As head of the Florida Department of Children and Families, George Sheldon is responsible for ensuring that the states children are raised in healthy, loving homes, and guaranteeing that families living in poverty get a chance to put food on the table.
The former state representative has been working for the past three years to improve the departments image and performance as it continues to face hurdles and complaints about the way it operates.
Add to that the new responsibility of chairing a subsection of Gov. Charlie Crists Gulf Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force that is seeking ways to quicken and improve the BP claims process for businesses and individuals, and you have a man whose time is in high demand.
Sheldon, who met with the task force in Pensacola Wednesday, took some time from his crowded schedule to speak with Sunshine State News about his career and life.
What is your profession? Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families
What is your age? 63
Where were you born and where do you live now? I was born in Wildwood, New Jersey, lived there until I was 7, then moved to Plant City, Fla., and grew up there. And now I live in Golden Eagle Golf and Country Club in Tallahassee.
Where did you go to college? American University, Florida Southern College and Florida State University. I got a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1969 and a law degree in 1978. Both from FSU.
What did you do before this job? In 1999, I began as deputy attorney general under former state Attorney General Bob Butterworth. Butterworth became secretary of DCF in 2007, when Gov. Crist came into office, and he worked here for 18 months. I was his assistant secretary of operations, and I became secretary after he left. [In September 2008.]
What has been your biggest success in this department? I think one of the biggest things that we do is transparency, which is really recognizing the value of our employees. Theres a lot of good work done in this agency and recognizing the value of our employees, respecting them, led to everything else.
We went from one of the worst Food Stamp error rates in the country to the best. Weve got a bonus award from the federal government for the last three years: $5 million three years ago; $7 million and change last year, and $11.5 million this year. And that $11.5 million is the largest ever in the history of the award program. Its a pretty big deal.
In addition to that, in the last the 3.5 years, weve safely reduced [the number of] children in state care by 37 percent. There were 29,000 children in our home care 3.5 years ago, and now there are 18,000. Weve had the largest number of adoptions ever, to the point that we got a $9.7 million bonus from the federal government. Again, the largest ever. Weve had 13,000 children over the last three years adopted out of foster care; 16,000 children have gone into permanent guardianships.
What has been the biggest disappointment in your career? If I have any regrets, I dont think we have sufficiently integrated mental health and substance abuse.
I think part of it is a legislative failure, a failure to make a commitment to front-end services for mental health and substance abuse. Secondly, this department has always kind of operated in silos, and we have done a lot to break that down. Were now doing child-welfare training for domestic violence folks. Im beginning the process of integrating mental-health welfare and substance abuse training into the job welfare arena, but I still think weve got a long way to go to effectively make that integration.
Youve been put in charge of suggesting ways to improve the BP claims process. What are your priorities about how to improve it?
Theres now this transition from BP doing business claims to the $20 billion independent escrow fund, and independent claims process and federal government doing it. Rather than BPs going to stop and the funds going to take over, theres going to be a slow transition
Some of the things that were going to continue to press BP and the federal government about is theres not sufficient outreach and education. Its not enough just to have an 800 number. The individual claims process is probably working fairly smoothly, but business and large claims? Even BP is saying this aint working.
Why does it take 24 to 48 hours to get a claims number? Weve got to make this a lot more customer-friendly. Folks in the Panhandle and Louisiana and Alabama are scared to death. Theyre not just feeling theyre losing their livelihood, they feel theyre losing their way of life.
Who gave you the best advice about how to do your job at the department? Probably the governor. It sounds simple, and he said it to me repeatedly: George, just do the right thing.
Who do you most admire, dead or alive? I was weaned on John F. Kennedy because I think he had the essence of leadership style. I remember growing up worrying he would solve all the problems before I grew up.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time? What free time? I haven't been doing well at it, but I enjoy the gym. I used to bike a lot. I've got to get back to that. I'm an outdoors type of guy. I used to have four horses, and we used to do every summer a four-day overnight horseback ride through the Rockies.
What is your most embarassing moment in the capital? I used to work out at 5:30 in the morning. I had this routine: put on my shorts, go out and get the newspaper, make a cup of coffee, finish reading the newspaper and get to the gym. This one morning, I got to the gym, and I had on my T-shirt, my tennis shoes, my socks, and I forgot to put my shorts on.