LINCOLN — Nebraska Appleseed sent a letter to state officials Monday demanding an immediate end to private contracts for child welfare case management in the Omaha area.

The letter argues that the contracts violate the Nebraska Constitution’s prohibition against special legislation, that is, legislation that treats similar groups of people differently. It gave the state one week to comply or face a lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court.

Sarah Helvey, Appleseed’s child welfare program director, said the issue is created by the system of private case management that serves only two counties in the state, Douglas and Sarpy. She called for the state to take back management of cases in those two counties.

“Nebraska’s children and families deserve a stable child welfare system that is not subject to disruption on an ongoing basis,” she wrote. “The time for experimenting with the Eastern Service Area has come to an end and it is time to return to a cohesive system of case management statewide.”

A Nebraska Health and Human Services spokesman said the agency does not comment on threats of litigation or pending litigation.

Currently, PromiseShip, an Omaha-based nonprofit, is responsible for overseeing the care of abused and neglected children in the two counties. PromiseShip, formerly known as the Nebraska Families Collaborative, has held the contract for almost a decade.

But the cases of area children and families are slated to be transferred to St. Francis Ministries, a Kansas-based nonprofit formerly known as St. Francis Community Services, on Jan. 1.

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State HHS officials signed a contract with St. Francis on July 3, after going through a public bidding process.

St. Francis offered to do the Omaha-area case management job over five years for $197 million, less than 60% of the $341 million bid from PromiseShip. The two were the only bidders for the contract.

The letter was sent to HHS, which contracted first with PromiseShip and now with St. Francis; the State Department of Administrative Services, which handled the bidding process; and PromiseShip and St. Francis.

Helvey said she hopes that the state officials and private contractors will come to the table to resolve the matter without need for litigation. But she said Appleseed is prepared to go to court “to defend the rights of Nebraska’s children and families and the tax dollars that have been supporting a disjointed system.”

While Appleseed could have raised the special legislation issue previously, Helvey said the group decided to do it now because of the disruption that will be caused by the change of contractors.

PromiseShip previously filed a lawsuit challenging the decision to award the contract to St. Francis. That case is pending in Lancaster County District Court.

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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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