When Nali Knight heard the dollar figure, she couldn’t believe it.

In 2019, a Kansas-based nonprofit bid to take over Omaha’s foster care system, which had been run by a local contractor for a decade. What’s more, they promised to do it for 40% less than the previous provider, PromiseShip—a difference of about $144.6 million.

“We basically laughed and said, ‘That will be impossible,’” said Knight, a former caseworker at Heartland Family Service, an Omaha nonprofit that provides counseling and support to kids and families.

That’s where the problems started.

In July of that year, Saint Francis Ministries, an organization with operations in six states, including Nebraska, won the contract to manage foster care in Nebraska’s eastern service area, which includes Douglas and Sarpy counties and nearly half of the state’s abused and neglected children.

Matt Stephens, Saint Francis Ministries’ vice president of programs in its northern region.

Months later, the company’s CEO and COO were ousted for mishandling millions in company funds. Nebraska state senators started to investigate the organization after caseworkers complained of illegal workloads. In January 2021, the company’s new CEO told senators if the organization didn’t get more money, it’d have to shut down.

Now a special legislative committee is looking into the issue.

Matt Stephens, vice president of Saint Francis Ministries’ programs in its northern region, said the organization is adjusting through a tough transition, but early statistics published by the state show kids coming out of the system are returning at lower rates than federal requirements and avoiding retraumatization at rates higher than federal standards.

“Ultimately, if you take that big step back and look at the forest through the trees, all of a sudden you can say in Nebraska in [the eastern service area], children are generally safe in care,” he said. “Once they leave here, they don’t come back, and so is that the end all be all? I don’t know. It’s what I like to look at from a macro level.”

Knight isn’t buying it. The five-year social work veteran said she took on work Saint Francis Ministries’ caseworkers couldn’t handle while dealing with a rotating cast of staff who put her and the kids in a state of instability. And while the nonprofit says better days are coming, others wonder why the state took a gamble on its most at-risk kids.

“It seems like the state was more focused on saving money rather than giving quality service to the families and the children,” Knight said.

“Stranger Than Fiction”

The floor of Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh’s office in the Nebraska Legislature is littered with binders, packets and printed emails. Underneath is a worn rug that reads “Family.”

Cavanaugh started looking into Saint Francis Ministries in summer 2020, when she heard complaints of overworked employees, owed money and inadequate services to families.

Knight herself haggled with Saint Francis Ministries for five months over who would pay $100 per month for one of her families to attend therapy, something Saint Francis requested, she said.

Photo 2. Machaela Cavanaugh stands on the 11th floor of the Nebraska Capitol. Cavanaugh started looking into the state’s contracted foster care agency, Saint Francis Ministries, in the summer of 2020. Red flags started popping up. And they never stopped. “It was stranger than fiction,” she said.

Then news stories broke. In 2020 whistleblowers accused top officials of spending company money on hotel and flight upgrades, investing $11 million in a friend’s software company, purchasing $80,000 in Chicago Cubs tickets and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to harvest a “miracle” food in El Salvador. Recently news also broke that the company chose not to fire an employee in Hutchinson, Kansas, for distributing nude photos of a foster child’s step mom there, saying the employees actions were protected by free speech.

“It was stranger than fiction,” Cavanaugh said. “And the [controversies] just kept coming.”

Concerns about Nebraska foster care aren’t uncommon. In 2009 Nebraska switched its child welfare system from public to private. Five organizations were contracted to work across the state. All but one folded. The remaining organization, which later became the Boys Town-run PromiseShip, operated in Nebraska until 2019.

“Nobody expected that [DHHS] would take it away from PromiseShip, because PromiseShip had its problems, but stabilized,” Cavanaugh said. “I mean, it’s child welfare. There’s always problems. But they have for the most part stabilized and were moving in a good direction.”

Cavanaugh prioritized a bill to launch a special investigation into the process. A committee was formed and in an unusual move, she was left off of it. She was irate, but ultimately not surprised.

“The governor didn’t want this to happen,” she said. “And the people that didn’t vote to put me on the committee appear to answer to the governor. The only reason not to put me on the committee is because the governor didn’t want me on the committee. There was no other reason.”

A compromise was reached to allow the legislature’s health and human services committee, of which Cavanaugh is a member, to jumpstart the investigation and hand it over to the special committee in the legislature’s interim. But Cavanaugh said the process is moving at a glacial pace.

