Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida and brother of the President, has admited his child welfare department has lost track of a five-year-old girl from Miami who was meant to be in the agency's care but has not been seen by anyone for 15 months.
The storm over the whereabouts of Rilya Wilson has grown in recent days to the point where it is threatening Governor Bush's chance of re-election in November. This week he appointed a special investigation panel, which met for the first time yesterday.
The mystery of the little girl began in January 2001, when a woman identifying herself as an employee of the Florida's child welfare agency turned up at the home of her grandmother, who had been looking after her. The woman left with Rilya, saying she needed routine medical tests. The grandmother subsequently assumed the girl had simply remained in state care.
Even more embarrassingly, a worker for the agency who was meant to be keeping tabs on the whereabouts of Rilya periodically filed fabricated reports, stating that she was doing fine and was in good care.
The case is damaging for Mr Bush, who campaigned in 1998 on a pledge to revamp the state's already chaotic child welfare agency. Now leading Democrats are accusing him of having achieved nothing. His likely challenger in November is the former attorney general Janet Reno.
"There's enough blame to go around for everybody for starters," the Governor retorted this week. "Rather than kind of point the finger back and forth, I think the appropriate thing is to determine whether there's a systemic problem and hope and pray that this child is found."
The police are treating the girl's disappearance as a possible homicide. It is not known whether the woman who came to the grandmother's home was genuinely a government employee. Investigators are waiting for DNA test results from the body of a young girl found recently in Kansas City, Missouri, to see if it isRilya.
Ms Reno has chosen to keep a low profile in the scandal. She said: "Instead of trying to cast blame, let's sit down together, Republicans and Democrats, and focus on one of the most difficult issues that we face in Florida – how we protect our children from abuse and neglect."
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said the case could have potent consequences for the Governor. "You can argue that this has been an ongoing problem, but on the other hand, Jeb Bush has been in office for more than three years now. There's sort of a statute of limitations on what you can blame on your predecessor," she said.Reuse content