Monday, May 16, 2011

Big boost for child welfare reform: George Sheldon to run ACF

UPDATE, May 23: The longtime Editorial Page Editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, Mary Ann Lindley, has a great column about Sheldon.  

This is the best news for child welfare reform at the federal level since at least the start of the Obama Administration: George Sheldon, former director of the Florida Department of Children and Families and one of the nation’s most successful reformers, is about to become the top federal official in charge of child welfare policy.

The job titles are long and complicated but the bottom line is that by mid-June Sheldon will be running the Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sheldon and his predecessor, Bob Butterworth, led the largest transformation of an American child welfare system in recent decades, turning Florida from the national example of failure into, relatively speaking, a leader in doing child welfare right.

Under their leadership, entries into foster care were reduced significantly and independent evaluations found that child safety improved.  (Sadly, the reforms are now in danger, thanks to a Miami Herald-fueled foster-care panic in Florida. Sheldon’s successor has not been aggressive enough in countering the panic.)

The implications for federal child welfare policy are profound  -  and all good.

● For starters, Sheldon championed the waiver from federal funding restrictions that allowed the state to divert more than $100 million per year in federal foster care funds to better alternatives.  So this gives a big boost to those who want Congress to restore HHS’ authority to issue such waivers, and it’s a huge blow to the child welfare establishment types who have been trying to “Yes, but…” child welfare finance reform to death.

● Another hallmark of Sheldon’s leadership is openness.  He and Butterworth took DCF out of the bunker.  So we may see support for things like efforts to open child welfare court hearings in states where they’re still closed (in Florida they’ve been open for decades.)

●As DCF secretary Sheldon banned the use of foster children in drug trials – and got absolutely no help from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  Now he can pursue the same goal nationwide, and push states to curb the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medication on foster children in general.

●And one more thing about Sheldon: He believes in taking responsibility for failure, not just credit for success.  I can’t imagine George Sheldon tolerating Bryan Samuels’ effort to let the foster care system off the hook for the harm it does to so many of the children who pass through it.