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Fla. Panel Approves Tougher Rules

May 8, 2002

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ As authorities scramble to resolve the disappearance of a young girl in the state’s care, a state Senate committee passed a bill Tuesday toughening criminal penalties for welfare workers who falsify records.

The bill creates felony criminal penalties _ and a possible 15-year prison term _ for workers who falsify records if the person under the state’s care suffers great harm or death as a result.

``That ought to be a crime and that’s what we’re doing,″ said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Alex Villalobos.

Officials have said the caseworker supposed to be keeping tabs on 5-year-old Rilya Wilson falsely reported she was fine, even though she disappeared 15 months ago. The caseworker, Deborah Muskelly, was fired in March for her performance in other cases.

Muskelly has denied wrongdoing. Her attorney, Stephen R. Verbit, has declined to comment.

Detectives are treating Rilya’s disappearance _ which went unnoticed for more than a year _ as a possible homicide.

The legislation, backed by Gov. Jeb Bush, heads to the floor for a vote by the full Senate. The House passed a similar measure Friday.

Mark Niemeiser, an executive of the union that represents Department of Children & Families workers, said the legislation would adversely affect caseworkers.

``Fix the problem, not the blame,″ he said. ``At some point we have to come to grips with caseload limits.″

Bush has created a task force to look into the department’s handling of the case. The group planned to meet for the first time Wednesday.

Update hourly