LINCOLN — State officials plan to put a private Kansas agency in charge of overseeing the care of abused and neglected children in the Omaha area.

In a notice posted late Monday, officials said they intend to award St. Francis Ministries, formerly known as St. Francis Community Services, the new contract to manage child welfare cases in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

The agency, based in Salina, Kansas, offered to do the job over five years for $197 million, less than 60% of the bid from the current provider, Omaha-based PromiseShip.

“Based on their proposal, we are confident St. Francis will deliver high quality case management and child protection services that strengthen families and build protective factors for Douglas and Sarpy County children,” said Dannette R. Smith, chief executive officer for the Department of Health and Human Services.

St. Francis, which is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, has subsidiaries in Nebraska and six other states, plus two Central American countries. The Rev. Robert Smith, dean, president and chief executive officer, said the agency was founded in 1945 as a boys home.

The Nebraska subsidiary provides a number of services, including foster care and adoption homes, family support services, intensive family preservation and reunification services, and family-centered treatment in the central and western areas of the state. The agency has been working in Nebraska since 2012.

PromiseShip, a private nonprofit formerly known as the Nebraska Families Collaborative, currently manages Omaha-area cases under a contract worth up to $71.5 million annually. It was the only other bidder for the new contract, offering to do the job for $341 million for five years.

Ann Pedersen, a PromiseShip spokeswoman, said the agency was reviewing its options concerning the bidding process, but pledged to continue working with the state to provide a seamless transition.

“After 10 years of achieving great progress in serving children and families, we are extremely disappointed with the decision of the state,” she said.

Documents posted on the state’s purchasing website show that PromiseShip outscored St. Francis in all categories except cost.

Matt Wallen, child and family services director for HHS, said both bidders had strong proposals, with cost being the main difference. He said state officials initially questioned the large variance but were confident about going with St. Francis following presentations from both bidders.

PromiseShip has held the Omaha-area contract since 2009, when the state tried to privatize child welfare statewide.

The agency, formed by Boys Town and other private Omaha-area child welfare agencies, is the only surviving contractor from that experiment. HHS employees manage cases in all other parts of the state. The contract with PromiseShip has been expanded and extended multiple times since then.

Before issuing a request for proposals, state officials hired The Stephen Group, a government-consulting agency based in New Hampshire, to analyze whether Nebraska should continue contracting out case management or whether state workers should resume that responsibility.

The report from that analysis was completed earlier this year but HHS officials have refused to release the report so far.

Wallen, however, acknowledged Tuesday that the decade of privatization has not produced the results sought.

A 2014 evaluation concluded that privatization had not produced “any measurable benefit” for the state. Since then, the state’s own data has shown similar outcomes for cases handled by state employees and those managed by PromiseShip.

Wallen put some of the responsibility on HHS officials. He said the state has not been consistent about the outcomes it wanted and did not give PromiseShip enough leeway to undertake innovative approaches.

“What we wanted to do was really give privatization a chance,” he said.

HHS sought bids earlier this year for a five-year contract with the option of two single-year extensions. The winning bidder will be in charge of about 40% of the state’s total child welfare cases.

The next step will be negotiating the actual contract, with the contract to be signed by July 1.

State officials will do an in-depth review of St. Francis’ readiness to provide services before the state starts referring children and families to the agency. Transition of new and existing cases is expected to be complete by Jan. 1 next year.

“Continuity of services is our No. 1 priority,” Wallen said.

HHS tried to put the contract out to bid in October 2016 for the first time since the privatization effort began. On March 30, 2016, officials announced that they had chosen to stick with the collaborative that later became PromiseShip. But the other bidder, Magellan Choices for Families, filed a protest.

Officials responded by rejecting both bids and, in May 2017, extended the PromiseShip contract. The contract expires at the end of this year.

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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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