Just doing her job, she exposes scandal
By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
MIAMI -- As soon as she opened the bulging five-section file on her desk in April, Dora Betancourt knew she had a problem.
In just 17 days, she would have to go before a judge and explain how a 4-year-old girl and her sister were getting along in a private home supervised by the Department of Children and Families.
Rifling through papers in the file, hoping to find detailed information about the children, Betancourt's first thought was, "This is it? Is there another volume?" The file should have contained monthly "client progress notes" about the two girls. But the notes abruptly ended 15 months before.
With this gaping hole, one thing quickly became clear to Betancourt: She needed to visit these girls fast.
Including the girl named Rilya.
Betancourt, a 21-year veteran of the Department of Children and Families, is the state worker who discovered that Rilya Wilson was missing.
Betancourt, 43, is a family services counselor with an annual salary of $32,804. She works in the Kendall office of DCF's Miami-Dade adoptions division.
She spoke with the St. Petersburg Times last week in her first media interview.
Her story is a tale of how one DCF worker doing her job pulled a string that has unraveled the biggest scandal in years in Florida's scandal-prone social services agency. It also reflects the department's lack of oversight over Rilya Wilson and her sister.
"It was the first time in 21 years that I've ever had to go through this," said Betancourt, referring to a child being lost under state supervision. "I've never come across something like this and hopefully never will."
Paperwork was misplaced, addresses were written incorrectly, phone numbers changed. But in her experience, children did not get misplaced.
So far, the mystery uncovered by Betancourt has no solution. A police investigation has failed to find the girl. The investigators' job has been hampered because Rilya apparently disappeared more than a year before police were told she was missing.
After she finished reading the file that Friday afternoon, April 12, Betancourt realized she needed more information on Rilya and her sister. Although news accounts would later focus on possible falsified information in the file, the 15-month gap in case progress notes was what bothered Betancourt.
She didn't want to go before a judge unprepared. So at that moment, her main concern was to meet the girls and their caregivers.
Because the girls had been taken from their mother, a woman who had been homeless and addicted to drugs, Rilya and Rodericka lived in the home of Pamela Graham and her sister Geralyn.
Geralyn Graham has said she is the paternal grandmother of the two girls, although DCF officials now say they are unsure of this. The Grahams were not formally licensed as foster parents. But they acted in a similar capacity by housing, clothing and feeding the girls, with DCF approval and monitoring.
Betancourt called the Graham house that afternoon and again the next week, finally arranging to meet on April 18.
She arrived in late afternoon at the Grahams' townhouse in West Kendall, south of Miami, just as Geralyn Graham pulled into the driveway with a young girl that she soon learned was Rodericka.
Which left Betancourt with a question: "Where's Rilya?"
As Betancourt recounts the story, Graham answered, "I thought you were bringing her."
"What do you mean?" Betancourt said.
They walked into the door of the townhouse. Betancourt didn't fully understand, but she was already starting to realize that she would at least need to make another visit to get ready for her April 29 court date.
Graham said a different DCF counselor had come to her home more than a year earlier, in January 2001, to check into Rilya's "bizarre behavior," Betancourt recalled. Graham said that when Rilya was at home, the 4-year-old girl would roam the house while everyone else slept and go to the bathroom everywhere except in the bathroom.
"What bothered me so much was when she said somebody came and took her and never returned her. I said "Never returned her? You mean a counselor took a child for an evaluation and never returned her? ... So nobody ever called you about where she was at?"'
Graham said no. She said she called DCF officials but "nobody would tell me."
DCF says it has no records of this.
Rodericka was crying and asking for ice cream as Betancourt's mind raced with possible explanations.
She latched onto one: Maybe Rilya wound up in a psychiatric hospital. "I'm picturing the child lying in the hospital bed, with no one coming to see her."
But a hospital likely would have discharged Rilya a few days later -- not have kept her for more than a year, she thought.
She frantically called DCF offices that might know Rilya's location, with no luck.
Meanwhile, Graham called her sister Pamela at work and said: "The worker's here, she didn't bring Rilya, she doesn't even know where she is. Don't cry!"
Before leaving, Betancourt left something for Pamela Graham: adoption applications. That was a big reason for her visit, and for her upcoming hearing before the judge.
Pamela Graham wanted to adopt Rodericka and Rilya.
Betancourt left the house that afternoon upset, her mind reeling. Most of all, "I was thinking of what the child was feeling."
She also thought about her conversations with Graham. It seemed odd that as Betancourt drove up to their townhouse, Graham had not rushed to the car to see Rilya. Graham did not even bring up Rilya's name until Betancourt asked about her, she said.
"She didn't come out and ask me first. And if you're waiting to see a child that you haven't seen in 15 months ..." Betancourt said.
DCF later would be criticized for not calling police immediately to report Rilya as a missing person. Betancourt said she wasn't yet convinced Rilya was missing from state care.
She returned to the office April 19, feeling more optimistic. She "attacked" her supervisor to explain the case and called a slew of government offices, including DCF, schools and Medicaid. From one, she discovered something curious: Graham had applied for government benefits for Rilya, even after her supposed January 2001 disappearance.
That afternoon, Betancourt still had not found a trace of Rilya. Responsibility for her case was transferred out of adoptions and back to the division that handled it before Betancourt.
Betancourt came back to the office that Sunday to work on other cases. But she couldn't focus. Rilya kept coming to mind.
On Monday, even though Rilya was no longer her responsibility, she stopped in the clerk's office in Miami's juvenile court complex to look over the court file. She hoped to find some misplaced scrap of paper that would explain where Rilya was.
By Monday afternoon, Betancourt no longer had a hand in the case. The mystery spiraled higher and higher within DCF's bureaucracy until a top DCF administrator in Tallahassee wrote in an e-mail to Miami officials: "When are you going to notify law enforcement that the child is missing?"
DCF told police that day, seven days after Betancourt's visit to the Grahams' townhouse.
This was April 25. The next day, Rilya Wilson became national news.
Now, Betancourt says she is left with no answers, just confusion and anger.
She said she was "totally shocked" that "a counselor would have done this, I mean the part about not documenting visits and other accusations. ... I was very disappointed."
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