MIAMI, Fla. - A state welfare worker testified Monday that the caretaker of missing foster child Rilya Wilson claimed false family ties to the girl and a younger sibling in order to qualify for state aid, which continued to flow for over a year after authorities believe Rilya was killed.
Diana Ramirez Romero, a Department of Children and Families employee who handles economic assistance, testified that 66-year-old Geralyn Graham said she was the grandmother of Rilya and a younger sister, Rodericka, and that both girls lived with her. Ramirez Romero said that enabled Graham - who used the name Geralyn Smith in their meetings - to get cash assistance and food stamps.
Graham is not related to the girls and was not even their legal custodian. Her live-in companion, Pamela Graham, was their official caretaker at the time.
Geralyn Graham faces life in prison if convicted of killing Rilya. The girl disappeared in late 2000 and her body has never been found. Graham insists she is innocent and has claimed an unknown DCF worker took the girl for a mental evaluation and never returned her. The case shook up Florida's child welfare system, spurring development of a new child tracking system and other key changes in state laws.
An older sister of Rilya's, Brandy Sims, attended trial for the first time Monday. Now 18, Sims said she didn't know Rilya but felt compelled to come to court on her behalf.
"I just wanted to be here for justice for my sister," said Sims, who was accompanied by her adoptive parents and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla. The congresswoman is not related to Rilya but has been deeply involved in the case and sponsored child welfare reform laws while in the state Legislature.
On the witness stand, Ramirez Romero said Graham first applied for state benefits in February 2001 for Rilya and her younger sister. She periodically visited the welfare office several additional times until March 2002, a month before DCF officials finally realized that Rilya was missing.
Ramirez Romero said Graham always brought the younger sister with her to those meetings, and on one occasion she asked Graham why Rilya was never there.
"She told me it was too hard to handle two babies in the interview," Ramirez Romero testified.
"Did she ever say, 'DCF took Rilya?'" asked prosecutor Sally Weintraub.
"No," Ramirez Romero replied.
The amount of assistance Graham received was not disclosed.
Earlier Monday, former DCF administrator Barbara Toledo said she and her co-workers began to believe "something terrible had happened" when they were unable to verify Graham's story about what happened to Rilya.
"We had never had a situation where we had a 4-year-old child who was missing for such an extensive period of time," Toledo testified. "All of the stories we checked that Ms. Geralyn Graham told us led to nowhere."
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