release from January, the two year contract for nearly $150 million allotted $68,890,448 for the first year and $78,362,884 for the second term of 13 months. When NOISE asked how much money the state would be getting back from SFM, we were instructed to send such questions to DHHS via email. As of the original publication time of this article, NOISE had not received a response to any of our emailed questions.
CEO Smith said DHHS is not moving to end privatization of child welfare in the Omaha area (Eastern Service Area), which began as an experiment more than a decade ago. But she said, DHHS is also not planning to make a Request For Proposals (RFP) for this service area which would be the required process if the management contract were to be handed off to another private agency.
Throughout the 15 minute meeting both CEOs refused to place any wrongdoing on either SFM or DHHS, insisting that the termination of the multimillion dollar contract was not due to issues of child safety but simply “an opportunity to reshape the child welfare system” as CEO Smith put it.
CEO Smith: “It’s all in the best interest of children and families.”
Chen-Newton: “So what exactly was happening before that was not in their (children and families’) best interest that you’re hoping to fix by ending the contract?”
CEO Smith: “Well, let me say this. I’m not going to say that there was something going on that wasn’t in the best interest because I think Bill (William Clark) just said to you that we haven’t had any, uh.. any maltreatment or any issues with children in care…”
Chen-Newton: “So, would you say that privatization has worked well in the Eastern Service Area?”
CEO Smith: “You know… I can’t say, I can’t say…make a comment to that because I wasn’t here when it was first initiated, nor was Bill (William Clark)…we’ve tried to make privatization work, but again, it’s an opportunity to re-look…re-scope and see where the opportunities are and where we can do it differently.”
What Smith and Clark both strongly asserted was that under this new “mutual agreement” the only way SFM will be involved with foster and child welfare in the Omaha area in the future will be as a child placing agency.
SFM’s child placing license was reapproved earlier this month by DHHS after more than five months of probation for being out of compliance on 20 items. Clark said in the meeting with NOISE that SFM remains out of compliance on two of those items. Both Clark and Smith declined to provide specifics about what remains out of compliance.
In the meeting with NOISE, Clark said he disagreed with the characterization by a NOISE reporter that SFM was unable to fulfill its obligations. He replied, “If you go back and look at, have children been mistreated, have children been lost, are they being taken care of? Yes, they have. Is there things we could have done better? Yes, there is [sic]. But it’s not about not fulfilling its obligation, it’s about who can bring the most resources to the table to even do a better job of taking care of children and families.” CEO William Clark says the safety of children cared for by SFM was never at risk under their care.
However, records show for much of the time SFM has been taking care of abused and neglected children in this area, the fact is, a good deal of information wasn’t known or documented about children in the system. Files and records were improperly kept (part of being out of compliance for their child placing license) and in March of this year Sen. Cavanaugh said, “50% of the time a child is moved, we don’t know where they are for 72 hours,” making it hard to judge just how much risk the children in this area have been in while under the care of SFM.
A former SFM employee told NOISE that as early as May of last year Saint Francis was having such difficulty placing children in overnight homes, that they began putting them in hotels instead. In such cases, caseworker Darinita Shannon told NOISE that the social worker/caseworker would stay with the youth alone overnight. In at least one instance Darinita was instructed by SFM to stay with a teen who had tested positive for COVID.
There are others who have spoken to NOISE and The Kansas Reflector anonymously for fear for retribution who recall red flags before May of 2020. Many of these red flags have to do with SFM saddling their social workers with more cases than is legally allowed by Nebraska statute. A former case management director who originally agreed to work for SFM, but then quit because of management concerns, recalled her supervisor being frank about the fact that SFM would never meet the Nebraska statute standards. She recalled being told “Well, people are naive if they think that’s possible.” She told NOISE, in that moment, “That’s when I knew that the only ways to pacify concerns in the community were gonna be to lie about it.”Anonymous caseworker remembers being told it was naive to think SFM could meet NE standards.
Smith said 116 case managers will need to be hired by DHHS over the 180 day transition period. They plan to bring over caseworkers from SFM in order to fill some of this need. As of our most recent reporting more than 63% of kids under SFM’s care had more than three caseworkers which drops their chances of finding a permanent home to about 5%. “The lack of stability” has been one of the biggest issues over the last couple of years, said Sen. Cavanaugh. She hopes bringing “stability in the workforce will translate to stability for the kids. It’s important that the adults in these kid’s lives are focused on giving them stability after all of this.”