Rilya Wilson did not suffer and ultimately die in vain. Her sad life and tragic disappearance sent shock waves through our community and our state. Leaders asked in disbelief, “How could this happen?” Some asked, “Could it happen again?”
Because the right people asked tough questions dramatic improvements have been made to the foster care system.
In the ten years since Rilya’s disappearance, Florida’s child welfare system has been transformed from one of the worst to one of the nations’ best.
Because of Rilya, kids are seen every 30 days and these home visits are verified with technology. In 2007, Miami’s new child welfare agency, Our Kids, piloted cutting edge technology. Encrypted smart phones equipped with customized software to track which children were due for a home visit were deployed to the workforce. The phones allowed for a photo to be taken.
The date, time and GPS data of the visit are sent automatically to the state’s federal database. Our Kids was the first in the country to pilot a system which allowed for immediate uploads of client data from the field into the system of record. DCF and then-Governor Crist supported the pilot and appropriated funds to allow the system to be replicated statewide.
Because of Rilya, today potential caregivers are thoroughly screened in advance.
Additionally, Our Kids partners with more than 400 foster parents or “co-parents” as they are now referred in Miami, and there are stricter standards in place for all potential caregivers set by its Quality Parenting Initiative.
At the time Rilya was discovered missing, there were 240 children in Miami that were also missing. Because of Rilya, protocols for reporting, tracking and locating missing and runaway children were dramatically improved. Because of Rilya, today the number of missing children in Miami-Dade has dropped dramatically. While even one missing child is bad, our performance here in Miami-Dade, which continues to improve, is among the best anywhere.
Because of Rilya, our state transitioned from a Tallahassee-based, governmental, bureaucracy run system to a completely privatized, community-driven, child-focused system resulting in significant changes. After the privatization of Florida’s foster care system a decade ago, services began to be delivered by local agencies throughout Florida with local accountability, and not by bureaucrats in Tallahassee. Because of Rilya, Community-Based Care agencies are family-centered and accountable to their own communities for their actions, decisions, performance and outcomes.
Because of Rilya, a group of concerned community leaders came together in the wake of the scandal determined to create a system that would never allow this tragedy to happen again. In Miami, several members of then-Governor Jeb Bush’s Blue Ribbon Panel investigating the tragedy became a part of creating Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, the new, local lead agency for Community-Based Care. Because Miami-Dade and the Keys were the last to transition to Community-Based Care, this grassroots coalition was urged to take bold action to change our child welfare system as an antidote to Rilya’s tragic care.
Because of Rilya, today, Florida’s Community-Based Care is widely regarded as a great success. Recently, an independent study of our nation’s child welfare systems, ranked Florida’s as the 4th best in the country. The “Right For Kids Ranking” was the first time there was a comparison of states’ child welfare performance. According to the study,
“Each state’s child welfare system typically operates out of the public eye unless a tragedy, often the death a child, pulls the system from the shadows to the front page. It should not be this way. Protecting children from abuse and neglect is a fundamental responsibility of a civil society.”
No other large state ranked higher and Florida’s child welfare funding is dramatically less than states like California, New York, Texas and Illinois.
Because of Rilya, a lot has happened for good. Without uttering a word, Rilya spoke to us, clearly and loudly and stirred leaders to take decisive action. By changing laws, replacing old, antiquated systems and bringing cutting edge technology to the daily practice, we are leading national change. Today, Florida is a large-scale example of how the protection of vulnerable children can be improved.
Sandy Bohrer is chair of the Board of Trustees of Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe Inc., the non-profit lead agency for foster care and related services in Miami and the Florida Keys. Frances P. Allegra is the CEO of Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Inc.