George Sheldon, who led two of the largest state human services agencies in the nation and oversaw child welfare for the Obama administration, passed away at the age of 71 on Thursday.
Sheldon, who was the CEO for the Miami-based organization Our Kids, died in the hospital weeks after injuring his neck in a fall at his home.
“He was a great mentor and friend,” said David Bundy, CEO of the Children’s Home Society of America, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. Bundy called his passing a “big loss for children and families.”
Sheldon took the helm as secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families in 2008 after serving under its former director, Bob Butterworth. Sheldon was respected by colleagues for his insistence that youth affected by the child welfare system have a place at the table.
“He was always focused on making sure that youth were involved,” said Don Winstead, a child welfare consultant who worked under Sheldon at DCF. “He set up youth groups to meet with him periodically, and hear about their concerns. And the things he learned about child welfare, he learned from them.”
Sheldon, like Butterworth before him, was also lauded in the state for publicly facing DCF’s crises. In 2009, Gabriel Myers, a 7-year-old foster youth who had been prescribed multiple psychotropic medications, hung himself in the bathroom of his foster home. Sheldon immediately established a working group with a regularly updated website to examine the use of psychotropics in foster care.
“He was an absolute champion of transparency in Florida, and brought that with him to the federal government,” Winstead said. “His view was, ‘If we’ve made a mistake, then we ought to be the first ones to say so, acknowledge it and fix it. And if we haven’t made a mistake, then by not being transparent, all we’d do is look like we had.'”
Butterworth and Sheldon presided over an experiment in child welfare financing prompted by the state’s former governor, Jeb Bush (R), who had secured a statewide waiver of Florida’s Title IV-E funds. Traditionally allocated to foster care and adoption placements, Florida was able to use a capped allocation on a wider array of services that included more investments in helping families before they reached the point where a foster care removal occurred.
In a three-year period, the state reduced its foster care rolls by 32 percent by focusing more on family preservation on the front end, and moving more quickly to finalize adoptions for children whose parents had their rights terminated.
During his tenure at DCF, an earthquake in Haiti killed more than 100,000 people and scattered thousands of families. Sheldon coordinated with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on a massive effort to care for thousands of children who were orphaned or separated from their parents.
“George’s work to protect children orphaned by the earthquake was heroic,” said former DCF spokesman Mark Riordan, in an interview last week with Carol Marbin Miller of the Miami Herald. “He mobilized a social services army. For many, maybe all of us at DCF, and many other agencies, it was our proudest work.”
Shortly after, HHS tapped Sheldon to lead the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees child welfare, foster care and other family services within HHS. He remained with HHS from 2011 until 2013, leaving for an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to be Florida’s attorney general.
Sheldon then took the helm at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, inheriting an agency at the heart of a troubling Chicago Tribune exposé about congregate care and residential programs for youth in Illinois.
Sheldon initially received high marks for dramatically increasing Illinois’ federal child welfare funding, mostly by tapping into streams that the state had been leaving at the table. But after two years, he resigned months after the death of Semaj Crosby, a 17-month-old whose parents had been investigated 10 times by DCFS. Sheldon was also personally the subject of an ethics probe related to DCFS contracts going to people he had not disclosed connections to.
“I don’t know about Illinois, I’ve heard the politics can be tough up there,” said Winstead. “But I know George Sheldon, and there was not an unethical bone in his body. I know his heart, and how he approached things.”
He returned to Florida, where he became CEO of Our Kids in July of 2017.
“We are very saddened by the recent passing of George Sheldon,” said Michael Williams, who is serving as acting CEO of the organization, in a statement issued last week. “This is a devastating loss for all of us; and a time for us to mourn together our good friend, George.”