On a warm recent Saturday, George Sheldon is in a conference room with doctors and nurses from Miami Children's Hospital who are treating injured children from Haiti's killer quake.
One nurse is angry. Federal immigration authorities, she says, want to send two cousins to separate foster homes when they're well enough to be moved.
The two girls have only each other. Separating them, the nurses complain, would be cruel.
Sheldon — who heads Florida's oft-criticized child-welfare agency — pledges to keep the girls together.
"Rules are not designed to screw things up, and, if they do screw things up, they're not good rules," said Sheldon, the secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
For an agency that for years had trouble accounting for its own children, the relocation of thousands of Haitians to hospital beds and youth shelters in Florida is the biggest test of Sheldon's tenure — and one of the biggest challenges in agency history.
"You know," he said, "we've never been here before."
The agency has endured decades of wrenching scandals in which the worst failures left children dead. Now, the DCF — like its leader — is emerging from the shadows.
Just as Sheldon, 62, is defining himself after more than a decade as understudy for the well-respected Bob Butterworth, the DCF is shaking its reputation as a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy that failed at its core mission: protecting children.
Even the agency's longtime critics are now calling the DCF one of the better agencies in state government.
Sheldon inherited problems, said the Florida Children's Campaign director Roy Miller. "When you inherit problems and you don't do anything about them, when you cover them up, when you misrepresent — that's when we, as a watchdog group, bark."
"That's not the case with George Sheldon," Miller added.
Said state Sen. Nan Rich, a Sunrise Democrat who is vice chairwoman of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee: "He's doing a wonderful job under the most difficult circumstances. He's had to oversee significant budget reductions, and he's weathering them extremely well. He engenders confidence in people, in his staff, in legislators."
Last month, when the 7.0-magnitude earthquake flattened Haiti's capital, the DCF and Sheldon were asked to do what no social service agency had done before. The department was tasked with ensuring the swift repatriation of more than 23,630 American citizens living in Haiti.
In a month of round-the-clock shifts, the DCF met 1,056 flights of returning Americans, sheltered and processed 720 Haitian orphans destined for adoptive families and helped oversee medical care for 628 medical evacuees. Meantime, the agency is expected to distribute $26 million in assistance.
Workers also handed out 3,500 teddy bears.
"When these kids get off of flights, it's amazing when you put a teddy bear in their hands, they change from desperation to hope," Sheldon said.
Rich credits Sheldon with helping persuade federal authorities to shoulder the cost of medical care and other social services for both Haitian-Americans and Haitian nationals devastated by the quake. "He wasn't going to stop until we got the federal government to help," she said.
The crisis in Haiti has been a crucible for Sheldon, who took over the DCF in July 2008 from his longtime confidant, Butterworth.
"Three weeks ago, I didn't know what 'humanitarian parole' was. I didn't know what the National Disaster Medical System was," Sheldon said as he drove from the His House youth shelter in Miami Gardens to Miami Children's Hospital and later Jackson Memorial.
In a cramped patient room at Jackson, Sheldon kneeled beside 39-year-old ''Darling" Jean Chry, who was forced to leave his 3-, 10- and 14-year-old children behind in Haiti when he was crushed under the rubble of his home.
"I have a wife and kids in Haiti. I have a family," Jean Chry said through a Creole translator. "I don't hear from them. I don't know if they are alive or not."
"Let us see if we can help connect you with your family," Sheldon said, as he instructed an aide to follow up on the request. "No guarantee. But we will try."
In some ways, Sheldon's life story has prepared him to lead an agency that cares for the poor and helpless: The son of a school lunchroom worker and a career military man, he was the first in his family to go to college.
George Henry Sheldon was born in New Jersey, the last of six children.
"We were not well off," Sheldon said. "Today you would call it 'poor.' "
His early school years were spent in New Jersey's integrated schools. Then his family moved to Plant City, where the young George was confronted by "this civil war" of segregation vs. integration.
By the time he was a junior in high school, he counted John F. Kennedy as his hero and he was fighting for integration at his church.
At a church board meeting, he pushed his elder Congregationalists to allow blacks to be seated if they came in to worship.
"I've never been at a more non-Christian event as that meeting," Sheldon recalled.
''But it passed. That period probably had as profound an effect on me as anything. Here, I had grown up believing what they taught me in Sunday school: 'Red and yellow, black and white, Jesus loves all the little children of the world.' So I thought, if you don't really believe it, why are you teaching me that?"
By the time he got to the Florida Legislature, he was a Democrat among a majority of Democrats, which made the job a little easier. What made it harder was that he also was attending law school at Florida State University. His mentor at the time, Gov. Reubin Askew, had told him to be a lawyer, instead of becoming "another political hack."
Sheldon served from 1974 to 1982 in the state House. He ran for a freshly drawn congressional seat and lost by 1 percentage point. He never won another race.
Sheldon's life after elected office has not been without irony: He was appointed to the DCF's top job by a governor, Charlie Crist, who beat him in his first statewide race, for education commissioner in 2000.
A passionate liberal Democrat, he owes his public service comeback to Crist, one of the state's most popular Republicans.
"I think government is nothing more than making the trains run on time," Sheldon said. "That's what people are looking for.
"Ideological issues really consume 5 or 10 percent of your time in government. They consume 90 percent of your time in campaigning, but 5 percent of your time in government. I really believe that."