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Child-welfare gency to change the way it operates

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

MIAMI -- Child-welfare officials agreed Monday to begin implementing dozens of recommendations made by a special review panel examining the case of a 5-year-old girl who disappeared for more than a year before authorities noticed.

"None of us felt the department was doing yet enough to make the possibilities of tragedy as slim as humanly possible," the panel said in a 26-page draft report released Sunday.

The report will be handed to the governor Tuesday in Miami.

The four-member Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to investigate the disappearance of Rilya Wilson while under the care of the Department of Children & Families.

The case has led to widespread criticism of welfare officials and has become a difficult issue for Bush, who is seeking re-election and promised to fix the agency during his campaign four years ago.

"The system failed that little girl long before she was born," said panel member Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin.

The panel blamed the girl's disappearance on the "in-the-trenches malfeasance" by the girl's case worker Deborah Muskelly -- who filed a court report in August indicating she had visited the girl -- Muskelly's supervisor and the girl's caregiver.

Muskelly had been fired twice by the department before being rehired and assigned to Rilya's case, the panel noted Monday.

"These two employees, especially the caseworker, thwarted long-established policies and mechanisms -- built from lessons learned from previous tragedies involving children -- designed to prevent exactly what these two allowed to happen," the panel said in its report.

The draft report listed 19 short-term priority recommendations and 10 long-term objectives, and panel members added to them during a five-hour meeting Monday focusing on an agency it said was "engulfed in scandal."

Recommendations made

Recommendations include conducting criminal background checks on the 62,000 existing foster parents; photographing children every three months and having them come to court every six months; and ensuring caseworkers visit each of the 44,000 children in state care once a month so law enforcement can be notified immediately if a child is missing.

The panel demanded most of the changes be enacted in less than six months.

Department Secretary Kathleen Kearney, who has called the girl's disappearance an "isolated incident," said Monday that the deadlines would be met.

"They make good sense," she said of the recommendations. "They are practical and realistic."

The panel also listed priorities for the Florida Legislature, which included increasing pay for the agency workers and providing money for full criminal background checks.

The agency is trying to run criminal checks on new foster parents but lacks the funds to do full checks on all now in the system.

If authorities had run a national criminal records check on Geralyn Graham, Rilya's caretaker, she may have been excluded because of a Tennessee food-stamp fraud conviction, the panel noted. Geralyn claims to be Rilya's grandmother but was sometimes described by caseworkers as a non-relative entrusted to care for the child.

Rilya was an infant when she was taken by the state from her homeless, crack-addicted mother and placed in Graham's home in April 2000.

Graham filed for food stamps on behalf of Rilya as recently as March. But Graham now says Rilya was taken from her home in January 2001 by someone claiming to be a Department worker. The agency says it didn't learn of the disappearance until this spring.

Muskelly and her supervisor, Willie Harris, quit in March under pressure in an unrelated case.

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