The State Health Department signed a contract Wednesday with a Kansas organization to provide child welfare case management in Douglas and Sarpy Counties beginning next year.

The finalized agreement was anticipated for several weeks. The Nebraska provider that has done the job in the past, PromiseShip, formally protested the decision to the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services. The department found PromiseShip’s protest inadequate.

At issue is the management of abused and neglected children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, which makes up about 40% of the state’s total. St. Francis will provide management services for foster care, adoption, service coordination and other tasks.

The five-year contract awarded to St. Francis Ministries, a Salina, Kansas, nonprofit, is for about $197 million and includes an option for two more years.

“We look forward to partnering with (the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services) and the many excellent Nebraska organizations working in child welfare. ... Saint Francis has a strong history in child welfare, providing services and working to change and improve systems,” the Rev. Robert Smith, president and dean of St. Francis Ministries, said Wednesday in a press release.

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St. Francis Ministries, formerly known as St. Francis Community Services, is affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

The situation worries some child advocates because of a spotty recent record of child welfare services in Kansas. Kansas officials have used St. Francis for 23 years to manage child welfare cases in Wichita and western Kansas.

The Kansas Legislature formed a task force two years ago to analyze the state’s troubled child welfare system. The number of children who had to stay in agency offices or were moved from placement to placement was a focus of the task force.

The task force was told that St. Francis had put 764 children into one-night placements between April 2018 and September 2018. Organizations including Kansas Appleseed filed a suit against Kansas’ governor and other state officials, arguing that they were responsible for child welfare services.

The suit indicated that foster children in Kansas were moved 7.1 times for every 1,000 days of foster care in 2017. The national goal is 4.12 moves per 1,000 days, and Nebraska’s statewide rate was 2.56 moves per 1,000 days in January 2017. St. Francis and another Kansas provider, KVC Behavioral HealthCare, weren’t named as defendants.

The Nebraska Health Department said St. Francis received the highest score in a request-for-proposal process. PromiseShip has indicated that it won’t give up the contract without a battle.

An attorney representing PromiseShip told the State Department of Administrative Services in mid-June that awarding the agreement to St. Francis “is contrary to the best interests of Nebraska’s child welfare population.”

The attorney, Thomas Kenny of the Kutak Rock firm in Omaha, said St. Francis failed to respond adequately to the request for proposals. He wrote that St. Francis’ cost proposal was “unrealistic” and “fanciful at best” and that the proposal doesn’t meet Nebraska’s caseload requirements.

PromiseShip and Kenny argued that St. Francis assumes a caseload of 25 cases per case manager, which, PromiseShip said, violates state law. State law, according to the attorney’s letter, calls for caseloads ranging between 12 and 17.

Further, the attorney wrote, St. Francis’ representation of its Kansas work was “at best a half-truth, and at worst, a misleading description” of its services.

But the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services responded that the evaluation factored in quality of service and costs. PromiseShip’s cost proposal was “substantially higher” than St. Francis’, the department said; PromiseShip offered to do the job for $341 million over five years.

Administrative Services Deputy Director Doug Carlson said in his response that his department “sought clarification” of St. Francis’ case loads. Carlson indicated that St. Francis’ number of workers should enable it to meet the intent of state law.

Carlson wrote that “there is no need to overturn the award” to St. Francis, and he denied the persuasiveness of PromiseShip’s protest.

St. Francis spokeswoman Morgan Rothenberger said in a statement Wednesday evening: “Saint Francis will meet all expectations outlined in our Nebraska contract and conform to all applicable state regulations and laws.”

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