dannette smith (copy)

Dannette Smith

The child welfare system in Douglas and Sarpy Counties served just under 5,000 children last year. Many of those youths received in-home support, while others were placed with relatives or in foster care. Such service, responding to neglect or abuse in the home, is an important but immensely challenging task requiring a high degree of professionalism.

PromiseShip, a consortium of private providers, has delivered child welfare services in the two counties since 2009. But the state has awarded the next child welfare contract to a different private provider, Saint Francis Ministries. If a final contract is completed, the Salina, Kansas-based provider will take over those duties starting Jan. 1, 2020.

HHS officials say they scrutinized the Saint Francis bid and concluded it has the capability and experience to carry out the services. “Based on their proposal,” HHS CEO Dannette R. Smith said, “we are confident Saint Francis will deliver high-quality case management and child protection services that strengthen families and build protective factors for Douglas and Sarpy County children.”

“Both Saint Francis Ministries and PromiseShip offered quality proposals,” said Matt Wallen, HHS’ child and family services director.

Saint Francis, which dates from 1945, currently serves more than 31,000 people through subsidiaries in Nebraska and six other states, plus two Central American countries.

The New Hampshire-based consultant contracted by HHS said that stakeholders it interviewed in Douglas and Sarpy Counties were generally supportive of having a private provider, rather than the state, carry out child welfare services in the two counties.

PromiseShip, which includes respected local institutions such as Boys Town, the Child Saving Institute and Heartland Family Service, meets all but one of the federal goals for child welfare service quality. At the same time, a consultant’s report concluded that PromiseShip hasn’t provided a level of service that noticeably exceeds that provided by HHS in the rest of the state.

Part of the reason is the often strained relationship between HHS and PromiseShip at times over the years, the New Hampshire-based consultant said: “This lack of collaboration, combined with a lack of clear shared vision and purpose for the outsource and a cloud of uncertainty that has loomed over the contract for many years, has also created a challenging environment for the vendor to operate. … It’s laudable that PromiseShip has done well in such an adverse situation.”

HHS’ shifting, stop-and-go approach to contracting inhibited PromiseShip’s ability to make major investments, the consultant said.

If the state moves ahead with a contract with Saint Francis, the relationship and contractual specifics need to address the shortcomings identified by the consultant, to enable innovation in service delivery.

Saint Francis proposes handling the duties for $197 million over a five-year period, far less than PromiseShip’s bid of $341 million. The state will need to ensure that Saint Francis delivers services at the needed level of quality. In the bid process, PromiseShip outscored Saint Francis in three designated categories: corporate overview, technical approach and financial requirements.

PromiseShip handles about 40% of Nebraska child welfare cases and some 59% of the cases requiring the most intensive intervention, the consultant report says. So, if the state does move forward with this change in providers, it’s imperative that Saint Francis, PromiseShip and HHS develop procedures and understandings to make the handover of duties as seamless as possible. Child welfare in Nebraska over the past decade has had too much disruption and uncertainty, to the detriment of children and their families. The stability provided by PromiseShip in recent years has been a major plus. Wallen, at HHS, has sounded the proper note, saying “continuity of services is our No. 1 priority.”

It’s imperative that the state ensure that child welfare services will be at the needed high standard, for the sake of the children served and the wider community.

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