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May 1, 2002

Miami 5-Year-Old Missing for Year Before Fact Noted

By DANA CANEDY, New York Times

MIAMI, May 1 — State and local officials are looking for a 5-year-old girl who was supposed to be in state custody but who no one noticed until last week had been missing for more than a year.

The girl, Rilya Wilson, chubby and bright-eyed, was supposed to be under monthly supervision by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Somehow, the agency and her grandmother lost track of the girl for 15 months. They realized she was missing only when a caseworker tried to check on the girl last week and did not find her at the grandmother's house.

The agency and the grandmother apparently each thought the other had custody of Rilya, so no one went looking for the girl, who was 4 when she disappeared.

"Apparently the department went to do a follow-up with the grandmother, and the grandmother basically told them: `Well, I don't have her. You guys took her from me a year ago,' " said Detective Lupo Jimenez of the Miami-Dade Police Department. "That's when we were notified. They have no idea where this child is. I've never seen this before."

The police and state investigators released the girl's picture and information about her disappearance on Monday in hopes of generating tips through the local news media, but a day later they said they had not a single lead in the case. Late Tuesday night, however, the Miami-Dade police e-mailed a copy of Rilya's fingerprints to the police in Kansas City, Mo., to compare with those of a young girl who was found dead there last year.

"We are just trying to cover every base," Detective Joey Giordano said.

The Kansas City police announced today that the fingerprints did not match.

The Florida agency charged with Rilya's care said that both of her parents had been stripped of parental rights and had not been involved in her care since she was an infant. Their whereabouts are unknown, the agency and the police said.

The officials declined to release the name of the grandmother.

The girl was last seen in January 2001, when someone the grandmother thought was a representative of the Department of Children and Families appeared at her Miami home and took the child, saying that Rilya needed to undergo psychological and neurological testing, the agency and the police said.

A few days later, a second woman went to the grandmother's house, to retrieve some of the girl's clothes and to say that Rilya would remain in state custody for testing. Weeks later, a third person, this time a man, appeared at the home to inquire about two of Rilya's siblings, who remain in the grandmother's care.

Department of Children and Families officials say that they have no record of any of those visits and that the girl's caseworker had not approved her removal from the grandmother's home.

Charles Auslander, district administrator for the Department of Children and Families in Miami, said, "One of the requirements is that a counselor have a face-to-face visit with the child at least once per month, and I did not know that that was not going on." He added, "I would have hoped that we would have discovered this much sooner, but we didn't."

Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children, a child advocacy group in Tallahassee, said the agency's handling of the case was deplorable.

"I'm shocked by the apparent insufficiency of being able to track the whereabouts of a child who was assumed to be under the watchful eye of our child protection system," Mr. Levine said. "Those eyes that should have been watching were closed."

The police said Rilya's grandmother had told the police that she called the state agency for several months and stopped by its district office in Miami to inquire about the girl. Detective Jimenez said he was unsure what agency employees had told the grandmother, but the agency said it had no record of inquiries.

Detective Jimenez said the police did have evidence that the grandmother tried to contact the agency but declined to say if they had phone records, reports or other information to verify the grandmother's account.

The Miami-Dade police and the Department of Children and Families say they do not consider the grandmother a suspect.

"She's just as confused as we are," Detective Jimenez said. "I know she has made several attempts to follow up on the case."

The Department of Children and Families said it had no reason to doubt the grandmother's account of the inquiries and acknowledged that the agency's own records on the girl were inaccurate. An internal investigation has determined that the counselor assigned to the case had been filing false reports of monthly visits with the girl that never took place, Mr. Auslander said.

"In this circumstance we had a counselor who apparently was not doing her job at all and we also had a supervisor who was supposed to review each case file of each counselor in his unit a minimum of every three months, and that did not take place either," Mr. Auslander said. "We have data systems and quality assurance audits, but they cannot cover every case," he said.

He added that he considered himself ultimately responsible for the girl's disappearance.

The counselor, Deborah Muskelly, and her supervisor, Willie Harris, both resigned under pressure last month for what the agency said was mishandling of another case. Ms. Muskelly did not return calls left at her home and on her cell phone. Mr. Harris could not be reached.

