Kansas-based foster care provider’s financial turmoil, Cubs tickets amplify concerns in Nebraska

By: - December 15, 2020 8:22 am

Concerns over Saint Francis Ministries’ failure to meet performance measures in Nebraska were heightened by the revelation of alleged financial mismanagement at the Kansas-based foster care provider. (Illustration by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Nebraska state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh never understood how Saint Francis Ministries secured the state’s only private foster care contract with a shockingly low bid and no plan for providing minimum services.

She was concerned the cost savings would be made by overloading social workers with too many cases, despite warnings from legislators that state law required foster care providers to keep caseloads low. After Saint Francis took over services for the Omaha region in January, it was no surprise to Cavanaugh that the organization failed to meet its obligations.

“We told Saint Francis at our public hearings numerous times that this was a statute, and if that was their plan, they could not increase case numbers,” Cavanaugh said. “It was against our laws. We could never really get a full answer.”

A recent report by the Nebraska Office of Inspector General and revelations of financial mismanagement by leaders of the Kansas-based organization have brought into focus the concerns raised by Cavanaugh and others in Nebraska when the contract was awarded last year.

The decision by Saint Francis leadership to spend $80,000 on Chicago Cubs tickets, which was revealed in a Kansas Reflector report earlier this month, also is a point of interest because Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ family owns the Cubs and he formerly served on the team’s board of directors.

Cavanaugh and other lawmakers who serve on a foster care oversight committee will get their first chance to question Saint Francis about the developments at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday at the state capitol in Lincoln.

Among findings in the OIG report, just 41% of Saint Francis social workers have acceptable caseloads, children were staying for days at a time in a location intended for short emergency stays, children were housed in office space, and the organization was “ill-prepared and unable to secure enough foster homes.” Additionally, Saint Francis has struggled to retain and hire employees.

Morgan Rothenberger, spokeswoman for Saint Francis, said the foster care provider was meeting a majority of its performance measures.

“Case management work is complex, with numerous moving parts,” Rothenberger said. “In beginning new services, we expect challenges as Saint Francis adapts to a new system and as we partner with state officials to bring healing and hope to children and families.”

Suspect math

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services operates nearly all of the state’s foster care system following a short-lived experiment with privatization that ended about a decade ago.

The lone holdover from the privatized system was PromiseShip, an organization formed by the iconic Boys Town and other social welfare groups in Omaha. No one expected the announcement in July 2019 that DHHS was severing ties with PromiseShip. Even more surprising was the disparity in bids for the five-year deal: Saint Francis offered to do the work for $197 million, compared to PromiseShip’s offer of $341 million.

“It was shocking and abrupt,” Cavanaugh said.

Saint Francis was preceded by its reputation in Kansas, where the foster care system had devolved into chaos and cruelty. More children were missing, abused, killed, sold for sex, frequently moved, and sleeping in office spaces. Caseloads skyrocketed for social workers.

Kansas Department for Children and Families recommends a limit of 30 cases assigned to social workers. At times, the average case management in some regions exceeded 50 children.

Under a 2012 Nebraska law, caseloads are capped at 14-17, depending on case type. The same Sept. 15 OIG report that pointed to concerns with Saint Francis caseloads also found that 100% of social workers in two state-run regions had acceptable caseloads, as well as 92% and 88% of social workers in the other two regions.

And as Saint Francis severely underperformed, Nebraska lawmakers grew wary of the numbers the organization reported.

Cavanaugh, a Democrat who represents Omaha in a unicameral legislature that doesn’t recognize political parties, said there was an implication that Saint Francis would count a family of five as a single case.

“It seemed like there was some suspect math on the casework numbers,” she said. “I certainly was suspicious of it.”

Ticket timing

Kansas Reflector obtained the whistleblower’s report on financial mismanagement through an open records request with DCF, which had received the report in November 2019.

The Kansas agency hired an accounting firm to audit Saint Francis finances, but the organization declined to cooperate until a separate complaint about financial mismanagement was made directly to the Saint Francis board in October of this year. President and CEO Robert Smith and chief operating officer Tom Blythe left the organization after an internal review.

“We’ve taken very proactive steps in recent weeks to stabilize the financial situation of Saint Francis Ministries,” Rothenberger said.

Among the complaints in the whistleblower report was the decision to spend $80,000 on Chicago Cubs tickets at a time when the organization had exhausted its line of credit and was struggling to make weekly payments.

Rothenberger said the Cubs tickets were purchased in September 2019 and refunded when the team failed to make the playoffs. A review of paperwork indicated the purchase had nothing to do with Nebraska, she said.

Nebraska officials also indicated the tickets didn’t influence the decision by Ricketts’ administration to award a contract to Saint Francis.

“The governor was not aware of the purchase of those tickets until after media reporting on the whistleblower’s report,” said Justin Pinkerman, a spokesman for the Republican governor.

Khalilah LeGrand, spokeswoman for Nebraska DHHS, said nobody at the agency received tickets.

Still, Cavanaugh said, it is concerning that Saint Francis leadership purchased the tickets at a time of upheaval in Nebraska over the surprising decision to change foster care providers.

“I’m concerned about our youth in Nebraska,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a lot of concern and a lot of unanswered questions, and there has been since the start of this contract.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.