State Senator Justin Wayne in the Nebraska Legislature. Photo used with permission from the Nebraska Legislature.

Sen. Justin Wayne, who’s on the committee, threatened to leave if thing’s didn’t speed up.

“Either we’re going to get serious about investigating what’s going on with Saint Francis and how they’re treating our kids, or we’re not,” he said on 1st Sky Omaha. “If the committee doesn’t want to get serious, I’m not going to waste my time.”

Sen. John Arch, who heads the committee, did not respond to requests for comment. The committee is required to submit a preliminary report by December 2021 and a final report by December 2022.

Sen. Cavanaugh doesn’t plan on halting her research, though. The reason is simple: Nebraska can’t cut corners on how it cares for children who need the most help.

“I am not rooting against the governor or [DHHS] or Saint Francis Ministries,” Cavanaugh said. “I want everyone to succeed. Because if they don’t, then it’s the children that are in crisis that are going to suffer.”

Learning Curves, Looking Forward

Matt Stephens of Saint Francis Ministries agrees his nonprofit has room for improvement.

“Transitions in a highly complex system like child welfare is not something you can just flip the switch on overnight, especially when you’re moving into different geographic locations or different political climates,” he said. “And so I do think a big part of this is there’s a learning curve for us. And there’s a little bit of a learning curve from the community.”

The organization has started to accelerate its recruitment efforts, though Stephens couldn’t be specific on when they might bring down caseloads to the state maximum of 17 per person. Less than half met that goal in March.

Stephens said they’re also being transparent about their mistakes, namely the low bid.

Under state law, private organizations have to contract out 65% of their services to local providers.

Saint Francis Ministries’ assumption was they would handle most of those services internally, which is how they keep costs low in multiple states.

Stephens understands a lot of people may not believe it, but he said the bid was not intentionally fraudulent.

After Saint Francis Ministries won the state’s bid, PromiseShip brought this concern, and many others, in an official protest, which was denied days before the contract was signed.

“The reality is I was a part of those meetings,” Stephens said. “There was nobody that ever said, ‘Let’s go get this work, underbid it and then take over this area.’ The only reason why we want to do this work is because we think that we can do it well.”

The resulting public scrutiny has had an effect on Saint Francis Ministries’ ability to recruit and retain employees, making a tough transition even harder. But patience around that has run out for some.

Monika Gross, executive director of the Nebraska Foster Care Office.

“In my opinion, they’ve had more than enough time to stabilize,” said Monika Gross, the executive director of the Nebraska Foster Care Office, a state oversight agency. Gross was previously the interim CEO of PromiseShip during its last few months as a contracted provider.

Gross’ office analyzes foster care cases, a job that’s become more difficult since Saint Francis Ministries took over, she said.

Many cases lack documentation or contain case files that read the same page after page, Gross said. And while Saint Francis Ministries and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services have been receptive to concerns, the systemic issues have gotten worse.

Gross said part of that is undoubtedly the result of overworking case managers.

In a recent report, her office found that 31.7% of kids who received care from Saint Francis Ministries had five or more case managers. This time two years ago, PromiseShip had 18.6% of kids in that bracket, which still is considered unacceptable.

”It leads to a longer period of time in care and just worse outcomes for that child,” Gross said. “And so that’s kind of where we kind of draw the line and we put it in the red.”

What effect this has on kids is unclear. When The Reader contacted social workers to talk to families and children with experience in the foster care system, many didn’t want to talk.

Kim Hawekotte, Douglas County’s deputy county administrator for juvenile justice.

“I’ve been advised to stay out of the papers on this one,” one person said.

For Kim Hawekotte, one thing’s for certain, Saint Francis Ministries needs to turn things around quickly.

Hawekotte’s seen the issue as an attorney, educater, state employee, county employee and president and general counsel for one of Nebraska’s failed private foster care contractors. From 2013 to 2020 she had Gross’ job holding foster care providers accountable.

While she’s had positive experiences with Saint Francis Ministries in her current role as Douglas County’s deputy county administrator for juvenile justice, and believes Saint Francis has good leadership in place now, she said they’ve got caught in a vicious riptide.

If she’s learned one thing, the longer you sit there, the harder it’s going to be to get back to shore.

“Once you get into that spiral,” she said, “it takes a lot to get out of it.”

contact the writer at chris@thereader.com

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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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