- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

MIAMI (AP) Child-welfare officials agreed yesterday to begin implementing dozens of recommendations made by a special review panel examining the case of a 5-year-old girl who had disappeared for more than a year before authorities noticed.
In a 26-page draft report released Sunday, the panel said it felt the Department of Children & Families was not doing enough to make the occurrence of tragedy "as slim as humanly possible."
The report will be handed to the governor today in Miami.
The four-member Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to investigate the disappearance of Rilya Wilson while under the care of the department.
The case has brought widespread criticism of welfare officials and has become a difficult issue for Mr. Bush, who is seeking re-election and who, during his campaign four years ago, promised to fix the agency.
"The system failed that little girl long before she was born," said panel member Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin.
The panel blamed the girl's disappearance on the "in-the-trenches malfeasance" by the girl's case worker Deborah Muskelly (who filed a court report in August indicating she had visited the girl), Miss Muskelly's supervisor and the girl's care giver.
Miss Muskelly had been fired twice by the department before being rehired and assigned to Rilya's case, the panel noted yesterday.
"These two employees, especially the caseworker, thwarted long-established policies and mechanisms built from lessons learned from previous tragedies involving children [and] designed to prevent exactly what these two allowed to happen," the panel reported.
The draft report listed 19 short-term priority recommendations and 10 long-term objectives, and panel members added to them during a five-hour meeting yesterday focusing on an agency it said was "engulfed in scandal."
Recommendations include conducting criminal background checks on the 62,000 existing foster parents; photographing children every three months and having them come to court every six months; and ensuring caseworkers visit each of the 44,000 children in state care once a month, so that law enforcement can be notified immediately if a child is missing.
The panel demanded most of the changes be enacted in less than six months.
Department Secretary Kathleen Kearney, who has called the girl's disappearance an "isolated incident," said yesterday that the deadlines would be met.
The panel also listed priorities for the Florida Legislature, including increasing pay for the agency workers and providing money for full criminal background checks.
The agency is trying to run criminal checks on new foster parents but lacks the funds to do full checks on all now in the system.
If authorities had run a national criminal records check on Geralyn Graham, Rilya's care giver, she may have been excluded because of a Tennessee food-stamp fraud conviction, the panel noted. Mrs. Graham claims to be Rilya's grandmother but was sometimes described as a non-relative.


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