Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Remembering George Sheldon …

... Including the legacy the Miami Herald wants you to forget

George Sheldon
When former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, named one of the state’s most prominent Democrats, Bob Butterworth, to run the state Department of Children and Families, a joke made the rounds: “Nobody can fix DCF,” the joke went. “Now a Democrat will be blamed for the failures.”

Butterworth brought in another prominent Democrat, George Sheldon, to be his deputy. But if the joke was right about Crist’s secret plan, the joke was on him. Together, Butterworth and Sheldon engineered one of the largest transformations of any child welfare system in America. What was once the nation’s most prominent example of child welfare failure, became, relatively speaking, a remarkable success. 

When Butterworth left, there was speculation that Crist would never name Sheldon to the top job – after all, Crist had defeated Sheldon in two statewide election campaigns.  But he did.  And Sheldon expanded on the reforms begun under Butterworth.

During the Obama Administration, Sheldon became the nation’s highest-ranking official in child welfare, running the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services. While there, he championed real child welfare finance reform.

The term “hero” is overused.  So is the term “champion for children.” But they both apply to George Sheldon, who died last week at the age of 71. 

Reading the tributes to Sheldon it is striking how many of them come from former foster children.  They knew that, finally, they had a real friend in a position of power.

Sheldon’s greatest accomplishment

Sheldon moved aggressively to curb the use of psychiatric medication on foster children, and he prohibited the use of foster children in drug trials.  He championed “normalcy,” working to clear away the bureaucratic barriers that made it hard for foster children to enjoy the smallest pleasures in life, such as a sleepover at a friend’s house.  And Sheldon and Butterworth took DCF out of the bunker, opening records and speaking candidly about the agency’s failures.

But their single greatest accomplishment was this: Sheldon and Butterworth dramatically reduced the number of children torn needlessly from their families – and independent monitors found they did it without compromising child safety.  The dramatic transformation was featured in The New York Times.  

Yet this appears nowhere in the Miami Herald’s obituary for Sheldon. 

The obit is filled with warm reminiscences and wonderful stories, like this one, from former journalist Martin Dyckman, about Sheldon’s time in the Florida Legislature:

In the 1970s, when the Legislature passed financial disclosure laws, Sheldon often ranked dead last among his colleagues in the House. One newspaper led a story about the financial worth of lawmakers by noting that then-Miami-Dade Rep. Elaine Bloom disclosed ownership of a pure-breed dog whose declared worth was greater than Sheldon’s, Dyckman recalls.

But the obituary profanes Sheldon’s memory by leaving out entirely his single greatest accomplishment in Florida. In 2,000 words, reporter Carol Marbin Miller found no room to even mention his work to safely and successfully keep more children out of the chaos of Florida foster care.  But, of course, Miller has led a crusade against those changes. Now, she wants to pretend they never happened.

But they did happen.  And the best way to honor George Sheldon would be for the people of Florida to turn their backs on the Miami Herald’s fearmongering and demand that DCF return to George Sheldon’s vision of child welfare reform.