Seven of 11 New Governors Change Up Child Welfare Bosses

It is the second month of the year, which means it also the second month in the mansion for the 11 new governors sworn in for 2015.

Here’s a look at three new state child welfare leaders who are stepping into some sticky situations:

It surprised YSI that, in the majority of articles about George Sheldon taking over the Illinois Department of Children and Families, the focus was on Sheldon’s experience running the Florida Department of Children and Families from 2008 to 2011.

We would have thought Sheldon’s employer after the Florida gig would be of interest since he’s an Illinois guy: Barack Obama. Sheldon lead the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is the senior child welfare position in the Obama administration.

But Sheldon’s tenure at HHS was a relatively quiet one.

His tenure in Florida was anything but quiet, and he received high marks from both sides of the aisle for his handling of three things in particular:

  • The DCF response to the 2009 death of Gabriel Myers, a 7-year-old foster youth who committed suicide. Myers had been prescribed several psychotropic drugs in his short life.
  • Implementation of the statewide IV-E waiver, which enabled Florida to use its federal foster care funding on a wider array of services, including family preservation.
  • The massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti, during which thousands of refugees arrived in Florida. DCF was a major player in the relief effort.

Sheldon lost last year’s Florida attorney general race and thus landed in Illinois’ lap.

What is he walking into at Illinois DCFS? A Republican governor (Bruce Rauner), for starters, but that’s nothing new for Sheldon, who worked for a Republican in Florida too (Charlie Crist; well, he was a Republican then, anyway).

The Land of Lincoln has long been a gold standard of sorts for child welfare advocates who embrace a conservative philosophy on removals to foster care. But the state has struggled with the quality of its foster care. The Chicago Tribune published a five-part series on the DCFS network of congregate care options that paints an appalling picture of lax oversight, abusive conditions and inhumane treatment.

DCFS has also recently backtracked on a differential response program that was perhaps too cavalier in it diversion of maltreatment cases. The agency scrapped differential response in late 2013.

It is hard to imagine a better hire for a system that has cycled through seven leaders in three years.

Oddly enough, Sheldon takes the job in Illinois that used to be held by his subordinate at ACF: Bryan Samuels, who served as Commissioner for the Administration for Children, Youth and Families for Obama.

Samuels led Illinois DCFS from 2003 to 2006, and now serves as executive director of Chicago-based research group Chapin Hall.

The one and only time YSI interviewed Charles Flanagan, in 2011, he had just come on board as the head of Arizona’s state juvenile justice agency. Flanagan struck YSI as a conservative and thoughtful fellow, set on closing facilities outside the Phoenix area and ramping up reentry services for youths coming home from lockup.

In 2014, Gov. Jan Brewer made him the head of Arizona’s newly established Division of Child Safety and Family Services, a standalone agency that replaces a child protective services investigation unit that was part of the state’s Department of Economic Security.

The impetus for the change was a whistleblower report by Greg McKay, a Phoenix police detective who discovered that the old division was thinning out its caseload by marking cases “not investigated” before county investigators and law enforcement could even get involved.

McKay’s report to Brewer noted about 5,000 incidents in a 20-month period.

Last week, Flanagan was shown the door by new Governor Doug Ducey, who actually dismissed Flanagan. That always catches the eye of YSI, because the usual path of politics is to “let” someone resign, especially early in an administration. We wouldn’t be surprised if this means Flanagan was offered the chance to do so, and refused.

Replacing Flanagan? Greg McKay, the detective who started “Not Investi-Gate” in the first place.

Here is the conundrum that McKay now inherits from Flanagan. There is a backlog of thousands of reports to investigate, and it is conceivable that some of them will result in the removal of children from home. And that’s where McKay will run head-on into Arizona’s other glaring child welfare problem: the fact that nearly 17,000 kids are already in out-of-home placements, a 47 percent increase since 2011.

South Carolina
The Palmetto state does not have a new governor; Nikki Haley is in the mansion…until, perhaps, a Republican presidential candidate comes knocking for a ticket-mate.

But Haley will start her new term with a new Director of Social Services: Susan Alford, who joins the administration from a position in Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute, where she served as director of the institute’s Girls Center.

Alford’s career began with work in probation and parole, and she served as both chief of staff and director for policy and planning at the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice.

Alford’s predecessor, Lillian Koller, actually resigned over the summer when DSS came under fire for keeping children with parents who ultimately caused their deaths. Koller made it through two Senate hearings about the problems; she resigned before a third in June, saying she had become a distraction to progress.

Alford might want to reach out to nearby Florida on the problem that did Koller in. Florida DCF is building on a risk-aversion process created by Eckerd Youth Alternatives that is designed to help prevent child fatalities.

Other New Leaders
By our count, seven new governors in addition to Rauner and Ducey have hired new child welfare leaders:

Masschusetts: Republican Charlie Baker named Marylou Sudders to lead the Department of Children and Families. She succeeds Erin Deveney, who had been in an interim status since last summer when former Gov. Deval Patrick (D) removed Olga Roche.

Sudders was commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health from 1996 to 2003, and became president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Maryland: Republican Larry Hogan has tapped Sam Malhotra, founder and CEO of Subsystem Technologies, to lead the Department of Human Resources (DHR).

Pennsylvania: Democrat Tom Wolf lured Maryland DHR’s old secretary, Ted Dallas to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Hawaii: Democrat David Ige (EE-gay) named Rachael Wong as the next director of the state Department of Human Services.

Wong was the vice president and chief operating officer of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, the trade association for hospitals, long-term care facilities, home health agencies and hospices. She replaces Pat McManaman whose term ended in November.

Rhode Island: Democrat Gina Raimondo informed Department of Children, Youth and Familes Director Janice DeFrances that she would not be retained in the new administration. Raimondo has not tapped anyone to replace her yet, but in January she did name Jamia McDonald as chief strategy officer for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

McDonald’s primary task: Address challenges at DCYF.

Nebraska: After fielding a national search, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts went out of state to hire 36-year-old Courtney Phillips, who leaves the number two job at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

YSI is mostly written by John Kelly, editor of The Chronicle of Social Change.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1211 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at