TALLAHASSEE — George Sheldon may have lost his bid for Florida attorney general last year to Pam Bondi, but his reputation as a Mr. Fix-It of troubled agencies is still intact.
On Tuesday, he starts his new job as head of Illinois' Department of Children and Family Services, which has come under fire recently for revelations of violence at group juvenile care facilities, botched investigations into child deaths and mounting worker caseloads.
His predecessor, Bobbie Gregg, announced her departure as acting director of the agency last month after the Chicago Tribune published an investigative series about how taxpayer-funded residential treatment centers had become breeding grounds for juvenile prostitution.
"It's a system that needs work," Sheldon, 67, told the Times/Herald on Friday. "There appears to be an overreliance on group care, where kids don't get the attention they need. But until I get on the ground, I can't really tell what's wrong."
Sheldon's new assignment, which will pay him $150,000 annually, is similar to the role he played from 2008 to 2011 when he served as secretary for the Florida Department of Children and Families as budget cuts undermined the state's child-protection system, resulting in well-publicized cases of child neglect.
By the time he left the agency, however, Sheldon had set records for adoptions and efficiency in processing food stamp applications while steering more children away from foster care in favor of adoptions and reuniting them with their families.
"This is similar to the Florida situation," Sheldon said. "My first goal will be to push for transparency. It's the only way to build trust with an agency."
After losing to Bondi in November by a wide margin, Sheldon, a former Florida deputy attorney general, said he took the next two months off. He said he didn't apply for the Illinois job. Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, hired him after talking with several people who knew of Sheldon's work in Florida, he said.
"We don't share the same politics on a lot of issues," Sheldon said. "But child welfare is a nonpartisan issue."
Sheldon will be entering a different political environment. The Illinois Legislature is two-thirds Democratic, unlike Florida, which is overwhelmingly Republican. He'll oversee an agency with a $1 billion budget and 3,000 employees, or about a third of the size of Florida's DCF.
Sheldon said he's not sure if he'll live in Springfield, the capital, or in Chicago, where the bulk of his agency staffers will be. In the short term, he'll live at an extended stay in Springfield.
"It will be a challenge as the attorney general job would have been," Sheldon said. "Both jobs are similar. It's about trying to get people on the same page."