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Tragic Tale of Two Little Girls

Child welfare officials in Florida acknowledge that a 5-year-old Miami girl whose relatives thought she was in state care had actually vanished more than a year ago. No one noticed until last week.

Rilya Wilson's description matched that of a beheaded girl found in Kansas City, Mo. But police there said handprints from the two girls did not match.

For more than a year, Missouri police have sought to identify a girl whose body was found in east Kansas City on April 28, 2001. As the search broadened, the girl was dubbed "Precious Doe" and she became a civic cause in Kansas City for the need to protect society's most helpless members.

The search goes on for Precious Doe's identity. But now Florida authorities are having to explain glitches in the state welfare system that have allowed Rilya Wilson to be missing for 16 months.

Florida child welfare agents should have made monthly visits to Rilya, who was reported missing April 25. State officials said the caseworker falsified documents about visiting the girl since she was taken from her grandmother's house by someone claiming to be a child welfare representative January 2001. The girl was never returned.

"The case work, there, no doubt, was abysmal," Department of Children and Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney said. "For that I take full responsibility." Kearney would not answer questions after making a brief statement.

There were 98 foster care children missing in Miami-Dade County and 424 in state in August 2000, the last year the state released the numbers, said Fort Lauderdale attorney Howard Talenfeld.

Rilya's grandmother, who was caring for Rilya and two siblings, is not a suspect, police said. She has not been publicly identified. She told investigators she contacted state officials several times about the child's whereabouts, but officials said they have no record of the phone calls.

The grandmother was shown a photo of the caseworker and said she was not the person who took Rilya, officials said. She also looked through pages of photos of other employees, but did not recognize the person who picked up the girl.

Child welfare officials in Miami said they never learned of the disappearance because Rilya's caseworker claimed she had made visits to the grandmother's home when she hadn't.

The caseworker, Deborah Muskelly, denied any wrongdoing and said the case was sent to the adoption unit because the mother's parental rights were terminated.

"The department is looking for a scapegoat, and I'm not the one," Muskelly told WSVN-TV in Miami. "I have not had the case in over a year, OK?"

Muskelly and her supervisor resigned in March over another case, state officials said.

Rilya was taken into state custody as an infant because her mother, who lives in East Cleveland, Ohio, abused drugs and her father's location was unknown, officials said. She was briefly placed in a foster home until her grandmother took her.

"It's certainly inexcusable that this happened," said Karen Gievers, an attorney in Tallahassee and director of the Children's Advocacy Foundation. "The sad thing is that it isn't really surprising because the people at the top of the system have not been supervising."

The caseworker's supervisor should have conducted a monthly review of each case, another supervisor should have reviewed the case every three months and a judge should have reviewed it every six months, Gievers said.

Meanwhile, Missouri authorities said they still wanted to compare the DNA from one of Rilya's relatives with that of Precious Doe, the still-unidentified girl whose beheaded body was found last April in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas City homicide Capt. Randy Hopkins said there were physical similarities between Precious Doe and the Miami girl.

But Carl Carlson, the police fingerprint supervisor, said it was obvious the two palm prints were not from the same person.

"They're both from the left hand," Carlson said. "That's the only similarity."

In Kansas City, the news that Rilya was not Precious Doe devastated about two dozen people who had gathered near the spot where Precious Doe's body and head were found.

Annette Johnson, 38, one of the chairpersons of the Precious Doe Committee, broke down in tears.

"I just knew it would be her," Johnson said. "The pictures resembled her quite a bit. I just can't believe that they didn't match up. I feel like we're back to square one, starting all over again. This is very frustrating and heartbreaking."

In response to the missing girl, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday expanded the call of the special legislative session to include a bill that would make it a crime for Department of Children and Families workers to falsify documents, including a third-degree felony if the action results in death or severe abuse.

"This issue calls for some action," Bush said. "If people are falsifying documents in child investigations, there should be a penalty."

But a children's advocate in Tallahassee said the state instead needs to fund the child welfare services that are already in law.

"The last thing we should do is change the law again," said Jack Levine, president of The Center for Florida's Children.

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