Editorial Roundup: Nebraska

Omaha World-Herald. Sept. 5, 2021.

Editorial: Ricketts administration must step up and fix the Nebraska child welfare crisis

That’s it!

We’ve seen enough. The State of Nebraska must serve notice that it will terminate its contract with St. Francis Ministries to serve at-risk children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The contract requires a 180-day notice; the state Department of Health and Human Services, then, can take charge of this critical work by March.

It’s clear that St. Francis is a money pit that is putting children at risk.

Omaha-area residents already knew in general of the poor performance by St. Francis over the past year and a half in helping at-risk children here. But a legislative hearing last week provided troubling details of those failures. Testimony revealed a child welfare system in an alarming state of crisis.

Testifiers described a disturbing range of failures: Caseworkers woefully uninformed about a child’s needs. Failure to provide needed services, to carry out scheduled visits and to respond in a timely fashion to a child’s need for emergency relocation. Ongoing turnover in caseworkers. A front-line worker’s irresponsible decision-making regarding a child’s medication.

And an average front-line worker caseload that continues to exceed the limit set years ago in Nebraska state law.

“Caseworkers are undertrained, overworked and undersupported,” said Dr. Suzanne Haney, who runs the foster care program at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center. “... I am very concerned that our current system is unworkable and is actually harming our most vulnerable children.”

Carrin Meadows told lawmakers she is leaving service as a foster parent after ongoing frustrations with St. Francis. “I am done idly watching these children who need so much get so little from the constant shuffling of paper and staff,” she testified. “I am done having new caseworkers walk into my house with no knowledge of the case and say, ‘This child is going home in six months and you better get on board.’ ”

Meadows said that in less than two years she has gone through six or seven caseworkers. The mounting problems with St. Francis, she said, have “driven away quality CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), family support workers and now foster parents.” She reported that St. Francis caseworkers threatened foster parents with removal of children if they testified at the hearing.

Damian Yates, a biological parent, said St. Francis staff improperly shared confidential medical information and handled matters so poorly that he has missed visitations and his son has not received some needed services.

“My case has been delayed for so long that now I am at risk of losing my parental rights and my son could be put up for adoption,” Yates told legislative investigators.

How did child welfare in Douglas and Sarpy Counties collapse into such a troubling state? The blame falls on the Ricketts administration, which in 2019 failed to properly vet the bid by Kansas-based St. Francis. The administration’s mishandling of state contracting set the stage for this debacle.

It was insult enough to Nebraskans that St. Francis submitted such a preposterously low bid — 40% below that of its competitor, PromiseShip, a consortium of Omaha-area nonprofits including Boys Town — but it was an even greater insult that the Ricketts administration actually accepted it.

Given the meager amount agreed to by the state, St. Francis struggled to meet its costs once it began providing service. By early this year, the nonprofit was quickly running out of money for its Nebraska operations. Meanwhile, whistleblower revelations led to the ouster of St. Francis’s top two executives. In February, with St. Francis’s finances hanging by the slimmest of threads, the state negotiated a two-year emergency contract that put the total funding at — surprise — the same general level bid by PromiseShip in 2019.

When the new contract was signed, Dannette Smith, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said her department was “steadfast in our obligation to ensure the best possible supports are in place for those we serve.” The succeeding months have brought the opposite, however: St. Francis’s overall performance has degraded to the point that its license as a child placing agency has been put on probation. That disciplinary action could eventually mean it would no longer be allowed to place children in foster or adoptive homes. That prospect should trigger a claxon of alarm about the state of Nebraska government.

The children who have been ill-served by St. Francis deserve the best chance possible to get their lives moving in the right direction. The state owes them, their parents and society much better than St. Francis has proven it is able to provide.

The state HHS, which handles child welfare services in the rest of Nebraska, must take on the duties in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has much to say these days on national issues and divisive culture-war debates, but he needs to look closer to home. It’s time, finally, to fix Nebraska’s child care crisis. The buck stops at the Governor’s Office.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Sept. 2, 2021.

Editorial: State’s nursing ad promoting no vaccine rule is unacceptable

Perhaps the most important duty performed by nurses in Nebraska state institutions is taking care of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

That alone makes the state’s recent mailer to health care professionals touting the state’s lack of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for nurses – done in a cheerful tone, to boot – all the more appalling and unconscionable.

