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Chicago Tribune: George Sheldon to be named new chief of Illinois' DCF

George Sheldon may have lost his bid for Attorney General last year to Pam Bondi, but his reputation as a Mr. Fix-It is intact.

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has selected the Florida Democrat as the new head of that state's Department of Children and Family Services.

Sheldon couldn't be reached for comment.

From today's Chicago Tribune:

In his first major step toward repairing Illinois' faltering child welfare system, Gov. Bruce Rauner has selected a prominent Florida Democrat to head the Department of Children and Family Services, the Tribune has learned.

George Sheldon, 67, who was credited with efforts to reform Florida's often-criticized Department of Children and Families when he ran that agency from 2008 through 2011, will be named in an announcement Friday, according to a state official who confirmed the appointment.

Sheldon was best known for sharply reducing the number of Florida children placed in state protective custody, for releasing formerly confidential state records detailing abuse and neglect allegations at assisted living facilities statewide, and for expanding adoption opportunities for gay men and women.

He subsequently served under President Barack Obama as acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, administering a $50 billion budget.

Last year Sheldon lost a race for Florida attorney general to incumbent Republican Pam Bondi. He could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

If confirmed, Sheldon will be the first DCFS chief brought in from outside Illinois in more than two decades, signaling Rauner's desire to put fresh eyes on an agency ripped by scandal.

Bobbie Gregg announced her departure as DCFS acting director in January after the Tribune's "Harsh Treatment" investigation revealed that juvenile wards were assaulted, raped and lured into prostitution at taxpayer-funded residential treatment centers.

The violence and shoddy treatment at some of Illinois' most relied-upon residential facilities were an outgrowth of the state's broader failure to serve thousands of abused and neglected wards who have developed mental health and behavioral problems, the Tribune found.

Other recent Tribune reports have uncovered slipshod investigations into child deaths and overwhelming worker caseloads.

Gregg was the department's seventh director in three years, and child welfare experts say the agency's unstable leadership has undermined its ability to protect and care for youths.

Sheldon's appointment comes as Rauner and state lawmakers are moving on a number of fronts to address the problems exposed by the newspaper.

Last week, Rauner asked Casey Family Programs to perform a top-to-bottom audit of DCFS and advise him on how to reform the state's network of residential treatment centers, strengthen investigations of mistreatment and improve the department's data-keeping on reports of harm.

The Baltimore-based nonprofit provides consulting, research and evaluation services to child welfare leaders across the country.

"The state of Illinois is faced with the immediate, difficult task of addressing the issues and the short-comings of our child welfare system. ... We need to bring in the best of the best," said a Rauner statement at the time.

In the General Assembly, several bills already have been introduced and legislative staff have compiled a list of several dozen proposed changes to state law and policy. A newly created subcommittee plans its first hearing in March.

"You know how a lot of times subcommittees are the place where bills go to die and ferment? That's not what this is," said state Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, who will chair that panel.

Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said he has found a way to increase funding for programs that would support foster children and keep them out of troubled residential facilities, without raising taxes.

McSweeney would halt the expansion of a program called Economic Development for a Growing Economy, or EDGE, which gives special tax credits to companies that promise to stay in Illinois and retain jobs.

The savings would be diverted to foster families, giving them an additional $5 million in stipends next year and escalating to $50 million by 2026, according to a bill he has introduced.

"We have failed these children," McSweeney said. "We need to make sure these unspeakable horrors that have come to light never happen again."

Illinois currently spends $131 million annually on foster homes, officials say. McSweeney said the additional stipends would be used to provide specialized services to children with emotional and behavioral problems.

Serving a child in foster care costs taxpayers less than half of the $340-per-day rate that DCFS and Medicaid pay the state's biggest residential centers. But unlike many of their counterparts from New Jersey to Indiana, Illinois officials have been slow to build a robust network of specialized community mental health programs for disadvantaged youths.

State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who chairs the Appropriations-Human Services Committee, said he would support a measure to increase stipends for foster parents but added that children who have suffered abuse and neglect require a comprehensive array of services.

"You can't throw money at one small line item in a big budget and think that's going to solve all the problems. These kids need a lot of support," Harris said.

To improve care and safeguard children, lawmakers and child care professionals say Illinois must increase staff-to-child ratios at the 50 residential centers spread across the state, as well as provide more training to direct-care workers.

Those measures could cost tens of millions of dollars annually, said Margaret Berglind, president and CEO of the Child Care Association of Illinois, an industry trade group.

"Right now many agencies are staffed to the bare bones," Berglind said.

State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, who is helping lead the legislative overhaul of DCFS, acknowledged that some of the required fixes might be costly.

"It's a real challenging environment given our overall fiscal situation, obviously. But this is one of the most important responsibilities that the government has, to make sure these kids are getting the treatment and support they need," Steans said.

Steans said she welcomed input from Casey Family Programs because the problems in residential treatment centers stem from broader failures in Illinois' programs for serving juvenile wards with mental health and behavioral problems.

The Casey team, which is working at no cost to the state, met with DCFS officials Monday and plans twice-weekly meetings with agency leaders during the next three weeks.

"I support the governor's decision to bring in an outside agency to help us take stock of the situation and start turning things around," Morrison said. "Over the past year, it's become apparent that the problems at DCFS are so deep-seated that we're going to have to rebuild the agency from the ground up to ensure the safety of abused and neglected children."

Experts say many wards languish in residential centers, psychiatric hospitals, juvenile detention centers and emergency shelters simply because DCFS cannot locate an appropriate place for them.

Morrison on Wednesday filed a Senate resolution asking the auditor general to examine whether DCFS makes placement decisions based on the safety, best interests and special needs of juvenile wards, as required by law.

Child advocates in Florida said Sheldon is suited to taking on Illinois' challenges.

"George is knowledgeable about the issues. He will work well with the legislature and be transparent with the media," said Roy Miller, founder of The Children's Campaign, an independent watchdog group.

The son of a school lunchroom worker, Sheldon fought to integrate his Congregationalist church as a high school student and became the first in his family to attend college, according to his campaign biography and Florida news reports.

Mentored by then-state Sen. and future Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, Sheldon completed law school while serving for eight years as a Tampa-area state legislator.

A lifelong liberal Democrat, he was appointed by then-Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist as a top deputy and then head of the Department of Children and Families, or DCF, one of the largest and most challenged child welfare agencies in the U.S.

Some Florida child advocates say Sheldon struggled to fully monitor the growing number of private nonprofits that manage child welfare cases for the state.

But he effectively steered federal dollars to programs that supported children in their homes and kept those youths out of state care, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First, an advocacy organization based in Broward County.

"I'm never going to talk about another secretary like this: He listens to the kids. He knows the value of their voices," Spudeas said.

"He and I probably couldn't agree on a thing about politics, but a lot about policy," said Florida state Sen. Don Gaetz, a conservative Republican who has sponsored legislation to deal with operational failures of DCF.

"I would consider George Sheldon to be one of the consummate professionals in the area of child welfare in this country."

Gaetz said he was especially impressed by Sheldon's revamp of Florida's food stamp program to ensure needy families were fed while Sheldon still attacked fraud.

And during last year's attorney general campaign, when Gaetz was raising money for Sheldon's opponent, Sheldon tracked down Gaetz to help him craft legislation to increase penalties for child predators and provide more help to children's advocacy centers.

"George is a low-key, soft-spoken, inclusive person who wants to try to work across the aisle to solve the problems in people's lives," Gaetz said.

"No matter who is DCF secretary, the foster care system in Florida on its best day is not a great place for kids," he added. Sheldon was "asked to take charge of a leaky ship that was already on the rocks."