For the Love of Rilya, We Need to Fix the Black Family, by Kimberley Jane Wilson

Last year, I wrote a column asking “Whatever Happened to Chandra Levy?” It turns out Chandra’s been dead in Rock Creek Park – just a few miles from her Washington, DC apartment. This mystery is finally over.

In Miami, Florida, however, a beautiful black child named Rilya Shenise Wilson is still missing. She’s been gone for over a year, and her disappearance hasn’t received the attention given to Chandra’s case.

Born in 1995 to an addicted mother who couldn’t take care of her, Rilya was a ward of the Florida foster care system. She was eventually sent to the home of Geralyn and Pamela Graham. This is where the story turns both bizarre and tragic. The social worker assigned to Rilya’s case was supposed to meet monthly with the Graham sisters. She didn’t. We now know the social worker was accused of falsifying papers and allowed to resign.

According to Geralyn Graham, “a professional looking woman” claiming to be a caseworker from the Florida Department of Children and Families took Rilya from Graham’s home in January of 2001. That’s the last time anyone saw Rilya.

When it was determined that Rilya was no longer in the Graham home, social workers waited before calling the police. An internal memo dated September 4, 2001 suggests child welfare workers weren’t sure of Rilya’s whereabouts. For reasons that haven’t been made clear, the police weren’t called until seven months later.

Those who were supposed to be protecting Rilya have failed. Her mother and the man identified as her father have been non-factors in her life. The Graham sisters, while not officially considered suspects in Rilya’s apparent abduction, took polygraph tests. According to Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, both sisters failed.

Rilya’s case is horrible, and it is unfortunately not unique. Our foster care system is full of hazards. It’s not unusual for kids to end up in homes as chaotic and dangerous as the one’s from which they were removed.

Nobody wants to talk about it, but our communities have a lot of children like Rilya. Once upon a time and not so long ago, the black family had an answer for them. For example, when my great aunt died, my grandmother took in my great aunt’s orphaned children and raised them alongside her own. Twenty years later, when my grandmother had just retired and was looking forward to traveling and relaxing for the first time in her life, she took in my cousin under similar circumstances.

Grandma wasn’t a rich woman and she wasn’t in perfect heath. She didn’t need the hassle of another child, but another child needed her. With no fanfare or fuss, she stepped up again and took the baby into her home. She lived to see the baby boy grow up, graduate from college and start a career. He became her greatest pride.

This type of behavior used to be common. The very idea that a black child would end up in the state’s care was once rejected in the black community. Family took care of family.

I wish there had been someone like my grandmother in Rilya Shenise Wilson’s life. The appalling time lapse between her disappearance and the notification of the police pretty much ruined any chance that a happy, healthy Rilya will ever come home. I pray some trace of her and her fate will someday come to light.

Some people look at this case and want to blame the system. To an extent, they’re correct. The system failed this child. Some want to blame politicians and whites who have “kept the black family down.” For the love of Rilya – or at least for love of her memory – the black family has got to find a way to recover its old strength.

It’s disturbing that not one single adult mixed up in this story has publicly admitted to failing to do right by this child. It’s even more disturbing to see the two most important questions about Rilya’s life go unanswered: Where is this child and why did it take so long for anyone to care?

(Kimberley Jane Wilson is a member of the African-American leadership network Project 21’s National Advisory Board and a conservative writer living in Virginia. She can be reached at [email protected].)

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