Miami’s privately run child welfare agency voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to hire George Sheldon, a former chief of the state Department of Children & Families, as the group’s new CEO.
The vote, which was made quickly, allows the chairman of Our Kids’ board of trustees, Keith Ward, to negotiate with Sheldon, who currently is the head of Illinois’ Department of Child and Family Services.
Our Kids’ top job became vacant in April, when CEO Jackie Gonzalez and two of her top lieutenants abruptly resigned, all citing the pursuit of other opportunities. In his resignation letter, the agency’s chief information officer also mentioned lingering tensions among member of the Our Kids board, and a community watchdog group that had repeatedly criticized the agency for its lack of openness. The resignations also came amid questions over the suicide death of a 14-year-old Miami girl in the agency’s care.
They very much want him to stay. He’s a reformer. He gets a lot of flak for being a reformer.
Keith Ward, Our Kids board chairman, on George Sheldon
Sheldon, a longtime Florida politician who served in the Legislature before helping lead the Attorney General’s Office, has been under the spotlight himself in recent weeks.
Sheldon was the secretary of DCF from 2008 until 2011, after Gov. Rick Scott was elected. From there, he moved to Washington to be the assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner tapped him in 2015 to lead his state’s chronically troubled child welfare department, which had burned though seven agency heads in three years.
As Sheldon weighs his options, he remains under investigation by his agency’s inspector general for a handful of contracts he signed with private firms from Florida with which he had ties. He also has faced harsh criticism over the recent death of a 16-month-old Joliet girl, Semaj Crosby, who was found beneath a couch after Illinois investigators had failed to act upon four separate neglect reports.
Before the Our Kids board voted Tuesday, members briefly discussed a stack of news clippings from the Chicago Tribune, which has written about Sheldon extensively in recent weeks. The news reports had been provided to board members before the meeting.
Ward assured board members that Rauner was hoping to retain Sheldon, despite the recent reporting.
“They very much want him to stay,” Ward said. “He’s a reformer. He gets a lot of flak for being a reformer.”
Nevertheless, Ward said, Sheldon has given Our Kids no assurances yet that he will accept the offer. “He doesn’t want to leave them in the lurch,” Ward said. “He wants to leave them in good shape. Everybody recognizes his value.”
In the event Sheldon declines the offer, the Our Kids board voted unanimously to allow Ward to immediately hire a search firm to identify another candidate. The board also voted to bring in an interim administrator to provide a bridge between Gonzalez’s departure and the new boss. Under state law, private child welfare lead agency heads can earn no more than $210,000, Ward said.