Michaela Kelly knew it’d be hard to get her kids back. The 34-year-old tried to chip away at the obstacles — addiction, abusive relationships, mental illness — that led the State of Nebraska to place her three children in foster care.
But there was one roadblock she didn’t expect: the constant churn of caseworkers assigned to help her family navigate the state’s child welfare system. She built a relationship with one caseworker, who left. Then another left. And another.
Soon Kelly had cycled through 12 different caseworkers – employees meant to help make sense of the system’s court hearings, therapy appointments, job searches and drug screenings – in fewer than four years. She felt her chance to regain custody slip away.
“It got to a point where I just wanted to bash my head off a wall,” said Kelly, whose parental rights were terminated in July. “Because I’m like, ‘What is really going on?’”
This revolving door has become common in Omaha as the state violates its own law that requires workers be assigned no more than 17 cases.
As recently as 2019, this standard was met in the Omaha area nearly 100% of the time by workers with ongoing cases. Now, only a quarter of caseworkers in Douglas and Sarpy counties maintain that standard. They’re carrying massive caseloads, which experts say leads to burnout, turnover and families bouncing from worker to worker. Experts interviewed by the Flatwater Free Press called the situation “shocking” and “disgraceful.”
“That’s a fundamental question: whether you have enough workers or not. Clearly you don’t,” said Marcia Lowry, a child welfare attorney for more than 50 years and founder of two reform organizations. “And if the state doesn’t do something about it you’re gonna have a miserable child welfare system, and kids are gonna get hurt.”
The system for needy families in Douglas and Sarpy counties, which serves more than 1,600 kids, roughly half the state total, has long been scrutinized as less successful and more costly than the rest of the state.
But that system has faced serious issues since 2019, when the state announced it would transition case management to Saint Francis Ministries, a Kansas-based provider that promised to do the job for 40% less money than its predecessor — a difference of about $145 million. The state canceled the contract in December 2021 and began transitioning cases to state care after compliance fell off a cliff, fraud allegations surfaced and Saint Francis exhausted its funding. But in the nearly two years since, caseworker compliance has not recovered, turnover has increased and the number of kids exiting foster care has dipped.
Department of Health and Human Services leaders, including a new Children and Family Services director appointed in October to fill a job that had been vacant nine months, were not made available for comment.
In an emailed statement, DHHS spokesman Jeff Powell noted some recent success, while also pointing out that department leaders have previously said it would take two to three years to see more progress following Saint Francis’ removal.
In June 2022 – when the state resumed sole responsibility for case management – more than half of the caseworkers carried between 28 and 36 cases, Powell said. Now, no caseworkers have that many, and only nine caseworkers have 25 cases, he said. Caseworker vacancies have been halved amid a national caseworker shortage, while salaries were boosted by 20% in 2021 and another 10% this year, he said.
A Legislature-backed reform effort, with a report due Dec. 1, could further alter the Omaha-area foster care system.
Brea Worthington isn’t optimistic. Worthington worked for three of the Omaha-area’s private contractors and two state child welfare watchdog offices before starting her own organization to help people navigate the system.
“Everybody always asks me, ‘If I wanted child welfare reform … how would I do it?’” she said. “They will literally have to go to Washington themselves and bring in the people from the federal government.”
Similar problems in neighboring states like Kansas have prompted class-action lawsuits and increased federal oversight. Those options remain on the table in Nebraska, experts said, particularly if the reform effort fails to rebuild what’s been lost in metro Omaha.
“I don’t see that they’re making progress,” said Monika Gross, executive director of the Foster Care Review Office, the state watchdog for the child welfare system. “In fact, they’re regressing.”
Gross has seen Nebraska’s child welfare system from every angle: as a court-appointed guardian, an attorney for the state, then general counsel for an Omaha-area provider before her current role.
(Correction: A previous version of this story said Gross was a caseworker. The story has been updated to reflect that she was a court-appointed guardian.)
She knows caseworkers exist where stiff bureaucracy and raw emotion collide. A caseworker assigned too many cases, she says, means things fall through the cracks. Caseworker turnover increases. Families cycle through workers. Kids shuffle between foster homes. And birth parents’ chances of reuniting with their children – the state’s ultimate goal — worsens.
The struggles, while more pronounced, aren’t new.
In 2002 a federal audit found Nebraska’s child welfare system failed to meet every standard of a successful system. By September 2008, DHHS saw hiring private contractors, who could work “more quickly and efficiently,” as a solution to years of failed reform.
Six agencies were hired and operation began on April 1, 2010.
The next day, an agency responsible for about 2,000 kids withdrew, saying it was on track to lose $5.5 million. Less than a week later, another filed for bankruptcy. By October only two agencies remained. By March 2012 there was one.
State watchdog reports raised alarms, particularly about high caseworker turnover. That worsened documentation, slowed case progression and cost time and money as supervisors constantly recruited and trained new hires. In 2012 the Legislature established a case limit of 17.
The system made progress. The number of kids taken from their homes dropped. By 2019 nearly all workers in the state were in compliance with state law. Then, that June, the state announced it would transition Omaha-area case management to Saint Francis, the Kansas-based provider. Despite concerns it proposed caseload standards in excess of state law, Nebraska moved ahead.
“Things started to deteriorate,” Gross said. Caseworkers “started looking for other jobs, either because they didn’t want to go to the new contractor or because they just wanted to get out of child welfare because of the chaos it had been in for the last 10 years.”
As staff left, caseload compliance started to suffer, Gross said.
“I would say outcomes for kids and families probably went down as well.”
