Lawmakers to revisit law to help protect kids
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
"Abysmal" casework on a Miami girl prompts the expansion of a special session to address abuse files.
TALLAHASSEE -- For months, lawmakers struggled over how to handle child protection workers who falsified abuse records. But they ended their March legislative session without a law.
Now, embarrassed that a 5-year-old Miami girl under state care was missing more than a year before anyone noticed, lawmakers will consider making it a crime to tamper with child abuse records.
Gov. Jeb Bush, describing himself as "brokenhearted for this child," announced Wednesday evening that lawmakers have agreed to expand their current special session to deal with the problem.
"The casework (on the missing Miami girl), there is no doubt, was abysmal," Department of Children and Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney said following a meeting with Bush. "For that I take full responsibility."
The child, Rilya Wilson, should have been monitored monthly by child welfare agents. She was reported missing last Thursday, more than a year after she was last seen.
Her grandmother, who was caring for the girl and two siblings, said someone claiming to be a Florida Department of Children and Families representative took the girl in late 2000 or early 2001, saying she needed a neurological evaluation.
The girl was never returned. The grandmother, Geralyn Graham, who police say is not a suspect, thought Rilya was still with DCF.
State officials in Miami said they never learned about the girl's disappearance because her caseworker falsified paperwork, claiming to make visits to the grandmother's home when she had not. The caseworker, who no longer works for the agency, has denied any wrongdoing.
Rilya Wilson's description matched that of a beheaded girl found in Kansas City, Mo., but police there said Wednesday that handprints from the two did not match. But authorities said they want to compare a DNA sample from the dead girl with one from Rilya's mother in Ohio before completely discounting the possibility that the dead child is not Rilya.
In other developments Wednesday:
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said her office would investigate the foulup.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, who was handling Rilya's case, called a hearing for Monday to consider holding the agency in contempt for failing to complete proper paperwork and make proper reports.
DCF administrators in Miami gave supervisors 16 days to confirm the whereabouts of every child in state care.
This isn't the first time the state has become aware of recordkeeping problems at the DCF.
After reading newspaper accounts, including those in the St. Petersburg Times, of missing and altered records, House members passed a bill this spring that would have made it a misdemeanor to alter such records. If those alterations resulted in serious harm or death to a child, the infraction would become a third-degree felony.
But the bill, which the Legislature will again take up, never passed the Senate.
Rep. Sandy Murman, the Tampa Republican who has pushed for the measure, said she's determined to see the bill become law.
"It's so simple," she told Bush, who visited her in her office Wednesday afternoon to tell her he wanted to expand the special session lawmakers began this week to pass a budget, update education laws and handle a handful of other matters.
During the regular legislative session this spring, the Times reported that a task force hired to help the state reduce a huge backlog of child abuse cases discovered hundreds of documents missing from state files in a Central Florida county, according to former task force employees.
Task force workers say they received hundreds of files in Lake County that contained no more than sketchy initial abuse reports. They said many files were missing records. And an internal DCF audit last year indicates that task force officials complained that DCF was endangering children by failing to aggressively investigate its own cases.
Those news accounts, as well as a grand jury report, are cited in the staff analysis that accompanied the bill. And House Speaker Tom Feeney appointed a special committee to review the problems. That committee meets today.
With Murman at his side, Feeney said he wanted to grant companies that help provide protective services some form of immunity in exchange for their honest accounting of what is going wrong in DCF. Too many companies are afraid of retribution from the state if they report problems, he said.
Bush said he has discussed that concern with Feeney.
"I told him to give me names" and he'd listen to what the companies have to say, Bush said.
-- Information from the Associated Press and the Miami Herald was included in this report.
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