Florida's Little Girl Lost

  • How do you lose a chubby-cheeked and fidgety 5-year-old and not notice she's gone? For most parents, 15 minutes out of sight would be enough time to worry. For the state of Florida, it took 15 months.

    A foster child removed from her drug-addicted mother's custody, Rilya Wilson was supposed to be living in Miami with Geralyn Graham, who says she is Rilya's grandmother. But Rilya's mother, Gloria Wilson, told reporters that Graham was Rilya's "godmother." While in Graham's care, the child should have received monthly visits from caseworkers at Florida's Department of Children and Families. But on April 25, DCF and Graham say, they discovered the girl is missing. Each thought the other had custody of Rilya, and neither had seen her since January 2001, when, Graham says, someone claiming to be a DCF worker took the 5-year-old from her home. Graham told police she contacted Rilya's DCF caseworker several times after that and was reassured that Rilya would eventually return. The girl's caseworker resigned in March, amid accusations she had falsified visitation reports in other cases; when DCF began to examine the worker's old paperwork, it contacted Graham and realized the child had vanished.

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    DCF is supposed to conduct background checks on foster parents. But the Miami Herald reported that the agency placed Rilya with Graham despite the woman's convictions for grand theft and fraud, her use of 20 aliases, and a medical diagnosis that she suffers from "a psychotic syndrome." Her attorney explained that Graham experienced memory loss after a 1996 accident but now is "well adjusted."

    Whether Rilya was kidnapped, murdered or simply lost in the shuffle of a system responsible for 32,000 children, her story is just the latest in the depressing saga of foster care in Florida. The Florida legislature requires DCF to remove children from their homes at the slightest suspicion of abuse or neglect. But critics say the new vigilance has flooded Florida's already overburdened system with children. And nearly half of DCF workers have less than two years' experience. "There is no place in the country where it is worse to be a foster child than Florida," says Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

    In 1998 a 6-year-old Florida girl named Kayla McKean was beaten to death by her father after child-protection workers failed to remove her, despite signs of abuse. The case led to the Kayla McKean Child Protection Act in 1999, which toughened mandatory reporting laws and required DCF workers to follow up on every abuse allegation, including the hundreds of thousands of calls that come in annually to its tip line. An ambitious new DCF secretary, Kathleen Kearney, reopened old cases to look for signs of abuse. The agency got a 27% increase in child-protection funding. Within months the number of children in foster care in Florida shot up 38%.

    The push to whisk children from dangerous homes is predicated on the idea that foster care is safer. Yet in the past two years, more than 60 children have died in DCF's care, and nearly 400 are unaccounted for, like Rilya. Florida has also run out of willing and able foster parents. So child advocates and others have begun to protest. In April 2000, Kayla McKean's grandfather told a Florida newspaper, "Florida has a state-sponsored child-abuse system...and I don't want my family's name associated with that." Kayla's name was removed from the law, and it was scaled back, restoring some discretion to caseworkers. A lawsuit claiming that 22 foster children in Florida were at the same or greater risk under state care as they were with their families because they suffered abuse in foster and group homes was thrown out by a judge in December but drew national publicity to the state's woes.

    Now the spotlight of Rilya's story may lead to yet another overhaul of Florida's child-protection system: Governor Jeb Bush is pushing a bill that would make the failure to report a missing child a felony. It's unlikely, though, that that would have helped Rilya, whose disappearance has stumped police. Investigators say one of their best leads is a murdered child discovered in April 2001 in Kansas City, Mo., and they are awaiting DNA evidence to see whether Rilya has been found at last.