FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Longtime public servant George H. Sheldon, who served at the helm of child welfare agencies in Florida and Illinois and also with the federal government in Washington, died Thursday, family members said. He was 71.
According to a statement from his family, Sheldon died at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach on Thursday following post-operative complications due to a neck injury he sustained while exercising. He was surrounded by family and friends.
Sheldon's storied career in Florida includes time as Deputy Attorney General, Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families and member of the state House of Representatives. He also spent two years serving as Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As the head of Florida's child welfare agency, he brought compassion and much-needed transparency to an often-troubled department, gaining the respect of many.
"He was truly a selfless man," said former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who appointed Sheldon to lead the embattled child welfare agency in 2008. "Secretary Sheldon cared deeply about children and was a wonderful public servant and will be dearly missed."
It was Sheldon's idea to mobilize when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. He oversaw evacuations, medical care and adoptions for hundreds.
"It was all because of his heart and how much he cared for people," Crist said.
But Sheldon's time leading Illinois' Department of Children and Family Services was arduous. While he was adroit at obtaining federal funds and creating opportunities for foster children there, he resigned in 2017 amid an ethics investigation into mismanagement and contracts that benefited some of his Florida associates.
He also faced criticism over the death of a toddler whose home had recently been visited by agency investigators.
Sheldon resigned to accept a position in his home state at the Miami nonprofit Our Kids.
He said later that despite some missteps while running the Illinois agency, he had "no reservations about the work we did in Illinois."
"You have to sit down and wonder how many children, how many seniors, how many victims of civil rights violation and homeless families and others were helped by his efforts," said former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat. "He had a positive effect on thousands of people's lives."