Against all odds, I kept the faith. I expected a smiling little girl with pig tails and chubby cheeks to say, “Hi, Ms. Wilson!” I was not ready, and certainly not willing to give up on finding Rilya Wilson.
As we begin Rilya’s murder trial on Monday we all have to deal with the cold reality that Rilya is gone. When Rilya went missing she was four years old, and if she were still alive today she would have been a 16-year-old teenager in the prime of her life.
As Rilya’s story started to unfold, I was serving in the Florida Legislature. As I learned about the details surrounding Rilya’s disappearance, specifically the utter disregard and lack of concern displayed by the Department of Children and Families, I was sickened.
I was sickened by the thought that DCF employees would falsify records indicating that Rilya was OK. I was sickened to learn that Rilya was one of thousands of children under the supervision of DCF whose whereabouts were unaccounted for and I was sickened to learn that Geralyn Graham, the roommate of the woman entrusted to care for Rilya allegedly had abused Rilya. Graham lied to DCF employees, but those employees would have known this had they performed their jobs diligently.
Rilya’s case exposed plenty of shortcomings at DCF, and I was proud to pass the Rilya Wilson Act in response to these failures. One of the most troubling aspects of Rilya’s case was the fact that Rilya had been withdrawn from school. If she were still in school there would have been eyes watching; and somebody would have known that she was missing. Instead of falling victim to DCF’s incompetence, and her caretaker’s negligence, Rilya could have been saved by procedures that we now have in place.
Under the Rilya Wilson Act, children in DCF custody must attend school. If a child in DCF care is reported as absent from school, the school is obligated by law to report an unexcused absence to the child’s caseworker. The caseworker is then obligated by law to visit the child and determine whether or not that child is within the custody of the foster parent. If that child is missing, the caseworker must notify law enforcement, and law enforcement will then proceed to take the necessary action to locate the child. We do not know exactly when Rilya went missing; but we do know that it took 18 months for the DCF to report it.
I think about Rilya every day. Her picture hangs in my office, and I continue to fight for Rilya in Congress. The federal adaptation of the Rilya Wilson Act, H.R. 3741, mandates that a state must have procedures to report missing children to law enforcement authorities for entry into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, and to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. This bipartisan bill has more than 100 co-sponsors and is supported by my fellow members of the South Florida Congressional delegation. These common sense solutions at the state and federal level can assist in the recovery of missing children, and keep our children safe from harm.
Let us not forget that Rilya and children like her are all of our children. When the state removes a child from the biological parents and places them in foster care, the state and all of its residents become the guardian of those children. So Rilya technically belongs to all of us.
I am thankful for all of the wonderful people who take in foster children as their own, but I worry about children like Rilya who are not as fortunate. We must fight for Rilya Wilson while the nation’s eyes are on us.
Florida always finds itself at the center of controversies involving children; I pray that a scenario similar to Caylee Anthony is not repeated. We must fight for Rilya because her murder trial, like Caylee’s murder trial, deserves the national spotlight. Nancy Grace and the national media should dedicate their time and resources to Rilya’s trial, and simply not ignore her because she is a child of color. This happens too often.
While the Rilya Wilson Act put in place a procedure to protect children, and although administrators within DCF were forced to resign as a result of their incompetence, justice is what we seek for Rilya. Justice demands that Rilya’s killer be held accountable, and justice demands that Rilya’s death not be in vain. I pray for justice, and I pray for Rilya who is gone but never forgotten.
U.S. Rep. Frederica S. Wilson represents District 17 in Miami-Dade County.