Lawmakers talk change at DCF two years after Rilya disappearance

Florida state Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, addresses a news conference in Miami, Saturday about Rilya Wilson, no relation, who has been missing for two years. Sen. Wilson called for $473 million in new funding and changes in the Department of Children & Families, who allegedly lost the child while she was in their care. Wilson spoke in front of the girl's last known address, before she was allegedly picked up by a DCF employee, according to a caregiver.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 2:15 a.m.

MIAMI - Two years after Rilya Wilson's disappearance, state lawmakers are talking about everything from dismantling the state agency that lost the foster child to increasing its funding.

"We are here today to stand up for the children," Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, said Saturday at a news conference arranged at the girl's last known address. "How can one little girl disappear from the face of the Earth?"

Wilson, no relation to the young girl who would be 6 if still alive, called for $473 million in new funding for the state Department of Children & Families, 970 new employees and raises to lure new social workers.

Other lawmakers want to take a vastly different approach. A pair of Republican senators, Durell Peaden Jr. of Crestview and Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach, would leave the agency in charge of child welfare and public assistance but assign other DCF functions to other agencies.

"I want to do anything I can to make sure that children and families are the focus of that agency," said Peaden, who chaired the agency's Senate committee.

Rep. Sandy Murman, R-Tampa, is proposing a different bill to study the reorganization of the state's social services. Murman, who led a House panel investigating DCF last year, isn't ready to junk the agency, which has been renamed and refashioned under crisis in the past.

"Transferring things from one agency to another hasn't worked out that well," she said. "Before we do anything that will affect that many people, we should make sure it will work."

DCF Secretary Jerry Regier has not seen the proposed Senate plan and, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Regier replaced former agency chief Kathleen Kearney, who quit after the Rilya investigation revealed widespread disarray.

Gov. Jeb Bush also has yet to study the bill. But spokeswoman Alia Faraj said the draft appeared to be consistent with his vision of a child welfare system managed by private agencies.

"This is not a problem that exists for just the last five years," said Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, a Tamarac Democrat. "It has existed the last 30 years. The word in Tallahassee is that the governor is so frustrated with this department now that he does not oppose (the bill) and will let it happen."

Geralyn Graham, one of Rilya's caregivers, has said the girl was taken by a state social worker in January or February 2000. DCF workers were required to make monthly visits but skipped them for 15 months, leaving a cold trail for police.

No one has been arrested Rilya's disappearance, but Graham, her roommate and two children have been charged with fraud. In the first trial, Graham was convicted Thursday of stealing a longtime friend's identity to buy a new SUV days after DCF reported Rilya missing last April.

"I want to ask the people to stop pointing fingers and to come together to find Rilya," said Angelique James, one of Graham's daughters. "The important part is finding her. We can worry about blame later."

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