State officials say child welfare transition from Saint Francis to state is going well

One state senator reserves judgment, says workers still managing too many cases

By: - September 8, 2022 9:01 pm
Saint Francis Ministries

Kansas-based Saint Frances Ministries. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

LINCOLN — State officials say the transition of child welfare case management from troubled Saint Francis Ministries to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has gone well over the past six months, while emphasizing there is more work to do.

“Right now it’s like a 6-month-old baby we’re doing a ‘well check’ on, and we’re right where we need to be,” Dannette Smith, the CEO of DHHS, told a town hall meeting Wednesday evening in Omaha.

Dannette Smith
Dannette Smith, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services
(Courtesy DHHS)

Meanwhile, a leading critic of the Saint Francis contract said Thursday that she’s reserving judgment on the transition, which began in December.

Senator reserves judgment

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha said she’s hearing fewer complaints from child welfare workers now that they’re employees of the state. She said she appreciated that DHHS was trying to improve transparency. But the senator, who attended Wednesday’s town hall, said she remains concerned that caseloads are still not within compliance of the statutory limit of 17 cases per manager.

“This is a monumental thing to undertake,” Cavanaugh said. “I know it’s not going to be easy or quick. But I am rooting for (the state) to succeed.”

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha (Courtesy of Nebraska Unicameral Information Office)

About 25 people attended the town hall Wednesday night at the Goodwill/Apex Training Center.

‘Successful completion’ of transition

The event was billed as marking the “successful completion” of the transition from Saint Francis to DHHS, which began in December, when the state canceled its contract with the Kansas provider after continual problems meeting caseload requirements.

But with fewer than a handful of attendees providing comment, the one-hour town hall consisted mainly of DHHS officials detailing what had been accomplished over the past six months. The last cases were turned over to the state in May.

Some of the information shared at the meeting:

 — 94% of Saint Francis employees agreed to transfer to DHHS after the state abruptly canceled the Kansas agency’s contract in December to oversee state wards in Omaha and eastern Nebraska. That, officials said, meant that many families got to keep the same caseworker.

 – Since March, DHHS has hired 104 new employees to handle cases of the state’s abused and neglected youth in the eastern service area.

Stephanie Beasley, director of DHHS’s Division of Children and Family Services, said the agency is now focused on becoming one of the best child welfare systems in the country and on doing to more prevent children from entering the system.

A consultant hired by DHHS is scheduled to issue a report in December on improving the child welfare system. Smith said a strategic visioning group has been at work for the past 20 months on possible reforms.

“We are looking at best practices across the country,” Smith said.

She mentioning the states of Connecticut, Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan as doing “great things” to help families in crisis earlier, to keep them out of the child welfare system.

Fewer concerns

Jennifer Carter, the state’s inspector general for child welfare, said Thursday that her office continues to keep a close eye on the transition.

Carter said her office has not been “overwhelmed with concerns” about the transition but still fields some complaints about some cases that had been handled by Saint Francis.

The Ricketts administration had contracted with Saint Francis Ministries in 2019 to take over case management of abused and neglected children who became state wards in Omaha and eastern Nebraska.

But Saint Francis officials later admitted they had severely underbid the contract, and by January 2021, the state had to provide an emergency allocation of $150 million to keep the Nebraska operation afloat.

Experiment with privatization ended

The cancellation of the contract with Saint Francis ended Nebraska’s experiment with privatizing case management. The eastern Nebraska cases were gradually transferred to DHHS, which was already managing cases elsewhere in the state.

At any given time, about 3,300 children are state wards, including about 1,500 in the Omaha area.

Smith, the DHHS CEO, told those at the town hall Wednesday night that the agency was committed to continuing to communicate with families and agencies involved in child welfare. She added that DHHS wants to hear from families and former and current wards of the state on what works and doesn’t work.

“If you want children and families to be healthy, go to the community,” she said. “We should be the last resort.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.