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At DCF, a refreshing counterpoint to 'government as usual'

The indictment of former House Speaker Ray Sansom and scathing grand jury report on secrecy in the Legislature casts a very troubling shadow over the state Capitol these days.

But the criticism leveled by the grand jury should not be viewed as emblematic of all of state government.

For an uplifting counterpoint to the Sansom scandal, look no further than George Sheldon, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, long one of the most difficult jobs in state government.

Sheldon, 61, a former Tampa legislator, took over the DCF in September after the resignation of his close friend Bob Butterworth. An appointee of Gov. Charlie Crist, Sheldon has drawn raves ever since — from child advocates, foster children and legislators — for his unflagging efforts to make life better for the DCF's clients, from foster children to food stamp recipients.

Sheldon is constantly emphasizing the root causes that destroy families: poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness and mental illness. His priorities include increasing adoptions of foster children and getting the mentally ill out of Florida's jails.

He oversees 12,000 employees and a $3 billion budget (not nearly enough, he often says), and his path to leadership of such a challenging agency was a circuitous one indeed.

A lawyer, he lost a campaign for Congress in 1982 and later just missed being hired by the governor and Cabinet to run the state's environmental agency. He ran for state education commissioner in 2000 and lost to Crist in a race in which Crist and the Republican Party attacked Sheldon for liberal Democratic votes while in the state House in the 1980s.

At another confirmation hearing a couple of weeks ago, former foster children, now young men and women, showed up to testify in support of Sheldon's performance, and some spoke of him not as a bureaucrat, but as a father figure.

"For many of us, a male figure in our life has been nonexistent, and if he was there at all, he was probably somebody you wouldn't really want to look up to," said Mike Dunlavy, 26, of Jacksonville. "Secretary Sheldon has been somebody we could look up to."

Dunlavy is a member of Florida Youth SHINE, a group of former foster children who walk the halls of the Capitol, acting as unpaid advocates for children as they turn 18 and make the transition from foster care to adulthood.

"He's a great guy," Dunlavy said. "He gave out his cell phone number at one of the first meetings we were in, and picks up the phone and calls and asks what's going on. That's real."

Sheldon gives public service a good name.

Victoria Zepp, a lobbyist and child advocate, says of Sheldon: "He's accessible. He's real. He's engaged, and he gets to the core issues."

At the moment, as he walks the halls of the Capitol, Sheldon has other concerns. Several hundred of his full-time workers make so little money they are eligible for food stamps. Now the Legislature is considering cutting their pay by another 4 percent, after three consecutive years of no salary increases.

"That sends a very bad message to front-line staff," Sheldon said. "The message we should be sending is, 'Bear with us, and we'll make it right.' "

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

At DCF, a refreshing counterpoint to 'government as usual' 04/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2009 10:02pm]
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