Gloria Fletcher: Justice for Rilya
Published: Monday, December 3, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 11:11 p.m.
Ten years after the disappearance of little Rilya Wilson, what have Floridians learned about her fate as well as the future of others in the state's child-welfare system?
What do we know about the system itself — and whether reforms have made kids any more safe?
It's hard to say what we've learned. As the first-degree murder trial of Rilya's caretaker, Geralyn Graham, gets underway in Miami, too many questions linger about Rilya, Graham and the Department of Children and Families.
The State Attorney's Office will plead its case for charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated child abuse against Graham, who in 2000 brought the 4-year-old little girl into her home as a foster child. The trial will likely take several weeks for the state to demonstrate to the jury how Graham committed the crimes for which she is charged.
But the case for Rilya goes much deeper. For it wasn't until 2002 — after an entire year had passed since a caseworker for the department had last checked on Rilya — that the state realized she was no longer in Graham's home. Graham has maintained her innocence since her arrest in 2005, claiming a child welfare worker removed the child from her home.
If she were still alive, Rilya would be 16. But what happened to Rilya, whose name is an acronym for “Remember I love you always,” may never be known. Her body has never been found.
This case demands answers. What happens from here is critical. Society needs closure on this case, thus the outcome of the Graham trial is key for the process to begin. A first-degree murder conviction will send a message loud and clear to those in our society who choose to harm the most vulnerable among us.
What's more important, though, will not be answered by this case. The fundamental question is how did DCF lose track of Rilya for a year — and will sweeping reforms at DCF protect foster children in the future from similar tragedies?
We can only hope.
Foster child advocates also can only hope the lessons and reforms last a lifetime.
Gloria Fletcher is a Gainesville attorney and vice president of Florida's Children First.