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St. Francis plans to start taking over Omaha-area child welfare cases 3 months early, in October

LINCOLN — A Kansas nonprofit could start overseeing cases of abused and neglected Omaha-area children three months earlier than planned.

St. Francis Ministries had been slated to take over child welfare case management from PromiseShip, an Omaha-based nonprofit, on Jan. 1. Now state officials are pushing for case transfers to start in early October.

Danette Smith, chief executive officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the state wanted a gradual changeover between the two private contractors to avoid potential setbacks and disruption of service to children and families.

“This is being done to ensure a safe transition of cases over a three-month period, rather than all at once on Jan. 1,” she said in a statement.

Under the new plan, case transfers would begin before the state completes a review of St. Francis’ readiness to fulfill the requirements of its contract with HHS. They could also begin before the courts resolve a pair of lawsuits challenging the contract.

State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, the chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said it’s smart to have a slower transition, but she worried that starting the transition without knowing how the legal cases will turn out could result in more upheaval.

Smith said that the readiness review has begun and that pieces related to child safety will be completed before any transfers occur. She said the rest of the review, which is required by state law, will be done by Jan. 1.

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As for the lawsuits, she said HHS has to move forward on the transition because its contract with PromiseShip ends Dec. 31. PromiseShip, formerly the Nebraska Families Collaborative, has held the contract to manage metro-area child welfare cases for almost a decade.

Morgan Rothenberger, a St. Francis spokeswoman, said the organization’s experience has been that slow transfers of cases from one provider to another work best “to keep the process smooth and supportive of families.”

But St. Francis is still working out details of the transfers, including hiring staff and setting up an Omaha office. So far, Rothenberger said, the agency has interviewed about 100 PromiseShip employees and will be making offers soon. The agency is also negotiating a lease for office space.

Any PromiseShip employees switching to St. Francis now would be in addition to the 33 PromiseShip case managers and three case management supervisors who have left since the state announced in June that it would not continue contracting with the Omaha entity.

Ron Zychowski, PromiseShip’s president and CEO, said the departures have forced case manager changes for about 430 children and added to the caseloads of remaining staff. He said PromiseShip currently has 121 fully trained case managers and 14 in training. But the organization has stopped hiring because its future is uncertain.

HHS signed a contract July 3 that puts St. Francis in charge of child welfare case management in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The $197 million, five-year contract was awarded through a public bidding process.

St. Francis offered to do the job for less than 60% of the amount currently being paid to PromiseShip.

Under the contract, St. Francis could get up to $18 million in its first year, plus $1 million in startup costs. In the second year, it could get up to $41.4 million, with 5% increases planned for each succeeding year. That compares with the $71.5 million that PromiseShip can get for the same job this year.

Smith said moving up the start of case transfers will not change the cost of the St. Francis contract.

PromiseShip was formed by Boys Town and other private Omaha-area child welfare agencies. It is the only survivor of a disastrous attempt to privatize case management statewide.

St. Francis is affiliated with the Episcopal Church and has subsidiaries in Nebraska and six other states, plus two Central American countries.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Work on wall is underway in Arizona, New Mexico
Redirected defense money is used to erect 30-foot-tall sections of fence to replace shorter vehicle barriers


YUMA, Ariz. (AP) — On a dirt road past rows of date trees, just feet from a dry section of the Colorado River, a small construction crew is putting up a towering border wall that the government hopes will reduce — for good — the flow of immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

Cicadas buzz as heavy equipment rumbles and beeps before it lowers 30-foot-tall sections of fence into the dirt. "Ahí está!" — "There it is!" — a Spanish-speaking member of the crew says as the men straighten the sections into the ground.

Nearby, workers pull dates from palm trees, not far from the cotton fields that cars pass on the drive to the border.

South of Yuma, Arizona, the tall brown bollards rising against a cloudless desert sky will replace much shorter barriers that are meant to keep out cars but not people.

This 5-mile section of fencing is where President Donald Trump's most salient campaign promise — to build a wall along the entire southern border — is taking shape.

The president and his administration said this week that they plan on building between 450 and 500 miles of fencing along the almost 2,000-mile border by the end of 2020. The ambitious undertaking is being funded by billions of defense dollars that had been earmarked for things like military base schools, shooting ranges and maintenance facilities.

