With spotlight on Semaj’s death, DCFS director resigns

Director George Sheldon left the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services for a job at a Florida nonprofit agency. | Sun-Times file photo

SPRINGFIELD — With his agency facing a crisis, George Sheldon on Wednesday resigned as Gov. Bruce Rauner’s head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

His exit came as DCFS remains under fire over the Semaj Crosby tragedy.

After weeks of mulling his future, Sheldon accepted a job at a nonprofit child-welfare organization in his home state of Florida.

“Obviously I have very mixed emotions,” Sheldon told the Chicago Sun-Times after submitting his resignation letter. “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 Sheldon insisted the litany of media reports about Semaj’s death had nothing to do with his exit.

“That’s the danger of being in the public arena,” he said of the possible misperception.

“But clearly mistakes were made,” he added, noting that in Semaj’s case the mistakes appear to be systemic.

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

Rauner will appoint DCFS general counsel Lise Spacapan as interim director and begin a national search for a full-time replacement.

Earlier this month, Sheldon had revealed that he was considering the offer he eventually accepted, to be CEO of Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe Inc. in Florida.

Sheldon not only has been facing scrutiny from lawmakers and the public but also from two state agencies whose mission is to root out problems within DCFS and state government, respectively.

DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane said earlier this month that her office and the Office of the Illinois Executive Inspector General have opened a joint investigation into some of the agency’s actions under Sheldon.

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Last week, Sheldon conceded major problems with the handling of the case of Semaj, the Joliet toddler found dead in her home in April. But Sheldon said that based on what he saw and reviewed, neither the toddler nor her siblings should have been removed from the home.

DCFS also released a 22-page report on the family’s history. The agency opened 11 child endangerment investigations into the family in the year before the toddler was found dead under a couch in Joliet Township last month. Most were ruled unfounded based on a lack of evidence or remain pending still.

Semaj lived in the 864-square-foot home in the 300 block of Louis Road with her mother, three siblings, paternal grandmother, paternal aunt, her two young children and her parolee boyfriend. Gordon’s Section 8 housing voucher was allotted for only her and her children, Joliet housing officials previously said.

The Will County sheriff’s office said the home was in “very deplorable” condition when the child was found on April 27. Semaj was found dead under a couch in the house about midnight April 26. The day before, DCFS had been at the home investigating a child-neglect allegation but saw “no obvious hazards or safety concerns” for Semaj or siblings, state officials said. Semaj, her three siblings and mother all slept in the same bedroom.

Semaj Crosby’s body was found in her Joliet Township home about a day after she was reported missing. | Will County sheriff’s office

About two-and-a-half hours after the visit from DCFS, the toddler disappeared, prompting a massive search of the subdivision near Joliet.

A top police official said the house was in “very deplorable” condition, adding that a lawyer for the girl’s mother made them get a search warrant before they entered it and found the girl. Less than two weeks after Semaj was found dead, the house burned to the ground. Authorities said arson was “most likely” the cause.

Sheldon was appointed to his position by Gov. Bruce Rauner in February 2015.

He ran Florida’s Department of Children and Families from 2008 through 2011. From 2011 to 2013 under then-President Barack Obama, he was acting assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ agency for Children and Families.

He ran an unsuccessful campaign for Florida’s attorney general in 2014, losing to Republican incumbent Pam Bondi.

Sheldon’s appointment came after a period of extreme turmoil in the Illinois agency. In January 2015, Director Bobbie Gregg announced she would leave the post, and Sheldon became the fifth DCFS director in less than a year and a half.

Though Kane earlier this month would not disclose specifics of the joint investigation, she said that in addition to that probe, there are “several other investigations into other matters.” Those inquiries, she said, have been “submitted but they’re still pending.”

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