Fla. worker dumbfounded to find foster girl gone
Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 2:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 3:10 p.m.
MIAMI — A veteran state child welfare worker testified Wednesday that she was dumbfounded to learn in spring 2002 that foster child Rilya Wilson had been missing for more than a year and no records seemed to exist to explain her whereabouts.
Dora Betancourt, a 35-year employee of the Department of Children and Families, said she couldn't understand why the girl's caretaker, Geralyn Graham, was claiming that an unknown DCF worker had taken her in January 2001 for a mental evaluation and never returned her.
"I was in disbelief," Betancourt testified. "It didn't make sense at all."
Graham, 66, is on trial for murder in Rilya's disappearance. Prosecutors say Graham smothered Rilya with a pillow and buried her near a lake or canal. Graham insists she did not harm the child, whose body has never been found. The trial is expected to continue for several weeks. Graham faces life in prison if convicted.
Betancourt said she found a number of inconsistencies as she investigated the case. Graham said she was Rilya's paternal grandmother, but state documents said the girl was in the custody of a non-relative — Graham's companion, Pamela Graham. Geralyn Graham also told Betancourt the two were sisters, which is not true.
There appeared to be no record of required monthly DCF caseworker visits from January 2001 until April 2002, when Betancourt began preparing papers for the Grahams to adopt Rilya and a younger sibling. It also appeared that Graham had been receiving welfare checks as if Rilya were living at her home for all those months she was missing.
Betancourt said she went to visit Rilya and was met by Graham in the driveway of her home. There was no sign of Rilya.
"Where's Rilya?," Betancourt testified that she asked Graham. "She said, 'I thought you were bringing her.' I said, 'What do you mean?'"
Graham went on to explain, according to Betancourt, that the mental evaluation had been ordered because Rilya was having severe psychological problems, including urinating and defecating all around the house. Graham told Betancourt she had called a DCF supervisor several times about the girl's problems and that another employee had taken Rilya for tests and never brought her home.
"Did she say 'Where is my child?' Did she demand to know?" asked prosecutor Sally Weintraub.
"No," Betancourt replied. "She didn't seem like she was upset."
Monica Porrata, who was Betancourt's DCF supervisor at the time, said none of the required court orders or medical referrals for a foster child's mental evaluation were found in official files. And even if such an evaluation had been ordered, it would have been highly unusual for the girl not to be returned immediately to her home, Porrata added.
"After the appointment, she would be brought back home," she testified.
Betancourt said she searched through records at various DCF units for any trace of Rilya and found nothing. She checked county schools rolls, Medicaid records, anything that might provide a clue. But it seemed as though the girl had simply been lost.
"I was upset. I was still in shock that this was happening," she said.
On Tuesday, former DCF caseworker Deborah Muskelly admitted that she did not perform monthly in-person visits with Rilya after January 2001 and faked travel vouchers indicating she had gone to the home. Muskelly resigned, pleaded guilty to misconduct charges and was placed on five years' probation.
Rilya's disappearance and the state's failure to learn about if for so long became a statewide scandal that had a broad impact on DCF and its policies, including high-level resignations and launching of a new child tracking system. In addition, state lawmakers made it a crime to falsify records of visits between caseworkers and children in the agency's care.
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