Has the pandemic exacerbated Nebraska’s existing nursing shortage? Absolutely.

Should the lack of a vaccination requirement be considered a recruiting tool? Not in the least.

Yes, the advertisement notes that vaccinations are encouraged. But that sentence is in a font about half the size of the benefits listed – first among them is “no mandated COVID-19 vaccination,” printed atop even the $5,000 signing bonus.

The fact that this battle over vaccinations continues to rage – now spreading to facilities like state veterans’ homes and the Beatrice State Development Center – is indicative of too many people’s unwillingness to do their part in supporting the collective fabric of our society, even when action could help save lives and livelihoods.

As is the case with COVID-19 and other viral infections, vaccines aren’t silver bullets with 100% efficacy. But they greatly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death – two things of which we’ve endured far too many in the last year and a half.

The virus has killed at least 2,500 Nebraskans to date, with many of the deaths coming from the group settings similar to those in which the sought-after registered and licensed practical nurses care for the state’s highest-need residents.

(Of course, Nebraskans no longer know exact numbers of deaths and infections, because Gov. Pete Ricketts has decided the state no longer needs to operate a statewide dashboard for the public good, following the expiration of his pandemic-related emergency declaration two months ago.)

In many ways, this situation represents a microcosm of private businesses and entities stepping in to fill the gaping hole where government has failed during the ongoing pandemic.

It’s worth noting that the job advertisements were posted shortly before the state’s largest health care systems announced they were instituting a vaccine mandate – a common practice that’s been upheld time and again in the American legal system – designed to protect patients and staff alike.

Many nurses at those facilities, including a pair at Bryan Health in Lincoln, have gone on the record expressing frustration at the recent uptick in hospitalizations, making their work more dangerous and draining. COVID wards at the hospital are filled up almost exclusively with unvaccinated patients, even more maddening when anyone older than 12 could get a vaccine within minutes.

Government mentioning, much less promoting, the lack of a statewide requirement for COVID-19 vaccination for the front-line workers is a dereliction of duty that could needlessly jeopardize the health and even lives of the highest-risk Nebraskans during the pandemic.

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Kearney Hub. Sept. 1, 2021.

Editorial: Tourism gets boost from Elks

We’re continuing to regain statewide conferences in Kearney. After a year-long absence because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Elks of Nebraska returned to Kearney to conduct its annual statewide conference Aug. 27-29 at Holiday Inn. About 150 Elks attended and many participated in golf at Meadowlark Golf Course before the business of the convention got underway.

In the past we Kearneyites might hardly notice when a statewide organization like the Elks comes to town, but after a year of empty hotel rooms caused by COVID, cancellations, every conference and the people that come to Kearney are conspicuous because so much of our local economy rides on tourism. It is among the five pillars of our diversified economy that include agriculture, education, health care and manufacturing.

Tourism in Kearney-Buffalo County ranks fourth in Nebraska behind Dodge, Lancaster and Sarpy counties. The heated competition for conferences, sporting events and other tourism opportunities only will grow in intensity in the years ahead as Nebraska cities try to cash in on casinos.

Kearney officially will try a different track, leaving gambling to other cities, and instead attempt to corner family friendly events with a mega sports complex.

While efforts to bring the sports facility to Kearney unfold, we’ll continue to watch as the bread and butter tourism opportunities rebound and return to Kearney, as the Nebraska Elks Association has done.

Last year was tough for service organizations because of the pandemic, but the Elks found ways to continue their good works. Elks chapters provided $33 million in aid to food pantries and soup lines. The organization also supported free clinics and assisted U.S. military veterans.

Elks even found a way to conduct their signature annual Hoop Shoot.

The Nebraska Elks are undertaking an interesting project. The Kids on the Block project delivers inclusive and supportive messages to children and young adults through puppetry. It’s a powerful medium to talk with youths in clubs, schools, summer programs and support groups. Elks manipulate the puppets and read from scripts that really zero in on problems youths may be encountering.

For example, on the topic of disabilities, the Elks puppeteers can address cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, dyslexia, hearing impairments, prosthetics, spina bifida and visual impairments.

The puppets also can help kids talk about bullying, substance abuse, medical concerns, aging and respect, safety and other topics. Any expenses for the Kids on the Block puppet shows are paid by the Nebraska Elks Association. To arrange a show, call Jane Berggren in Central City at 308-940-2260.

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