Mr. Auslander said the grandmother was reviewing several thousand photographs of past and present agency employees to try to determine if anyone representing the state may have taken the girl.

Rilya was taken into state custody as an infant because her mother was addicted to drugs and the agency could not find her father, Mr. Auslander said. The girl was initially placed in the temporary care of an unrelated guardian but was placed with the grandmother in late 1999 or early 2000, he said.

The police say they are unsure whether the girl was simply taken by a stranger and handed over to her mother or another relative or whether she was the victim of foul play.

"We're just hoping this child is just lost in the system," said Detective Giordano.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Privacy Information

Posted on Sat, May. 04, 2002

Governor sharpens tone in case of missing girl

TALLAHASSEE - As criticism intensifies over his administration's handling of the Rilya Wilson case, Gov. Jeb Bush on Friday made his most pointed comments yet regarding possible repercussions for the state's child welfare agency.

''My prayer and hope is that it's an isolated case, not a systemic problem, but we will take corrective action if it is systemic,'' the governor told reporters.

Bush met privately again Friday with Department of Children and Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney to learn more about how the girl could have been lost since January 2001, and why the agency's files appear to be incomplete.

Bush refused to elaborate on what type of action he might take but said he continued to have confidence in Kearney, the former Broward circuit judge he named in 1999 with great hopes of reforming the troubled agency.

''She takes this personally, as she should,'' Bush said. ``This is not an easy issue. It's tough being secretary of the Department of Children and Families. It's more fun to be on the economic policy side of the world when you're trying to bring business. She's dealing with the hollowness of the heart.''

Also Friday, one key Republican who heads a state House committee reviewing the DCF said she will ask other lawmakers to create a special investigative branch to look into the Rilya Wilson case.

''We're very skeptical of the information we've gotten,'' said Rep. Sandra Murman, the Tampa Republican who heads the House panel and is the chamber's lead negotiator on setting DCF's budget.

Murman was vague but said she and some senators were discussing devoting some money in the 2002-03 budget to an auditing arm of some kind.

The state House on Friday gave unanimous approval to a measure that would make it a crime for state welfare caseworkers to falsify documents, which is one of the allegations made against the caseworker who was responsible for Rilya.

The measure covers employees of the Department of Children and Families as well as agencies that contract with the DCF to handle child and elderly abuse cases.

Under the bill, a person who intentionally falsifies, destroys or discards records could face up to five years in prison.

© 2001 miamiherald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Posted on Sun, May. 05, 2002

Agency waited 6 days to tell police of Rilya
E-mails show search for girl, workers' fears

Child welfare administrators knew at least as early as April 19 that a 5-year-old child entrusted to their care was missing, and had been gone from her grandmother's house for 15 months, according to internal e-mails obtained by The Herald.

For close to a week before notifying police, they used an internal agency procedure for locating parents to find Rilya Wilson.

The day before officials from the Department of Children & Families told police and a judge they had somehow lost Rilya, Miami's highest administrator wrote in an ''urgent'' e-mail to Tallahassee: ``This one scares me.''

Then, on April 25, a high-ranking administrator in Tallahassee wrote Miami district chief Charles Auslander: ``When are you going to notify law enforcement that the child is missing?''

DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney was not told of the ''serious matter regarding a missing child'' until the same day, e-mails show. An administrator wrote the next day: ``The Secretary may become involved after 3:30 p.m.''

Rilya disappeared in January 2001 from the home of Geralyn Graham, who says she's the child's grandmother. Graham says a woman who claimed to be a DCF worker took Rilya; the agency doesn't know where she is.

The DCF's failure to alert either police or the judge overseeing Rilya's case that she was missing for six days is symptomatic of a broader problem that has persisted within the agency for years.

The department's own rules require it to notify both the Missing Children Information Clearing House of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children within three working days. That was not done in Rilya's case, the e-mails show. And a 2000 DCF study in Broward County shows the requirement was routinely ignored.

