Child Welfare Experts Weigh In On What To Look For In Next DCFS Chief | WBEZ
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Child Welfare Experts Weigh In On What To Look For In Next DCFS Chief

Experts are weighing in on what the governor should look for when picking the next director for Illinois’ child welfare agency. George Sheldon resigned last week, after two years leading the state's Department of Children and Family ServicesSheldon’s resignation comes amidst an outcry over the death of a DCFS-involved toddler in Joliet Township.

Gov. Bruce Rauner defended his outgoing director. Rauner said Sheldon tried to fix the quote “broken bureaucracy.”

“I believe he did everything he could,” Rauner said. “I did not force him out or ask him to leave. He took another position. He was extremely frustrated trying to make changes.”

Former DCFS Director Jess McDonald said any failures lay at Rauner’s feet.

“I think sometimes governors wonder, ‘Why is this agency always in trouble? … We have so many other pressures, we can’t just take care of child welfare.’ Well the fact of the matter is, it’s the only place where you act as parent,” McDonald said. 

McDonald headed the child welfare agency from 1994 to 2003. When WBEZ asked McDonald what qualities the governor should look for in Sheldon’s replacement, McDonald sent a 10-point list.

“I left walking on water off the list,” McDonald joked.

One thing that was on his list? A leader who understands that staff in the field have zero room for error. 

“Would you fly an airline that announces, ‘We land safely most of the time?’’” he asked. “It’s the same thing here.” 

McDonald said when mistakes are made about children who might be abused or neglected, kids can die or families can be unjustly torn apart. 

McDonald also said the next director needs to be someone with child-welfare experience, who knows the job of on-the-ground staff, and is also able to push the governor when the department needs more resources. 

McDonald and Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris both agreed that one of Sheldon’s greatest strengths was finding funding from sources outside the troubled state government, mostly from federal sources. 

Harris is in charge of legal representation for Cook County’s abused and neglected kids. He said for his clients, Sheldon’s two year tenure has been a mixed bag. He said Sheldon had strengths, but the state agency was “too numbers focused.”

“We’re not geared toward...making healthy children and healthy families.”

Still, Harris said, Sheldon’s resignation is bad for the state’s children.

Including interim leaders, DCFS is on its seventh director in four years.

“It’s a horrible thing you know because new directors come in and they have so many different ideas, its tumultuous for the system,” Harris said.

He said Rauner should look for a director who will provide long term stability.

Harris said the next pick to lead the embattled child welfare agency needs to pledge to stay on for at least five years.

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