LINCOLN — The Omaha-based agency that manages Omaha-area child welfare cases is legally challenging the state’s decision to award a new contract to a different agency.

State officials signed the new contract with St. Francis Ministries, based in Salina, Kansas, on July 3. The five-year contract is for about $197 million and includes an option for two more years.

The contract calls for St. Francis to take over managing the care of abused and neglected children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties from the current contractor, PromiseShip.

On Monday, PromiseShip filed a taxpayer lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court. Kathy Bigsby-Moore, the founding executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska and a former PromiseShip board member, joined the lawsuit as a taxpayer.

“Having cared and advocated for abused and neglected children for more than 40 years, I could not stand silently by and watch the State of Nebraska enter into such an unlawful, unethical and inadequately funded contract,” she said. “My first priority has always been Nebraska’s children, particularly the most vulnerable, who have experienced abuse and neglect.”

She said the contract with St. Francis would put children at “unnecessary risk of further trauma, neglect and uncertainty.”

“I cannot let Nebraska’s tax dollars be misspent in this unconscionable way and am hopeful the courts will reverse this heart- wrenching decision,” she said.

St. Francis, formerly known as St. Francis Community Services, offered to do the job for less than 60% of the $341 million bid from PromiseShip. The two nonprofits were the only bidders for the contract.

Matt Litt, a spokesman for the State Department of Health and Human Services, declined to comment on the lawsuit but defended the agency’s contracting process.

“Our department followed the State of Nebraska’s process, as laid out in state law, to identify a new provider for the Eastern Service Area,” he said.

“The (department) is focused on helping people live better lives and keeping families together when safe to do so,” Litt said. “We continue our focus on a successful transition from PromiseShip to St. Francis Ministries.”

St. Francis officials declined to comment before seeing the lawsuit.

PromiseShip filed an administrative protest of the bidding process earlier, arguing that the St. Francis proposal should have been disqualified for failing to meet the terms of the request for proposals or comply with state law.

In particular, the protest said St. Francis’ proposal did not comply with a state law limiting child welfare case managers to 12 to 17 cases. The proposal was built around a target of 25 cases.

The protest said the costs of the St. Francis proposal would have been far greater if the proposal had complied with that requirement.

The state purchasing director denied the protest on July 3, shortly before HHS officials signed the contract with St. Francis. In the contract, St. Francis agreed to comply with the state caseload limits. The contract identifies 116 workers who are to handle case management, up from the 62 named in the original proposal.

Ron Zychowski, president and chief executive officer of PromiseShip, said the nonprofit decided to go to court when the contract was signed before the protest process had played out completely.

“We are taking this next step to express the seriousness of the issues at hand and to ensure children and families in Douglas and Sarpy counties are properly served,” he said.

HHS has contracted with PromiseShip, formerly known as the Nebraska Families Collaborative, to oversee the care of abused and neglected children in the Omaha area for almost a decade.

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

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

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.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Recommended for you

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.