Two other Pentagon-funded construction projects in New Mexico and Arizona are underway, but some are skeptical that so many miles of wall can be built in such a short amount of time. The government is up against last-minute construction hiccups, funding complications and legal challenges from environmentalists and property owners whose land sits on the border.

The Trump administration says the wall — along with more surveillance technology, agents and lighting — is key to keeping people from crossing illegally.

Critics say a wall is useless when most of those apprehended turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents in the hope that they can eventually be released while their cases play out in immigration court.

In Yuma, the Pentagon-funded section of tall fencing is replacing shorter barriers that U.S. officials say are less efficient.

It comes amid a steep increase since last year in the number of migrant families who cross the border illegally in the Yuma area, often turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents. Many are fleeing extreme poverty and violence, and some are seeking asylum.

So far this year, Border Patrol agents in the Yuma sector have apprehended over 51,000 family units. That's compared with just over 14,500 the year before — about a 250% increase.

The Yuma sector is the third-busiest along the southern border. In June, the Border Patrol built a temporary 500-person tent facility in the parking lot of its Yuma headquarters.

The agency spent just under $15 million for the setup and services for four months, including meals, laundry and security, but officials are evaluating whether to keep it running past next month as the number of arrivals in Yuma and across the southern border has fallen sharply in recent months.

The drop is largely due to the Mexican government's efforts to stop migrants from heading north after Trump threatened tariffs to force Mexico to act.

The number of people apprehended along the southern border fell by 61% between this year's high point in May and the end of August. In Yuma, it fell by 86%, according to government figures. Most people apprehended are either traveling as families or are unaccompanied children.

"Historically, this has been a huge crossing point for both vehicles as well as family units and unaccompanied alien children during the crisis that we've seen in the past couple of months," Border Patrol spokesman Jose Garibay said. "They've just been pouring over the border due to the fact that we've only ever had vehicle bollards and barriers that by design only stop vehicles."

Victor Manjarrez Jr., a former Border Patrol chief who's now a professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, was an agent when the government put up the first stretch of barriers along the southern border, in San Diego.

Manjarrez said tall border fencing is crucial in some areas and less helpful in others, like remote stretches of desert where shorter barriers and more technology like ground sensors would suffice.

"One form doesn't fit in all areas, and so the fence itself is not the one solution," Manjarrez said. "It's a combination of many things."

The ease of construction varies by place and depends on things like water, Manjarrez said, adding that just because a plot of land is flat "doesn't mean it's not complex."

He said building 450 to 500 miles of fence by the end of next year would be tough if that figure doesn't include sections of the wall that have been built recently.

"As it stands now, contractors are building pretty fast," Manjarrez said. The real question is whether the government needs to build that much fencing, he said.

The Trump administration is also likely to face lawsuits from landowners who aren't giving up their property so easily and environmentalists who say the barriers stop animals from migrating and can cut off water resources.

The Tohono O'odham Tribe in Arizona has also expressed opposition to more border fencing on its land, which stretches for almost 75 miles along the border with Mexico.

Grace: Omaha woman died before she could tell her story; her relatives are telling it for her

Mae Della Tarver, 94, wanted her story told. And that story included her two sisters, also in their 90s.

You don’t live almost a century, sharing in all the change that happened from their Jim Crow Arkansas roots to Omaha, and not have something to say.

Mae made this wish known to daughter Suzanne (pronounced Sue-ZONNE), who dutifully began gathering string.

Suzanne, who is a social worker in New Orleans, collected photographs of the three women: her mother, Mae, and Aunts Luvenia and Margaret. She interviewed her mother and took notes. She called this newspaper pitching the idea of a sit-down with three African-American sisters in their 90s, each a character and each a witness to the past century.

Suzanne warned that she couldn’t promise that all three sisters would agree to a time and place; each was fiercely independent and stubborn. Nor could she promise how it might go. The sisters loved one another but also bickered, interrupted and talked over one another and laughed so much that it would be hard to get a question in. Margaret might not even show up. Luvenia was suffering from some dementia.

But there was a chance that Suzanne could gather her mother and aunts together for what promised to be an illuminating — and entertaining — window into a chapter of one family’s history and our shared American history. I bit.

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This was last Friday. On Sunday, Mae died unexpectedly. On Monday, Suzanne called with the sad news. Instead of planning an interview, Suzanne was planning her mother’s funeral. She supposed that the newspaper might not be interested anymore.