Two Nightmares in Millard
Dayna and Bastian Derichs live on a quiet street in southwest Omaha, not too far from their jobs with Millard Public Schools as a librarian-teacher and bilingual family liaison. In 2019, they started training to be foster parents, hoping it might allow them to adopt one day. It didn’t work as they had hoped.
“It felt like being trapped in hell,” Dayna said. “We kept screaming and nobody could hear us.”
From 2019 to late 2022 they fostered five kids, from toddlers to teenagers, some violent or despondent. What made it unmanageable, they say, was the rotating cast of caseworkers who seemed unable or unwilling to help them with therapy, doctors visits or finding the kids permanent homes.
One day Dayna was driving to parent-teacher conferences after taking her foster toddler, in the middle of back-to-back meltdowns, to Dayna’s parents. Dayna’s heart was racing, and had been since the previous night. Then her chest started to hurt. The next day her doctor told the then-43-year-old she’d had a heart attack.
That news made Dayna feel guilty.
“We really couldn’t give up … We worked so hard to get her on a schedule, to get her knowing that we love her. That the expectation is, ‘We will always love you,’” said Dayna, who with her husband stopped fostering in December 2022 because of the system’s instability.
In another Millard neighborhood, Kelly, the birth mother who lost her three children, felt like she was playing a game where the rules constantly changed. When she felt things getting better, the court said they were worse. Her mistakes felt amplified. Her frustration peaked.
The constant churn of caseworkers continued as her kids shuffled between foster homes. Abuse allegations followed, according to documents provided by Kelly. In one home, a foster parent allegedly pushed Kelly’s son down the stairs. Another foster parent allegedly hit the kids with a vacuum power cord.
Court documents tell a different story. They allege Kelly remained in contact with, and allowed her kids around, her abusive boyfriend while manipulating rules, failing a drug test and saying things that damaged her kids’ mental health.
But the court and the Millard mom appear to agree on one detail: Four years in the system didn’t help her children.
“They have had frequent instability and chaos,” reads the termination order. “They have been in a constant state of adjusting to new placements and varying levels of visitation. They have problems with trusting adults and will struggle with trust in the future.”
Saint Francis is gone, but struggles remain
Saint Francis’ tenure managing cases in Douglas and Sarpy counties was short-lived. A December 2020 whistleblower report led to fraud investigations. Facing insolvency, new Saint Francis leaders returned to the Nebraska Legislature in January 2021 and got a two-year deal worth $147 million. The state ended the contract less than a year later, began transitioning cases and assumed full control in June 2022.
But, according to some metrics, the system in Douglas and Sarpy counties hasn’t improved since Saint Francis’ exit. In September, caseload compliance hit its second-lowest percentage since January 2018. In the past two years, more than three times as many people quit child welfare jobs than in the previous two.
Still, ending privatization is a step in the right direction, said Juliet Summers, executive director of the Nebraska-based child welfare advocacy group Voices for Children.
“At the very least, families will not have to go through this in another two years, or another four years,” she said.
Since 2010, Nebraska’s child welfare system has been studied by state agencies, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Legislature-backed research firms and philanthropy-financed work groups. The state also started one watchdog agency and converted another from volunteers to paid staff.
The efforts appear to have had some effect. The number of Nebraska kids in foster care has shrunk since 2012, according to federal data. But the number of children exiting the system is dropping faster than all but two other states in the nation – meaning kids are staying longer in foster care, advocates say. Those trends grew worse during the recent instability as the number of kids in foster care rose in 2020 and 2021.
In 2022 the Legislature launched Reimagine Wellbeing, another reform effort that recognizes high caseloads as a concern. It doesn’t recommend immediate changes to caseload standards but would like the department to plan for turnover, include flexible positions to help caseworkers and fill more vacant positions.
A lot of this sounds familiar, advocates say. So are the problems that have stymied reform.
“You’re talking about people’s lives. You’re talking about working with individual children and families. I think it’s difficult to legislate a solution for that,” Gross said.
No state has solved this problem, she said, but other states have solved different parts of it. She thinks Nebraska can change, “but it’s like leading a horse to water. It’s going to be up to the horse whether or not it takes a drink.”
When internal reform doesn’t work, some, like lawyer Marcia Lowry, turn to class-action lawsuits to reach court-ordered reform goals.
“Good laws are not self enforcing … in Nebraska, you have a caseload standard, but if nobody’s following it, the caseload standard’s not doing kids any good,” said Lowry, who’s litigated these cases since the ‘70s.
Lowry recently ended a two-decade long suit against New Jersey after the state dramatically improved its workforce, placed more kids with relatives and built 57 resource centers where families can access wraparound services, among other improvements.
Lawsuits don’t always work. Tennessee spent two decades undergoing a similar process, exiting litigation in 2019 only to have the same issues resurface. Kansas has been sued twice, most recently by Kansas Appleseed in 2018.
Sarah Helvey, child welfare program director for Nebraska Appleseed, said she hopes Douglas and Sarpy county caseload numbers improve the longer the state oversees it. But there are “really concerning” trends that need to be addressed, she said.
“We have looked at legal avenues of addressing that,” Helvey said, “and we’ll continue to monitor that.”
‘Too Late for Me’
Michaela Kelly tries to remain hopeful about the future. The present is bleak.
Her appeal to reinstate parental rights was denied. Now she must wait until her kids are legal adults to see if they want her back in their lives.
Advocates worry stories like Kelly’s will become more likely if caseloads remain high.
“There’s trauma to children and families just by being in the system,” Helvey said. “And then that’s compounded when there’s instability in the system.”
Kelly hopes the state invests in services that can prevent experiences like hers and, at the very least, hires more caseworkers.
“Obviously it’s too late for me,” she said. “But if I could save someone else from going through the torture of the state then something good will come out of it.”