Florida's new social services chief will look a lot like the state's new governor: a corporate executive with conservative social roots.
On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott named David Wilkins, a businessman who helps lead a social service group with strong Christian fundamentalist roots, as the new secretary of the state Department of Children & Families.
Wilkins will replace George Sheldon, a former state prosecutor widely regarded as a reformer. Wilkins, a member of the governor's transition team, is the finance chief of the Florida Baptist Children's Home, a private agency that allows only ``professing Christians'' to adopt children in its care.
Scott called Sheldon on Tuesday morning and informed him of the decision, Sheldon said. During the call, Scott and Sheldon discussed Florida's shaky economic climate, and the near-tripling of the number of residents receiving food stamps.
``I am committed to this agency, so I want to work with the new secretary,'' Sheldon said. ``He's been participating with the United Way, the Baptist Home, and he's got a view of what we've done and the progress we've made.''
Sheldon's departure was met with sadness by many social service advocates, who praised his administration for improving a long-troubled child-welfare program and for insisting on greater transparency in its operations.
``I am just devastated to see George go,'' said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, who presides over child-protection cases and has helped oversee the county's privately run foster-care agency, Our Kids. ``Under George, DCF was the most transparent, most receptive and most child-friendly administration ever.''
Wilkins, 50, fits the mold of an agency head in the Rick Scott administration, where corporate service is considered preferable to previous government work.
Wilkins was an executive with Accenture, Inc., a technology vendor with significant experience in Florida government contracting, and he is currently the finance chairman for the Florida Baptist Children's Home, which, according to a 2009 annual report, provided services to 8,673 children and families that year.
Among other ministries, the Baptist Home provides programs for developmentally disabled adults, runs foster-care and adoption programs, collects backpacks with supplies for disadvantaged children in Florida and parts of Central America, provides outreach to pregnant woman to encourage adoption, and operates 21 international child-care missions.
Wilkins, who will start his new job on Jan. 24 and be paid $140,000 a year, was not reachable for comment Tuesday.
Fran Allegra, who heads Our Kids and was a member of Scott's human-services transition team, said her agency intends to support the new secretary's ``transition in any way needed.''
``Secretary Wilkin's experience in the private sector fits well with the structure and momentum of Florida's community-based care'' movement, Allegra said. ``DCF has evolved and made significant progress over the last five years and we hope that the secretary will continue the positive trend.'' Florida's privately run child-welfare agencies are called community-based care groups.
Some children's advocates find Wilkins' ties to fundamentalist religious groups unsettling, particularly coming only months after a Miami appeals court declared unconstitutional a Florida law -- the only one of its kind in the U.S. -- that banned adoption by gay men and lesbians.
Both Sheldon and then-Attorney General Bill McCollum chose not to appeal the Third District Court of Appeal's ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, saying the decision held sway throughout the state. Sheldon ordered his leadership team to cease enforcing the ban.
But Wilkins and Scott could challenge the Miami ruling by refusing to allow a gay man or woman to adopt elsewhere in the state -- which could trigger an appeal to the state's highest court.
On its website, the Baptist Children's Home says that ``in order to adopt through the Florida Baptist Children's Homes we require that you be a professing Christian, be active in a local Christian church, and follow a lifestyle that is consistent with the Christian faith.''
Howard Simon, head of of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which represented Martin Gill in his successful challenge to the law banning gays and lesbians from adopting, said, ``we're certainly concerned about whether this might mean the state might try to undo our historic adoption victory.''
``I only hope for the sake of all the people of Florida that Mr. Wilkins is able to step out of his deeply sectarian position and apparent views as part of the Florida Baptist Children's Home and serve the needs of all Floridians -- not merely those of his denomination and not merely those who are Christian,'' Simon added.
Sheldon told The Miami Herald on Tuesday that he was not surprised by Scott's decision not to retain him. Sheldon said he had offered to help Scott's transition team at the child welfare and social service agency, but had not expressed a desire to stay. Sheldon said he was most proud of his efforts to boost morale among the agency's front-line workers, who had suffered through several years of withering criticism before he took over DCF.
``As secretary, I really don't do anything,'' he said. ``I don't do protective investigations. I don't counsel people in mental hospitals. I don't process food stamps. We have 13,000 people who do that.
``I tried to get the message out that, if you do your job and follow protocol and a case goes south, we'll stand behind you. We can't fire the lowest person on the totem pole and call that reform,'' Sheldon added. ``That message really resonated with people.''
Dave Lawrence, chairman of The Children's Movement of Florida and a former Miami Herald publisher, said Wilkins will be well-served to retain Sheldon's policies on government openness -- in which Sheldon often released records and spoke freely when agency missteps resulted in harm to children or other agency clients.
``George Sheldon set a heck of an example of leadership, particularly in being willing to face up to the facts when something went wrong,'' Lawrence said. ``That kind of transparency, combined with other skills, set a wonderful example of leadership for the next head of DCF.''
Miami Herald staff writer Rob Barry contributed to this report.