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Murder trial starts in Fla. foster child case

Associated Press Modified: November 26, 2012 at 4:01 pm •  Published: November 26, 2012

MIAMI (AP) — The foster parent of 4-year-old Rilya Wilson abused the girl for months before finally smothering her, and then lied to child welfare workers who failed to discover the girl had been missing for more than a year, a prosecutor said Monday.

Rilya's case led to new laws and a massive shake-up at Florida's child welfare agency after she vanished in 2000. Authorities long suspected caretaker Geralyn Graham in Rilya's disappearance, but didn't charge her until 2005 when prosecutors said she confessed to an inmate while serving time on an unrelated fraud charge.

Graham is on trial for first-degree murder, kidnapping and child abuse. She faces life in prison if convicted.

Graham's attorney raised the possibility that Rilya could still be alive because her body has not been found. Attorney Scott Sakin suggested Rilya could've been relocated to a new home and lost in a system that has a history of caseworker incompetence. Sakin also reminded jurors that jailhouse snitches have much to gain for helping out prosecutors.

"Is there any evidence at all that this child is dead?" Sakin said. "Where is the body? We don't have to prove that she's alive. They have to prove that this child is dead."

Prosecutors said Graham confessed to killing Rilya, who would be 16 now, because she believed the girl was evil and possessed by demons. Other witnesses will testify that Graham repeatedly lied about the girl's whereabouts after she disappeared, Assistant State Attorney Joshua Weintraub said.

"She snuffed the life out of this child," said Weintraub, holding a large photo of the smiling 4-year-old. He added that Rilya was frequently punished harshly, including being kept in a dog cage and tied to a bed with plastic restraints.

"Rilya was always in timeout. Always being punished," Weintraub said.

Graham, 66, uses a walker to move around in court. She has long insisted she is innocent and claimed a Department of Children and Families worker took Rilya from her Miami-area home one day and never returned the girl.

Rilya and a younger sister were both given over to state care because their drug-addicted, frequently homeless mother could not care for them. Rilya's name is an acronym for "remember I love you always" given by her birth mother.

The girl's disappearance led to resignations at DCF, including several high-level positions, when it was discovered that a caseworker was falsifying reports about the girl's well-being and that supervisors took little action. The case also led to a new missing child tracking system in Florida, approval of a privatized system of child casework and tougher laws against falsifying child welfare reports.

One now-retired DCF supervisor, Willie Harris, testified that in April 2000 he received a call from Graham claiming Rilya's first foster home was "deplorable" and might be unsafe. Rilya's younger sister was living with Graham and her unrelated companion, Pamela Graham, and Rilya had recently visited their house.

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