Nebraska Appleseed Files Lawsuit to Stop Privatization in Eastern Service Area

Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

Nebraska Appleseed is asking the judicial system to end the privatization of child welfare case management in the Omaha area.

The Lincoln-based nonprofit filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, PromiseShip and Saint Francis Ministries that asks for the privatization of the Eastern Service Area – made up of Sarpy and Douglas counties – to be ended and for DHHS to resume handling cases in the Omaha metro.

The suit alleges that the current private contracts violate the Nebraska Constitution. Nebraska Appleseed sent a demand letter last week to DHHS, DAS and the current and incoming providers that asked them to stop contracts and begin the process of transitioning services back to DHHS.

“Nebraska’s children and families deserve a strong and stable child welfare system, regardless of where they live in the state,” said Sarah Helvey, director of Nebraska Appleseed’s Child Welfare Program. “DHHS, as the legal parent of children in foster care, has the fundamental responsibility to provide equal access to care, treatment and services to children across the state.”

Helvey said the constitutionality of a statute can be raised at any time. She said the change in contractor – the contract awarded to Saint Francis will transition next year – is resulting in disruption that further diminishes the justification for the distinction between the Eastern Service Area and the rest of the state.

The nonprofit argues that, if services are going to change providers, it should be back to the state agency that already handles the other 91 counties in Nebraska.

“We share PromiseShip’s concern about making sure there are the least amount of transitions for kids,” said Allison Derr, child welfare staff attorney at Nebraska Appleseed. “Ultimately, though, we believe that that transition should happen with it going once and for all back to the state.”

Both state agencies declined to comment on the suit.

Tom Blythe, chief operating officer and president of Saint Francis Ministries, said the Kansas-based nonprofit was awarded a contract after responding to a request for proposals by the state.

“Our experience has been that the decision to privatize is one that is determined by state governments,” Blythe said in the statement. “We are excited about the opportunity to bring our experience to the ESA and continue to work closely with our partners at DHHS and PromiseShip to ensure a safe and smooth transition for the children of Nebraska.”

Ron Zychowski, president and CEO of PromiseShip, said he was unable to comment on the lawsuit or the constitutionality of the state statute, but he noted PromiseShip has been involved in the privatization of child welfare case management since its 2009 inception.

“We are proud of the success we have achieved over the years and of the innovations we have been able to bring to this important work,” Zychowski said in a statement. “Key to our success has been the tireless effort of our staff, the amazing work of the many providers who support us in this effort and our great working relationship with the Division of Children and Family Services’ staff in the Eastern Service Area. Together, we have significantly improved the outcomes for the children and families in Douglas and Sarpy counties.”

Helvey said Appleseed believes the state shouldn’t have two different systems, and the justification offered for treating the ESA differently isn’t adequate.

“The justifications that were declared by the Legislature to treat Douglas and Sarpy counties differently, by giving them a privatized child welfare system, are not a sufficient justification,” Helvey said.

Privatization of child welfare case management services began in 2009 when DHHS attempted to privatize cases across the state. All but one of the private entities withdrew or were terminated from their contracts, and the Nebraska Legislature ended privatization in 2012 – except in the Eastern Service Area, which was served by Nebraska Families Collaborative, now known as PromiseShip.

The lawsuit was filed in Lancaster County District Court. The plaintiff in the case is Laura Virgl, who is an advocate for child welfare as well as an educator and an adoptee, according to the complaint filed with the court.

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