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Ex-Illinois DCFS boss George Sheldon dies in Florida at 71

George Sheldon, former director of the Illinois DCFS, answers questions before the Senate Appropriations Committee in Springfield in May 2017. | Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — George Sheldon, the former head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services who resigned last year during an ethics investigation, died Thursday in Florida at age 71, according to his family.

Sheldon died at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach following post-operative complications due to a neck injury he sustained while exercising, his family said in a statement.

Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Sheldon to lead the state’s embattled child welfare agency in February 2015, becoming its fifth director in less than a year and a half, and he faced intense scrutiny following the April 2017 death of Semaj Crosby. DCFS workers had visited the Joliet Township toddler a few hours before she disappeared, and she later was found dead under a couch.

RELATED: One year later, still no arrests in death of toddler Semaj Crosby

The controversial case rocked DCFS, which released a report detailing the agency’s previous interactions with the family and laid bare its own shortcomings, listing several ways the agency sought to improve after its handling of the case.

Shortly after, Sheldon resigned to accept a job in his home state of Florida at the Miami nonprofit Our Kids, though he said the litany of media reports on Semaj’s death didn’t factor into his exit.

“Obviously I have very mixed emotions,” Sheldon told the Sun-Times after submitting his resignation letter in May 2017. “The hardest part of my decision was leaving a job unfinished, and quite frankly the recent events behind child deaths really were the things pushing me to stay.”

“But clearly mistakes were made,” he said. “No matter how good we get, we can’t save every dysfunctional family . . . You come to that point where you say I’ve done everything I can do. There are other folks who can carry it on.”

Sheldon said later that he had “no reservations about the work we did in Illinois.”

While he was adroit at obtaining federal funds and creating opportunities for foster children there, his resignation also came amid an ethics investigation into mismanagement and contracts that benefited some of his Florida associates. Sheldon called the Illinois inspectors’ report “balanced and fair,” saying “I have no regrets.”

Sheldon had previously served in Florida as deputy attorney general, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, and as a 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.

“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, Crist said.

“It was all because of his heart and how much he cared for people,” Crist said.

Contributing: Associated Press