As a leader of Florida’s child welfare agency, George Sheldon often had to stand toe-to-toe with administrators of Our Kids, Miami’s privately run foster care agency.
Soon, he may be one of them.
Sheldon, who now is the secretary of the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services, is the preferred candidate of the Our Kids’ Board of Trustees to lead the group. Three of Our Kids’ top leaders resigned abruptly last month, including the agency’s president and CEO, Jackie Gonzalez.
In a meeting Wednesday morning, board members voted to give the board’s chairman, Keith Ward, authority to negotiate with Sheldon toward hiring him. Ward and others praised Sheldon as one of the nation’s top child welfare administrators.
“He is certainly the number one candidate across the country,” Ward said. He added that Our Kids’ interest in Sheldon had been “probably one of the worst-kept secrets” for several days.
The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, reported Wednesday that Sheldon’s possible departure from Illinois comes as the Illinois DCFS’s inspector general, as well as the state’s executive inspector general, begin investigations into allegations of “favoritism in contracts and hiring, as well as abuse of authority by a top aide.”
The newspaper also is reporting that Sheldon’s policies were being questioned by child abuse investigators “who say they are pressured to quickly close abuse and neglect cases, even when children face serious harm.” Last week, the Tribune reported on the death of a 16-month-old, Semaj Crosby of Joliet, who was found dead under a couch — shortly after a DCFS investigator had visited. The agency had closed four earlier probes into the infant’s welfare.
Reached by phone, Sheldon told the Miami Herald Wednesday the secretary job in Illinois was “the toughest system I’d ever dealt with.” In a recent letter to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, Sheldon acknowledged that, despite efforts to dramatically improve the state’s child welfare system, Illinois remained 51st in the country for its ability to quickly find a permanent home for children taken into foster care. In the March 27 letter, Sheldon urged Rauner to seek far-reaching changes to contracting and employee management.
Sheldon said he encountered a system of care that was crumbling, with a 25-year-old computer system and distrust throughout for politicians. “I immediately reached out to people I trusted,” he said. He brought four former administrators from Florida, some of whom were given contracts. One of the contracts included a man with whom Sheldon co-owned a house, Sheldon said.
Records provided to the Herald by Sheldon show he disclosed the relationship to the state’s Conflict of Interest Committee more than a year ago. He said he reported the rental home when he realized how it might look.
“I felt that if I was going to turn the system around quickly, it would be better to turn to people who knew what they were doing,” Sheldon said. “And I didn’t know anybody here.”
The leaders from Florida realized quickly that Illinois had squandered $50 million in federal reimbursements by failing to determine Medicaid eligibility for foster children over 18. Sheldon said he also ceased the practice of allowing young children to live in group homes, and eliminated an agency policy of declining to investigate the deaths of children whose parents accidentally smothered them in bed, often while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. That made the agency’s fatality nunbers look worse, but was a more honest approach.
“The reason the governor recruited me to come to Illinois was because of what he heard about Florida,” Sheldon said. He added he did not believe his hiring practices in Illinois were “inappropriate.”
Virtually from the moment Ward floated the idea of hiring Sheldon on Wednesday morning, the question among board members wasn’t so much whether, but when. Ward said he approached Sheldon privately — because of the state’s open government law, he said, he was unable to discuss his overture with other board members — and was surprised when Sheldon was receptive to the idea.
State leaders in Illinois, Ward said, “will be very sad to see him leave.”
Sandy Bohrer, a lawyer who is a member of the Our Kids board, told other members he had known Sheldon for several years, and had worked for him as a special counsel for a year. “I’m not sure you can find anybody who is a better candidate,” Bohrer said. “He is a wonderful person, George Sheldon.”
Our Kids’ current administrators resigned in April amid mounting tensions with a local watchdog group, the Community Based Care Alliance, and other critics — as well as fallout over the suicide deaths of two teenage foster children.
Sheldon was a longtime fixture in Florida politics. He was a liberal stalwart from Tampa in the Florida Legislature when Democrats controlled state government. He served as a top lieutenant for former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, and joined Butterworth when he became dean of the St. Thomas University law school. Sheldon served under Butterworth again when Butterworth was hired by then-Gov. Charlie Crist as DCF secretary, and succeeded him when Butterworth retired in 2008.
In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott replaced Sheldon with David Wilkins, a businessman who helped lead a social service group with strong Christian fundamentalist roots. Sheldon, in turn, moved to Washington to become the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families under Kathleen Sebelius.
Sheldon likely will have little trouble getting along with the current DCF secretary. He was Mike Carroll’s boss when he ran DCF.