Lawmakers, Agency Staff Blasted for Losing Foster Child

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Incompetence, indifference and dereliction of duty led to the disappearance of little Rilya Wilson from her Miami home, a Florida investigative committee reported in late May.

The Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection was established by Gov. Jeb Bush (R) shortly after the April disclosure that state officials were unaware that the 4-year-old had been missing from her foster home for 15 months. The girl has not been found.

The panel’s 23-page report spread the blame for the tragedy among the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF), the state Legislature and the girl’s foster parents.

“A central fact in the Rilya Wilson situation is the utter dereliction of duty by [caseworker Deborah] Muskelly and her supervisor, Mr. [Willie] Harris,” the report said. “But their terrible performance would have been detected had DCF in place a system to assure that caseworkers in fact visit their assigned children at least once every 30 days. The requirement was and is there. The enforcement was lamentably – and for Rilya perhaps tragically – absent.”

State officials say Muskelly altered records to show that she had visited Rilya when she had not.

The panel said Rilya never should have been placed in the home from which she disappeared, because the caretaker had a criminal record.

In addition, the caretaker’s claim that she was related to Rilya was questionable.

The report also noted that juvenile court judges and DCF officials are often at odds over who has authority to place children once they are in the welfare system.

Among other charges, the panel called for the state Legislature to fully fund the guardian ad litem program to ensure that every child is represented; require DCF personnel and caregivers to report missing children to police immediately; recruit more pro bono attorneys for children; and increase salaries for caseworkers.

The panel also noted the state’s history of child welfare tragedies and missteps. Since 1985, governors have appointed 11 panels and state’s attorneys have convened five grand juries to investigate the DCF and its predecessor. The welfare system has been reorganized 22 times in 33 years, an average of every 18 months.

The DCF, the panel said, has not ignored past recommendations or mandates from the Legislature. It said many of the agency’s shortcomings are the fault of the Legislature, “which does not give – and never has given – DCF the resources needed to cope with the enormous burdens that it faces,” the report said.

“Florida’s child welfare system is overburdened, overwhelmed, understaffed and underfunded. It always has been. And it always will be until the citizens of Florida and their elected representatives, the Legislature, give deserved priority to Florida’s dependent children and families,” the report said.

Bush said he would review the report and established a working group to develop a plan to enhance the guardian ad litem program.