LINCOLN — Officials at PromiseShip, the agency that currently manages Omaha-area child welfare cases, were pondering their options Friday after a judge refused to halt the switch to a new case management contractor.

In an order posted this week, Lancaster County District Judge Kevin McManaman denied PromiseShip’s request for a temporary injunction to stop the transition.

Case transfers are slated to start next week, HHS spokesman Lee Rettig said. State officials had previously been aiming to start in early October. The transition is to be completed by Jan. 1, when the contract with St. Francis Ministries of Salina, Kansas, takes effect.

McManaman based the ruling in part on his determination that the Omaha-based agency was unlikely to succeed in its lawsuit challenging the state’s decision to award the new contract to St. Francis.

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The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services signed a contract July 3 that puts St. Francis in charge of child welfare cases in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The $197 million, five-year contract was awarded through a public bidding process in which PromiseShip was the only other bidder. St. Francis’ bid was less than 60% of the $341 million bid from PromiseShip.

PromiseShip responded by filing a taxpayer lawsuit along with Kathy Bigsby-Moore, the founding executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska and a former PromiseShip board member.

The suit claimed that St. Francis should have been disqualified for failing to meet the terms of the request for proposals or comply with state law, particularly a law setting limits on child welfare caseload sizes.

But the judge’s order said public entities have broad discretion when selecting contractors. He said PromiseShip appeared unlikely to be able to prove that the choice of St. Francis was “arbitrary or motivated by favoritism, ill will or fraud.”

PromiseShip officials said Friday that they were “extremely disappointed” with the decision. CEO Ron Zychowski said the agency and its board have not decided such questions as whether to pursue the case or what the future of the agency should be.

In a statement, Moore urged Nebraskans to pay close attention in coming months to “the resources allocated and services provided to ensure our children and families are kept safe and on the track toward permanency.”

Formerly the Nebraska Families Collaborative, PromiseShip was formed by Boys Town and other private Omaha-area child welfare agencies a decade ago, when the state first sought bids from private entities to manage child welfare cases.

The nonprofit has held the contract to manage metro-area child welfare cases ever since, starting with about one-third of area cases and growing as other agencies quit or lost their contracts. PromiseShip is the only survivor of the state’s disastrous attempt to privatize case management statewide.

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

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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