Judge Calls Fla. Child Officials 'Despicable'

ByABC News via logo

May 6, 2002 -- A Florida judge today blasted the performance of state child welfare officials as "despicable" in the case of a 5-year-old girl who has been missing since January 2001.

At a hearing in Miami, Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman had harsh words for the caseworker who was assigned to monitor the case of Rilya Wilson.

"Aside from everything else, she misrepresented the child'swell-being to this court," Lederman said, in discussing reports a caseworker Deborah Muskelly made to the judge last year.

"It is absolutely despicable what happened in this case,"Lederman said, noting that she ultimately held the Department of Children andFamilies responsible.

The judge's remarks came as the girl's caretaker told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America she hasn't seen Rilya since January 2001 when a woman claiming to be a Florida state caseworker took the child away for an evaluation.

Geralyn Graham said that that woman claimed to work for the Florida's Department of Children and Families and said the child needed to be taken in for some required tests.

Graham said Rilya, whose first name is an acronym for "really I love you always," was never returned.

The youngster wasn't reported missing to police until April 25 and police are now investigating the case as a possible homicide.

Welfare Agency Takes Responsibility

Graham said the woman didn't have any official documents, but that it didn't strike her as odd.

"It was in line with everything else that had happened with us at the Department of Children," she told Good Morning America. "When Rilya was brought to me, she was brought to my house, left in my living room without any paperwork or anything, just left there."

Graham said she believed the woman's story because she seemed to know a lot about the agency, including the name of the girl's regular caseworker. The state, however, says it never had an order to pick up the child.

In March, Rilya's former caseworker resigned after an agency investigation revealed she sometimes lied about checking up on her assigned children.

Police were notified that Rilya was missing after another caseworker visited Graham's home for a "30-day status check" last month. She was told by the grandmother that Rilya had already been picked up by a caseworker, police said.

Published reports say the agency waited six days to tell police that it lost track of Rilya. Internal memos obtained by The Miami Herald outline e-mails exchanged on the subject between caseworkers and the department's administrators.

Graham said the girl wasn't upset when she was taken away. "Rilya had not yet developed a fear of people," Graham said. "She just saw it as a car ride. She was OK with it."

Charles Auslander of Florida's child welfare agency says the department takes full responsibility.

"Someone other than the counselor assigned to this case came to that home, removed the child, apparently stating that there was a need for of the neurological, psychological and other evaluation of the child," he said.

'Precious Doe?'

Graham says she's the child's grandmother — claiming her son, Kenneth Epson, is Rilya's father — and was the legal guardian. Rilya's mother, Gloria Wilson, lost custody of the child because of a drug addiction. She has said Graham is the girl's godmother and that she met her after getting to know Graham's daughter in a drug treatment program.

Another man, Manville Cash, an inmate at the Miami-Dade County Jail, has stepped forward to say Epson is not the father and that Graham is not the girl's grandmother. A document terminating Wilson's parental rights lists Cash as the "prospective father" of Rilya. That determination came after an acknowledgment from Cash that he was the father, according to DCF records and Cash.

The state did not conduct paternity tests, Cash said.

Wilson has refused to disclose the identity of Rilya's father.

Authorities are trying to come up with any clue that might lead them to Wilson's whereabouts. Police in Kansas City are awaiting the result of DNA tests on the body of a young girl found in Kansas City, Mo., to see if it is that of Wilson. The beheaded girl found in Missouri was nicknamed "Precious Doe."

Graham's attorney does not believe "Precious Doe" is Rilya.

"I know so far everything that has been done to determine whether the child in Kansas City is Rilya has indicated that the child in Kansas City is not Rilya," attorney Edward Shohat said on Good Morning America. "However, we support the effort of the police to make a final determination of that through DNA testing."

Shohat said there is no evidence pointing to Rilya's whereabouts, and he is asking the public to contact police if they think they know where the girl might be.

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