But a life story is a life story, even without the protagonist present. On Tuesday morning, I met Suzanne Tarver Vincent, her brother Milton Tarver and their Aunt Luvenia Sanders on the top floor of St. Joseph Tower, an assisted living facility south of downtown with a penthouse room offering sweeping views of the city. Margaret Rose was not available to speak.

Suzanne carried a folder bursting with photographs, and Luvenia clucked and ooooohed as she described them. First was their native Arkansas with so many trees — pine trees, oak trees and Luvenia’s favorite, the magnolia.

“You could smell it miles and miles away,” she said. “There was some beauty, beauty, beauty, beauty!”

Mae, Luvenia, Margaret and Tradis, the eldest child and only boy, grew up in rural Arkansas, the children of David Sherman and Ardie Rogers Sherman.

“King David,” as their father was called, worked at a sawmill earning a dollar a day. Ardie could sew anything and made the family’s clothes, quilts, drapes, curtains and tea towels.

In 1924, Mae Della was born in Camden and then was raised in Emerson, both towns in southern Arkansas. Luvenia was born in 1926 and Margaret in 1927.


Mae Della Tarver, left, is shown here with sister Margaret Rose.

The four children shared a bed, said Luvenia, “some at the bottom of the bed, some at the top of the bed.” They loved to jump on their folks’ feather mattress. Theirs was a rural childhood: Walk everywhere. Tend to chickens and hogs. Milk Grandpa’s cows and ride his horses. And be surrounded by fields.

“Wasn’t no cornfields, you hear me? Cotton fields,” Luvenia said.

Luvenia remembers how they walked to school, took biscuit lunches in syrup buckets and had good teachers and indoor plumbing.

Suzanne said that her mother had a happy childhood and parents who encouraged her but that racial inequality put an early end to her education. Schools were segregated, and there was no “negro” high school, as it was called, for her mother to attend. She finished school after the ninth grade and moved to Omaha six years later, in 1944. She was 19.

Mae was part of a northern migration of Southern blacks. She came to Omaha for opportunity, starting off where many newcomers got their footing, in South Omaha’s meatpacking plants. She later became a licensed practical nurse, earning that license by waiver because of her experience and references. In 1956, she married Howard William Tarver, an Oklahoma native who had served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II and had come to Omaha, working for various meatpacking plants.

Mae and Howard married in Council Bluffs and raised seven children at 3541 N. 28th St. in Omaha, an address that disappeared when the North Freeway was built. Mae worked night hours as a nurse but generally was a homemaker. She was active with her children’s schools and liked to cook up a storm.

“She could make rolls and sweet potato pies, pecan pies,” recalled Suzanne.

“Oooooh, what you talking about? She liked to make the chow-chow, too, cutting up that cabbage, you know, then you cut a little onion,” Luvenia said about a relish-type dish. “Sweet potato pie! She could sure make the sweet potato pie.”

Suzanne’s photographs offer a stirring walk through history.

First is a black-and-white photo of four dressed-up children standing in what appears to be a cotton field. Mae and Luvenia, both in light-colored dresses, stand in front of Tradis, who is wearing a suit. Baby Margaret is seated.

Then a black-and-white photo, probably taken in the 1930s, of a teenage Mae looking grown up. Then photo after photo through the years of adult Mae, an attractive woman with a heart-shaped face, thick eyebrows and a ready smile.

Mae was also, invariably, dressed up and put-together, wearing a variety of hats and jewelry. She loved to shop. She loved to sing, creating her own bluesy songs. She loved to travel, going to the Caribbean island of St. Croix six years ago, at age 88, for Suzanne’s wedding. Suzanne attributed her mother’s longevity to a strong will to live and enjoy life and to a joyful, strong disposition.

In Mae’s later years, her white hair distinctively frames her face.


Mae Della Tarver loved to pair jewelry with clothes.

A long life means bearing witness to loss. Mae’s husband died in 1997 after 40 years of marriage. Luvenia outlived both her sons. Margaret never had children.

Longevity also means dealing with health, good and bad. Mae had suffered two heart attacks. Luvenia, who has had a stroke, has trouble hearing and walks with a cane. Margaret remains the only sister living in her home and is still relatively healthy at age 91.

All three sisters had been able to live relatively independently. It was only last year that Mae moved into St. Joseph Tower, where she celebrated her 94th birthday. She was due to celebrate her 95th later this month.

Mae died Sunday morning. Suzanne said she believes that her mother’s heart probably gave out.