The e-mails, which take on an increasingly pressing tone as officials fail to find the child, show an agency concerned with how it will appear in newspapers and on television. The only e-mails provided to The Herald from Kearney's desk are two dispatches from Auslander -- one on April 28 seeking ''guidance'' on managing the media onslaught that was expected to follow the police decision to announce Rilya was missing, and the other the following day describing the press inquiries.

LaNedra Carroll, the DCF's chief spokeswoman who left Tallahassee Friday for Miami, said Saturday that workers waited six days to call police because they believed they could locate Rilya themselves -- within their own foster care system.


''They systematically looked for the child as soon as they learned she was not where she was supposed to be,'' Carroll said. ``From what we are seeing, people are trying to locate the child. There are many reasons a child could be out of place, that do not necessarily lead to tragic circumstances, as in this case.

''It's not as if there was any indication they needed to make a 911 call right away,'' she said. ``They have to try to take the time to figure out what happened to the child.''

Rilya is among 374 children statewide technically in state care whose whereabouts were unknown as of February -- 82 of them in Miami-Dade County and 69 in Broward County. Most are believed to be either runaways or children taken by their biological parents.

Though the department is required to report missing children to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the center's website records only 143 Florida children, not all of them in state care.

As early as August 2000, a DCF runaway specialist in Broward, Ruben Betancourt, wrote a memo saying that workers failed in 73 percent of the 129 runaway cases he studied to follow proper procedure for reporting a missing child. ''This reporting is not being done,'' Betancourt wrote, and underlined, in his memo.

Rilya is first mentioned in DCF e-mail traffic on April 19, in a dispatch from a Miami-Dade child adoptions caseworker, Monica Porrata. Lawyers for the department deleted certain information from the e-mails before giving them to The Herald.

The e-mails show that a foster care or adoptions counselor named Dora Betancourt ''attempted to locate'' Rilya, and was ``informed that the child does not appear in the system.''

Porrata said she was told to ``send Rilya's case [file] back so that they could attempt to locate the child, but I am concerned about this situation. Therefore we went ahead and made some more contacts.''

Graham said she asked for information about the girl, in writing, in January, but was bounced from one DCF employee to another. She remembers talking to Porrata because the adoptions counselor ''was so helpful,'' Graham said. ``She told me she didn't have the case yet.

Around Feb. 1, Graham said, she got a call from Porrata, who said that the case had been transferred to another department and that the girl would be brought back to her shortly. In April, she got a call from a DCF caseworker, who she believes is Dora Betancourt, who told her she was coming to her home later that day. ''She was just as confused as I was, calling around trying to find her,'' Graham said.

An April 22 e-mail from Ada Gonzalez, the department's adoptions program operations administrator in Miami, offered suggestions: try day-care centers if the girl isn't in school, or maybe Rilya is in a psychiatric facility, as Graham had suggested.

Miami administrator Auslander learned of Rilya's disappearance the evening of April 23. ''I am praying,'' he wrote in an April 24 e-mail, that someone related to the family ``took the child and that the grandmother is covering up. This one scares me.''

In a reply, Larry Pintacuda, an administrator in Tallahassee, wrote: ``When are you going to notify law enforcement that the child is missing?''


April 25 was a hectic day for the agency. At 10 a.m., workers sought -- and obtained -- an order from Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman that Rilya be taken into custody by any official who finds her. While they obtained the ''pickup order'' authorizing anyone to pick up a missing child, administrators also notified police.

Dale East, a policy advisor in Tallahassee, wrote to Auslander that day suggesting that an operating procedure the department had employed to find Rilya, designed to guide officials searching for parents, may be inadequate for the task. He recommended, among other things, searching private schools, day-care centers, and mental-health care databases.

The operating procedure the department had been using -- at least according to East -- actually refers to ''diligent searches'' for parents or prospective parents whose ''identity or location are unknown.'' The operating procedure has nothing to do with locating missing children, DCF records show.

Just before 1 p.m. that day, April 25, Auslander told Kearney's assistant he had ''a serious matter regarding a missing child under protective supervision'' At 2 p.m. the administrative assistant, Susan Moss, said Kearney had been briefed on Rilya's case. ''I am confident we will find her and soon,'' Moss wrote.

''Charles, just keep remembering, it can always be worse,'' she wrote.

