Panel Meets To Look Into Missing Girl's Disappearance

By CATHERINE WILSON, Associated Press Writer

MIAMI (AP) - As the search continues for Rilya Wilson, a panel appointed to investigate Florida's child welfare agency following the 5-year-old girl's disappearance is meeting to find out how she vanished while in state custody.

Officials with the Department of Children & Families have said they will provide details on the case during a presentation before the task force, which is meeting for the first time Wednesday.

Gov. Jeb Bush named the panel on Monday, saying it would focus on the adequacy of oversight and accountability within the agency.

The panel is scheduled to submit an interim report to Bush by May 20 and a final report by June 3.

Bush is eager for the panel to produce results, as he is campaigning for re-election four years after taking office on a promise to fix the child welfare system.

As details of miscommunication and faulty records emerge from the child welfare agency's handling of Rilya's case, Democrats have criticized Bush for his administration's failure to make good on his pledge.

"Gov. Bush in 1998 made it a political issue when he ran on this issue and promised to do better," said state Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Banfill. "This tragedy has shown that the Bush administration still has a long way to go to do better."

A Senate committee passed a bill on Tuesday toughening criminal penalties for any state worker falsifying records. The measure creates three felony-level penalties for knowingly falsifying records on anyone under the state's supervision. The bill now moves to the full chamber.

Meanwhile, as investigators await results from DNA comparisons between a beheaded girl in Missouri and Rilya's mother, who lives in East Cleveland, Ohio, blame for the Miami girl's disappearance has focused on state workers who were responsible for her well-being.

DCF officials and a juvenile court judge have criticized Deborah Muskelly, the caseworker charged with reporting the child's status periodically to the court.

She is accused of falsifying court records, including an Aug. 31, 2001, document that said Rilya was safe in her caretaker's home, when she had in fact been missing since January 2001.

Muskelly, who has denied any wrongdoing, blamed the media for focusing on her actions in the case.

"They turned this thing around and made it look like I did something wrong," she said Tuesday, adding she would be issuing a statement Wednesday through her attorney.

Muskelly's attorney, Stephen R. Verbit, said Tuesday, "At this point apparently Ms. Muskelly is under criminal investigation, and at this time I have no comment."

Geralyn Graham, one of Rilya's caretakers, has said a woman claiming to be a state caseworker took Rilya for evaluation in January 2001 and never returned her.

Rilya was reported missing April 25.

Pamela Graham and Geralyn Graham, sisters who have said they cared for Rilya, referred questions to their lawyers on Tuesday when they were met by reporters outside Pamela Graham's Miami home.

Detectives are treating Rilya's disappearance as a possible homicide and have consulted with investigators in Kansas City, Mo. The body of a beheaded girl, since nicknamed "Precious Doe," was found there in April 2001.

Miami police previously compared a hand print from Rilya and said it didn't match that of Precious.

A fund has been set up in Rilya's name to take care of general care and education costs should she be found alive or to cover the cost of transporting her body and funeral expenses should she be found dead. Donations can be made at any northeast Ohio Key Bank location.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)