MIAMI (AP) — More than a decade after foster child Rilya Wilson's disappearance shook up the state's child welfare system, the caregiver accused of killing the girl is finally set to go on trial in a highly circumstantial case hinging on jail inmates who say they heard the woman confess.
Jury selection is set to begin Monday in the trial of Geralyn Graham, which is expected to last about eight weeks. Graham, 66, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and has written letters to judges insisting she is innocent. She faces life in prison if convicted.
"I've never hurt a soul in my life," she said in one letter.
Rilya's body has never been found. Police have no witnesses to any killing and scant physical evidence. The crux of the case are alleged confessions Graham made to fellow jail inmates that she killed Rilya and buried her body near a lake.
"It is always problematic for the government when it has to build a case on jailhouse snitches," said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University who has followed the case over the years. "In the end, the government may lose, particularly if Graham can present a reasonable alternative explanation for Rilya's disappearance."
Rilya was born Sept. 29, 1996, to a homeless cocaine addict. The girl's name was an acronym for "remember I love you always." She was taken into state custody when she was less than 2 months old.
The girl was last seen in 2001 living in a home shared by Geralyn Graham and Pamela Graham, who are not related. When it was discovered in 2002 that she was no longer living there, the Grahams claimed a Department of Children and Families worker had taken her for medical tests and never returned.
An investigation showed that a DCF caseworker, Deborah Muskelly, did not make required monthly visits to the Grahams' home for more than a year, even though she was filing reports and telling judges the girl was fine. Muskelly was eventually placed on five years' probation after pleading guilty to official misconduct for falsifying time sheets.
The case had far broader ramifications, leading to the resignation of then-DCF director Kathleen Kearney and launching of several reforms, including a new missing child tracking system linked to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. State lawmakers also made it illegal to falsify records of visits between child welfare workers and children in the agency's care.
In addition, legislators required DCF to contract out casework to private organizations, which experts said has contributed to a 28 percent drop in the overall number of kids in care since Rilya disappeared. The state pays those organizations around a half billion dollars a year.
"That was the event that drove privatization, for all practical purposes, and truly changed case management," said current DCF Secretary David Wilkins.
Caseworkers are now required to visit a child monthly and carry GPS units that stamp a date and location to make sure every child is accounted for. But it wasn't until last July that caseworkers were required to go beyond simply taking a picture at those visits and get critical updates about how the child is doing in school, whether they have any medical concerns or how they are faring socially in the home.
Former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, who chaired a task force that examined the agency's failings in Rilya's case, said the case did lead to important reforms, but problems remain.
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