It’s a bureaucratic nightmare beyond comprehension: How a state social services agency could lose a 4-year-old girl and for 16 months fail to notice or report the incident.
That’s the case of Rilya Wilson, who was lost by the state of Florida and whose whereabouts, despite national media coverage of the incident, are still a mystery.
Rilya vanished sometime in January 2001. Given the strange circumstances, nobody is sure of the exact date. At the time, Rilya – whose name reportedly stands for “Remember, I love you always” – was living in the home of sisters Geralyn and Pamela Graham. Geralyn Graham has been reported to be Rilya’s paternal grandmother. Florida’s Department of Children and Families had placed Rilya in the Graham home as part of its foster care system.
Rilya was born on Sept. 29, 1996. Her mother, Gloria Wilson, was homeless and addicted to crack cocaine. Rilya’s alleged father is said to be a habitual criminal. Rilya was Gloria’s second child. Gloria’s first child had already been taken away from her by the state of Florida.
Two years after Rilya was born, Gloria Wilson had another baby that the state also took from her. That baby was placed in the home of Geralyn Graham, who says she is the mother of Rilya’s father.
In April 2000, Graham requested that Florida’s Department of Children and Families, or DCF, also place Rilya in her Miami home. She said she wanted to legally adopt Rilya. At the time, Rilya was being raised in another Miami home by the daughter of a 78-year-old woman who had befriended and was attempting to help Gloria Wilson.
DCF complied with Graham’s request, despite that issues had been raised about the true identity of Rilya’s father. Florida officials, who declined to speak on the record, say that at least “two men claim to be Rilya’s father” but that “no DNA tests have been conducted to resolve the confusion yet.” Graham told the Miami Herald two weeks ago that her son “has 14 other children by several different women.” Graham has also stated that she “never signed” any paperwork before or after Rilya was placed in her home.
According to a May 12 Associated Press story by Allen G. Breed, not long after Rilya was placed in the Graham home, Graham complained to several DCF employees that Rilya was “acting very weird.”
Graham also called Rilya’s social worker, Deborah Muskelly, to make the same complaint. A short while later, according to Graham, in early January 2001, a woman knocked on her door and, speaking with a foreign accent, explained that she had come to pick up Rilya for a “psychiatric examination.”
It is not clear if the unnamed woman showed Graham any identification credentials or documents. However, Graham told the Miami Herald that the woman “knew all about Rilya and Muskelly.” Strangely, the Miami Herald reported that Graham called Muskelly a month after Rilya was taken and asked when the girl was going to be returned to her home. Graham told the newspaper that Muskelly said, “Don’t worry. … The child will come back to you.”
Rilya has not been seen, or heard from, since the day the mysterious woman picked her up, and nobody claims to know where she is. The May 12 Associated Press article states, “Graham … said she had continued receiving and cashing checks – more than $1,600 in all – for Rilya’s care during her absence, saying DCF had told her to.”
Eight months after Rilya’s disappearance, in August 2001, with still no sign of or word from Rilya – and no reports to anyone that she was missing – Muskelly, according to the Miami Herald, was filing reports indicating that she had routinely visited the Graham home and that Rilya’s “needs were being met.”
Last month, after DCF officials became aware that something was terribly wrong with Rilya Wilson’s case, they waited at least a week before notifying police and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, despite that their own regulations require them to do so within “three working days.”
Internal DCF e-mails obtained by the Herald reveal a chilling picture of bureaucratic ineptitude. One administrator wrote, “This one scares me.” Another message to Muskelly’s supervisor read: “When are you going to notify law enforcement that the child is missing?” Another close assistant to DCF’s top administrator wrote, “… just keep remembering, it can always be worse.”
After DCF noticed that Rilya had vanished, officials also became aware that employee Muskelly had “falsified client visit records and case documents.” DCF officials say there was “no way to know sooner.”
According to the Herald, “district DCF chief Charles Auslander said last week that January 2001 was the last entry by Muskelly in Rilya’s case file.”
Auslander additionally said that Muskelly – who was allowed to resign from her DCF position on March 20 or “face termination for filing falsified documents” – reported several times to a circuit court judge overseeing Rilya’s custody that the little girl was “safe and being well cared for” during the months that she was actually missing. Others within DCF maintain that Muskelly obtained “advance signatures on reports confirming visits” to Rilya – meaning that Muskelly likely had several or more blank forms signed in advance of home visits that never occurred.
According to DCF records and supervisory officials, Muskelly was less than an exemplary employee. Officials say that she was demoted at least twice during her 17-year career with the agency. DCF spokeswoman LeNedra Carroll said that Muskelly’s supervisors had “numerous concerns” about her job performance.
Muskelly, according to the Miami-Dade state’s attorney’s office, is now the subject of a criminal investigation. A spokesman for that office said yesterday, “It is not inconceivable that others may be added to the list.”
DCF caseworkers, who refused to be identified for this article out of fears of “being fired,” said that supervisory problems within the agency are “endemic.” Said one worker, “Managers here pretty much do what they want without any guidance from above. There’s not much sense of mission or urgency on anything.” Another worker said that DCF supervisors “dropped the ball on Rilya’s case long before Muskelly messed it up.”
A Naples Daily News article this week by Catherine Wilson said, “Some outsiders suggested a ‘bunker mentality’ exists among [DCF] rank-and-file workers.”
As might be expected in a state where politics seem to line every cloud and ray of sunshine, Rilya’s disappearance has become an issue in Florida’s gubernatorial campaign.
Last week, gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said at a campaign stop that the state “has to do more” to prevent children like Rilya from ever having to enter the state’s system to begin with. Quipped one observer, referring to the 1993 Waco siege, “This from a woman who ordered tanks into a building full of innocent children?”
Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush, has come under heavy fire for what has become widely known as the “Rilya matter.” People close to Bush say that he was “initially very angered about the case” but has since “been convinced that it is an aberration” in an agency that was “just beginning to get its act together.” Bush composed a blue-ribbon investigatory committee almost immediately after he learned of Rilya’s disappearance. The committee is charged with making recommendations on fixing persistent problems within DCF. Its report is due at the end of the month.
Last week, Bush said he “still has confidence in Kathleen Kearney,” the secretary of the Department of Children and Families. Kearney, a political appointee who was formerly a juvenile court judge, has rejected sporadic calls for her resignation, saying that Rilya’s social worker bears the blame in the case. Meanwhile, some DCF workers have privately complained that Kearney is “too far removed from the day-to-day realities of this agency” and that “she has no experience in managing a workplace and budget this large.”
On Tuesday, Florida newspapers revealed that Rilya’s assumed paternal grandmother, Geralyn Graham, has used “at least 33 aliases” and that “lawyers [in unrelated civil cases] have questioned whether she was a con artist or severely mentally impaired.”
A May 15 report in the St. Petersburg Times stated, “Florida’s child-welfare agency [DCF] has said it didn’t know Rilya Wilson’s caretaker used numerous aliases before [Rilya] was placed in her home. … But Geralyn Graham’s bogus names were contained in a court subpoena served on [DCF] as part of a personal-injury lawsuit involving Graham.” The subpoena was served on DCF officials six months before Rilya was placed in Graham’s home.
Last weekend, the mystery of Rilya Wilson’s disappearance was featured on “America’s Most Wanted” television show. Florida law-enforcement officials were hopeful that the show would “produce leads about this little girl’s whereabouts” but now report that “nothing of any value was generated.”
Meanwhile, Rilya Wilson is gone, and the days are ticking away.
H.P. Albarelli Jr. is an investigative journalist and writer who lives in Florida.