Kansas foster care provider agrees to leave Nebraska after months of scrutiny

By: - December 14, 2021 6:32 pm

William Clark, CEO at Saint Francis Ministries, says he is working to promote a culture of integrity: “Do the right thing at the right time for the right reason when nobody’s looking.” (Dec. 18, 2020, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Nebraska and Saint Francis Ministries have agreed to sever ties after months of intense scrutiny about the Kansas-based foster care provider’s ability to meet the state’s standards of care.

NOISE, an Omaha-based nonprofit news service, reports that state officials and the CEO of Saint Francis Ministries announced the joint agreement to terminate the contract during a series of brief interviews on Tuesday.

Saint Francis is headquartered in Salina and is the largest contractor in Kansas foster care system. The nonprofit also faces scrutiny in Kansas for financial mismanagement that led to the departure of its CEO, the Rev. Robert Smith, in November 2019. The Episcopal church disciplined Smith for “poor judgment” by requiring him to take ethics and fiduciary classes.

Smith entered into a contract with Nebraska in 2019 despite repeated warnings that the organization would lose millions of dollars. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services awarded the contract despite concerns about the Saint Francis bid, which was 60% of the competing bid from the organization that had served the Omaha region for a decade.

The revelation that Smith purchased $80,000 worth of Chicago Cubs tickets, which he defended as a scheme to make money by scalping the tickets, became a point of interest because Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ family owns the Cubs and he formerly served on the team’s board of directors. Nebraska officials have denied any connection between the purchase of tickets one month after the five-year, $197 million contract was finalized.

Nebraska officials agreed to refinance the deal in January for two years and $150 million, but eventually placed Saint Francis on probation for five months because of ongoing concerns that included illegal caseloads for social workers. There were also questions about recordkeeping and workforce stability. The state’s inspector general in September recommended ending the contract with Saint Francis.

“If you go back and look at, have children been mistreated, have children been lost, are they being taken care of? Yes, they have,” said William Clark, the current CEO of Saint Francis, in the interview with NOISE. “Is there things we could have done better? Yes, there is. But it’s not about not fulfilling its obligation, it’s about who can bring the most resources to the table to even do a better job of taking care of children and families.”

Kansas Reflector and NOISE have conducted interviews with current and former employees who raised concerns about working conditions at Saint Francis in Nebraska.

Darinita Shannon, a caseworker who was fired by Saint Francis for protesting work conditions, told NOISE that social workers at times had to stay alone with children in hotels because the organization couldn’t find an overnight home. In at least one instance, Shannon said, she was instructed to stay with a teen who had COVID-19.

A former case manager who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation said her supervisor at Saint Francis made it clear from the start that the organization could never meet caseload requirements in Nebraska law.

“That’s when I knew that the only ways to pacify concerns in the community were gonna be to lie about it,” the former employee told NOISE.

Under the mutual agreement to terminate the contract in Nebraska, Saint Francis will begin transferring cases to DHHS in January and complete the transition by June. Only the Omaha region is privatized in Nebraska.

“We’ve tried to make privatization work, but again, it’s an opportunity to re-look … re-scope and see where the opportunities are and where we can do it differently,” said Dannette Smith, top official at DHHS, in the interview with NOISE.

Kansas officials plan to release an audit into Saint Francis finances later this week.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.