The next day, at 3:06 p.m., an administrator in Auslander's office wrote: ``The Secretary may become involved after 3:30 p.m.''

On April 28, Auslander told Kearney he wanted ''guidance'' on how to handle the media calls that were sure to follow the Miami-Dade Police Department's release of a missing-person flier on the girl. Can the department's public relations director help? he asked.

The next day, Auslander reported the details of his interviews with The Herald and Channel 39. The newspaper story, he said, would likely run either on The Herald's front page or the front of its local section. It would include ``a full discussion of the shortcomings of the counselor and supervisor, including their breaches of trust.''

Herald staff writer Elaine de Valle contributed to this report.

© 2001 miamiherald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

DCF chief orders new procedures

Less than 24 hours after she flew to Miami to oversee the search for a missing 5-year-old girl, the secretary of the Florida Department of Children & Families announced several immediate measures to improve protection of children in state care.

The steps announced Saturday by Kathleen Kearney require that:

• Within 60 days, child welfare supervisors in the Miami district visit the home of every child in foster care or in the care of a relative. Supervisors generally do not visit children; they oversee caseworkers who do.

• Caregivers -- and some older children -- sign logs to document home visits by DCF caseworkers. The change will begin right away in Miami.

• Measures be studied that would allow the agency to decertify child welfare workers who perform poorly.

''I want people to know kids are safe,'' Kearney said.

Kearney is in Miami to stave off what has become a child protection -- and a public relations -- nightmare: the disappearance for perhaps 16 months of Rilya Wilson, a little girl taken from her then-drug addicted mother for her own protection. Geralyn Graham, who says she's the child's grandmother, has told the agency Rilya was taken from her West Kendall home in January 2001 by a woman identifying herself as a DCF caseworker.

Though DCF officials appeared in court or wrote reports to a Circuit Court judge at least five times on Rilya's status, the department now acknowledges it did not know where Rilya was.

In a hastily called news conference in front of the Miami DCF headquarters on Saturday, Kearney said she has instructed District Administrator Charles Auslander immediately to implement a policy already in use in the Tampa Bay area in which caregivers sign logs to document caseworkers' visits.

''This is a best practice,'' Kearney said, ``and it will be implemented immediately in Miami.''

Kearney also has asked her employment staff to look into changes that allow decertification of poorly performing child-welfare workers. Police officers who are fired for shoddy work can lose their state certification, she said, but child welfare investigators and caseworkers cannot under current law.

Workers stripped of certification can no longer seek employment in the field.

Much of Kearney's criticism has been aimed at Deborah Muskelly, a DCF caseworker who resigned in March after being told she would be fired. An internal audit showed Muskelly had falsified records to reflect she visited children in her caseload, when the visits never took place. These cases did not involve Rilya.

Kearney said Saturday the agency has learned Muskelly may have been working as a substitute teacher in Broward County, while employed as a caseworker. The Herald has reported that Muskelly was working as a night school teacher in Miami-Dade County while employed by the DCF -- though her record does not show she filed a mandatory report on her dual employment.

Both the department and police are investigating whether Muskelly sought reimbursement from the DCF for driving mileage or filed reports of home visits on days she was paid to work as a substitute teacher in Broward. ''It's very important for us, and for law enforcement, to know that,'' Kearney said.

Muskelly could not be reached for comment.

Some of Kearney's concerns Saturday were directed elsewhere. She criticized ''pundits'' and child advocates, who, she says, continually insist that her agency is in turmoil and that children are unsafe. ''These people make a living saying the sky is falling, and the public loses trust and confidence based upon those statements,'' she said.

Administrators are working tirelessly to improve Florida's child protection program, but the state can no more prevent child abuse than police officers can prevent murder, she said.

While in Miami, Kearney's team -- which includes Family Safety Director Mike Watkins, her employment manager and two public relations specialists -- is investigating what can be done to prevent tragedies such as Rilya's disappearance.

''There is no reason to believe these are systemic issues,'' Kearney said. ``But it is too premature to rule that out.''

Herald staff writer Ana Rhodes contributed to this report.

© 2001 miamiherald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.