She didn’t live to tell her own story. But her story lives on in the memories of those who knew and loved her and grew up with her in Arkansas.

In addition to Suzanne, Mae is survived by daughters Barbara Tarver of Omaha and Caroline Tarver of Austin, Texas; sons Conrad McSwain, Howard Tarver and Milton Tarver of Omaha and John Tarver of Dumfries, Virginia; 16 grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren.

And, of course, Mae Della Tarver is survived by her sisters: Luvenia and Margaret.

All those memories will be shared at a wake from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday and a funeral at 9 a.m. Saturday. Both services will be at Roeder Mortuary at 4932 Ames Ave.

Suzanne said the bigger story her mother and aunts offer is how to live life: Well and with joy and strength and without regret.

“She knew there was a story to be told,” Suzanne said.

OWH front pages through the years​

Roads, bridges washed out after north-central Nebraska hit by 4-8 inches of rain

Back-to-back storms on Tuesday and Wednesday dumped 4 to 8 inches of rain on parts of north-central Nebraska.

Officials in Brown and Rock Counties on Thursday asked drivers to stay off roads entirely as they took stock of washed-out roads, bridges and culverts.

As waterways rose overnight, firefighters conducted at least one water rescue north of Ainsworth early Thursday after a pickup fell into flooded Bone Creek, according to radio station KBRB.

The 35-year-old driver slipped and fell trying to get out of the truck and was swept 200 to 300 yards downstream by a fast-moving current before she was able to grab onto a tree, KBRB said.

Firefighters and rescuers were able to locate her by the light on her cellphone. The woman spent about 20 minutes in the water.

At midday Thursday, the National Weather Service said flood warnings remained in effect for Rock, Brown, Holt, Keya Paha and Boyd Counties.

Areas that might flood included O’Neill, Spencer, Ainsworth, Bassett, Lynch and Stuart.

A flood warning continued for the Ponca Creek at Verdel, which measured 11.8 feet Thursday morning, 1.7 feet below flood stage, and the Elkhorn River near Ewing in Holt County.

Douglas Fox, director of Emergency Management Region 24, which covers Boyd, Brown, Cherry, Keya Paha and Rock Counties, said the flood damage may be worse than what occurred in mid-March, when a monster storm caused catastrophic flooding across parts of Nebraska and Iowa.

It’s been a steady onslaught of rain and flooding since the spring, Fox said.

“It just keeps raining. Since March, it’s just one thing after the other,” he said. “We fix roads and they get washed out again. We put culverts in and they get washed out again.”

Brown and Rock Counties are southeast of Valentine and include the towns Ainsworth and Bassett.

In Ainsworth, pockets of storms that blew through the area in the afternoons and evenings Tuesday and Wednesday brought more than 8 inches of rain over the two days, said Jaclyn Gomez, a meteorologist with the weather service office in North Platte.

“A lot of that ground is saturated,” she said. “With the saturated ground, there’s just nowhere for that rainfall to go.”

Rod Worrell, publisher of the Ainsworth Star-Journal, said he had about 5 inches of rain in his home rain gauge both Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hail measuring nearly 2 inches in diameter fell in Imperial, south of Ogallala, breaking car windows. In North Platte, officials clocked winds of 72 mph, Gomez said. The weather service received reports of downed trees and power lines in Hayes County.

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The bridge over Long Pine Creek northwest of Bassett was washed out by flash flooding Wednesday night, and the Hidden Paradise Cabins near Long Pine took on water.

Brown County Sheriff Bruce Papstein said Bone Creek and Plum Creek are flooded, too. Some state highways and county roads from central to north Brown County are covered by water.

“There’s lots of county roads and culverts washed out, lots of holes in the roads and all that,” Papstein said. “Just what everybody needs.”

Road crews have been working all summer to patch previously flooded roads, and the most recent storm is just another setback, he said.

The Niobrara River was still rising Thursday, Fox said.

“Of course, water’s coming from the west,” he said. “I don’t know when it’s going to come down.”

The rain fell as part of a storm system that unleashed three tornadoes on Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and triggered widespread flooding in southeastern South Dakota as the Big Sioux River swelled. Forecasters are keeping an eye on the Missouri River near Blair, Omaha and Plattsmouth; it is expected to rise over the next week to minor flood stages.

Photos: Major flooding hit Nebraska and Iowa towns in March 2019