Fla. Has Lost Hundreds of Foster Kids

May 16, 2002 -- As Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a new law intended to protect foster children Wednesday, ABCNEWS' Good Morning America discovered there are hundreds of kids who have been lost by the state's child-welfare system.

The governor signed the bill in response to the case of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson — the foster child who was missing for more than one year before anyone noticed.

Circuit Court Judge Jeri Cohen, who testified Wednesday before governor's blue-ribbon panel examining the state's performance in Rilya's disappearance, told Good Morning America that most of the state's missing children are older than Rilya.

"The vast number, I would estimate, of those children are teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18, who chronically cycle in and out of the foster-care system," she said.

Lying and Cover-ups

New evidence of falsified reports and cover-ups within the state's Department of Children and Families was released Wednesday in videotaped depositions of current and former caseworkers.

Attorneys suing the agency released portions of the depositions, which detailed problems ranging from failure to visit children to removing children from their homes and placing them in abusive foster homes, as part of a lawsuit against the state.

Dr. George Rahaim of the Department of Children and Families said there should be no confusion about the inadequacies that exist in Florida's foster-care system.

"It has gotten worse over time," Rahaim said in his videotaped deposition. "It is worse now, in my opinion, that it ever has been."

Rahaim said some caseworkers decide not to actively visit their assigned foster kids on a regular basis. "Life goes easier for that worker who leaves the child at risk in the home, as long as nothing spectacular happens," he said.

Sandra Owen, a former program administrator at the state agency, also described widespread lying by state workers about required monthly visits to foster homes.

"I have heard of foster-care counselors that I will not hire, you know, when the opportunity arises to be the lead agency, who have reported that they have seen 100 percent of their children and that's not true," she said in her videotaped deposition.

'Endemic to the System'

Owen said the problems have more to do with the system than the caseworkers.

"I think it's more endemic to the system that just simple dishonesty," she said. "It is truly endemic to the system."

In Rilya Wilson's case, the department says caseworker Deborah Muskelly filed false reports of monthly visits with the child and her supervisor failed to review the case.

Both resigned in March over the alleged mishandling of another case. Muskelly has denied any wrongdoing.

Rilya's caretaker, Geralyn Graham, says the girl was removed from her care last January by a woman who identified herself as a DCF worker. Graham, who has twice been convicted on fraud and theft charges, says caseworkers knew about her criminal record.

Lack of Visits

Other caseworker depositions revealed a survey that showed monthly visits were made to only 8 percent of Palm Beach children in state custody.

DCF District Administrator David May, who had portions of his deposition released, said the survey data was old and not very accurate. The figures were based on a sampling of 20 to 30 children, he said, and were compiled more than two years ago — before May took over the district.

Jack Levine, the president of the Center for Florida's Children, a private, not-for-profit citizen's organization, says he's extremely concerned about the way the state is treating its children.

"We used to send signals: 'Do you know where your children are tonight?' Well, we have to ask that of the state of Florida," Levine said. "We don't know where they are; we don't know if there are bodies buried; we don't know their whereabouts — and that makes me very, very worried."

Under the new law, falsifying documents related to children under state care would be punishable by up to five years in prison. If the child is seriously hurt or dies due to records fraud, it would be a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Judge Cohen, who oversees DFC cases every day, said she's not convinced the new law will change the system.

"If you have a worker that is so unconscionable that that worker will lie about visiting a child to a court, I'm not sure any law is going to help," she said. "But it certainly is a start and we certainly appreciate anything that the government can do to help us do our job."

ABCNEWS's Brian Ross contributed to this report.