Ten years after the Florida Department of Children and Families was rocked by scandal that resulted in the DCF secretary leaving, its top administrator in Miami resigning and numerous employees being fired, the case again will surge to the top of the headlines. At the time, the case exposed serious failings in Florida’s child-welfare system.
The original cause of the furor was the reported April 2002 disappearance of Rilya Wilson, who was in state custody under the care of the child-welfare agency. Not only had the child gone missing but it took 15 months before anyone at the agency noticed that she was unaccounted for. The child was four years old when she apparently disappeared.
In April 2002, Geralyn Graham, 57, the foster mother, who lived with a roommate, Pamela Graham (no relation), alerted DCF that the girl had been removed from her home by a DCF social worker 15 months previously. The Department of Children and Families then acknowledged that their workers had missed more than a year of required monthly visits to Graham’s foster home. Pamela Graham claimed to be Geralyn’s sister at the time of the incident.
”Apparently the department went to do a follow-up with Graham, and she essentially told them: “Well, I don’t have her. You guys took her from me a year ago,” said Detective Lupo Jimenez of the Miami-Dade Police Department. ”That’s when we were notified. They have no idea where this child is. I’ve never seen this before.”.
Graham told officials that Rilya was last seen in January 2001, when a woman who she assumed was a representative of the DCF appeared at her home and took the child, telling her that the child needed to undergo psychological and neurological testing. She went on to say that a few days later, a second woman arrived at her house, to retrieve some of the girl’s clothes and said that Rilya would stay in the state’s custody for further testing. She then said that a few weeks later, a third individual, showed up at her home and inquired about Rilya’s siblings, who at that time were still in her custody. She mentioned that on that occurrence the person was a man.
Officials of DCF responded that they had no record of any of those events and that Rilya’s caseworker had never approved her removal from Graham’s residence.
District administrator for the Department of Children and Families in Miami, Charles Aulander, said, ”One of the requirements is that a counselor have a face-to-face visit with the child at least once per month, and I did not know that that was not going on.” He added, ”I would have hoped that we would have discovered this much sooner, but we didn’t.”
Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida’s Children, a child advocacy group in Tallahassee, said the agency’s handling of the case was deplorable.
”I’m shocked by the apparent insufficiency of being able to track the whereabouts of a child who was assumed to be under the watchful eye of our child protection system,” Mr. Levine said. ”Those eyes that should have been watching were closed.”
Soon after the DCF scandal was realized Geralyn Graham, and her roommate Pamela Graham, 37, who at the time alleged they are sisters, were charged with stealing $14,257 worth of food stamps as well as multiple counts of fraud for continuing to collect benefits for the child long after she vanished, according the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office
Geralyn Graham was charged with seven counts of obtaining welfare, food stamps and Medicaid benefits with false identification and documents. Pamela Graham was charged with 12 counts of welfare fraud, aiding and abetting public assistance fraud and related charges all of them not associated with the case. Both women served time in jail.
The latest events
Now, a decade after, prosecutors have built what they believe to be a strong first-degree murder case against Graham. Based on information provided by jailhouse informants including Pamela Graham, and statements from former friends, it is alleged that Rilya Wilson was brutally abused by her caregiver. Prosecutors introduced a cage into evidence where they believe Rilya was placed for the purpose of punishment within Graham’s home. A witness for the prosecution said that she saw scars on Rilya’s arms and head before her disappearance. “There were scrapes on her arms. There was a gash on her head, forehead area,” family friend Laquica Tuff said speaking of Rilya’s condition at that time.
Just last week, the defense motioned for a mistrial citing that prosecutor Joshua Weintraub’s law license had been temporarily suspended due to a failure to meet continuing legal education requirements. He was reinstated Tuesday after showing the requirements were met and the mistrial was denied by Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler-Mendez. Mendez said that previous court rulings have made clear that clerical mistakes such as Weintraub’s were never intended to be the kind of law-license suspension that could prejudice a defendant such as Graham. The judge called it a “ministerial circumstance” and stated that Weintraub had actually earned more than the necessary thirty hours of educational credits.
The star witness for the prosecution is Robin Lunceford. Lunceford was serving a life sentence, but had it reduced by 10 years when she told authorities that Graham, who she was in jail with, had confessed to killing Wilson by smothering her with a pillow. Lunceford is now scheduled for release in March 2014.
Another unnamed inmate also reported that Graham confessed to the murder.
Prosecutors also have the cooperation of Pamela Graham, although she insists she has never had any knowledge as to what happened to Rilya.
Opening arguments are set for this Monday in what now is a first-degree murder case Graham faces a life sentence if convicted and may even face the death penalty. Other charges lodged against her are kidnapping and child abuse although a body was never found.
In a case such as this the determination of whether or not the State will file a Notice of Intent to seek the Death Penalty will depend upon the result of the State’s ongoing investigation related to whether or not the defendant’s acts were premeditated or not. If the State were to seek the death penalty then a separate mitigation or penalty phase of the trial would have to be held but only in the event that the defendant was first found guilty of first degree premeditated murder after the first phase of the jury trial.
If you are being investigated for or are charged with murder and are in need of a criminal defense lawyer in the Broward, Dade, or Palm Beach County areas who specializes in the defense of murder cases, The Criminal Defense Law Firm of Michael B. Cohen, P.A. can provide you with the skilled representation you need. Visit us online at www.southflalaw.com or call us at 954-928-0059.
Mr. Cohen is a board certified criminal trial lawyer rated AV by Martindale Hubbel (pre-eminent) and a “Super Lawyer” recognized as being in the top 5% of his specialized field (criminal trial law) among Florida lawyers. He is considered a specialist by the Florida Bar in his field. Mr. Cohen has tried scores of cases over his 35 year career and is a member of the Florida and New York Bars. His office is located in Fort Lauderdale and practices in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Miami, among other counties. He is also admitted to practice in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh and Second Circuit.