Guardian Gone

Irv Reisfeld fought ferociously for Broward's forgotten children. Then his boss axed him.

Mezynski is one of five teens whom Reisfeld has continued to help despite his firing. After years of looking after the boy, Reisfeld feels a commitment to see Mezynski into independent adulthood. Mezynski's mother moved out of the family home in Pompano Beach when the boy was about five years old, leaving care to his father. Shortly after his mom's departure, the boy and his younger sister came to the attention of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services -- the DCF's precursor -- which removed the kids from their dad's house because of alleged neglect.

The program assigned Reisfeld as guardian ad litem for the pair, who were briefly placed in foster residences, then returned home under court supervision. Several years later, after the court terminated oversight, Mezynski contends his father physically abused him. At age 14, the boy says, he reported the abuse to HRS. (Reisfeld does not recall any report of abuse, nor could New Times locate any evidence of Mezynski's claim. Joseph Mezynski Sr. was unavailable for comment.) Reisfeld says the boy reentered the foster system after police began investigating his father for automobile arson. Court records verify the elder Mezynski was convicted of second degree arson in August 1996.

The boy lived in a succession of foster group homes across the state and as far away as Birmingham, Alabama. He says he lost his temper frequently and ended up in numerous fights with other kids and staff. After a number of scraps, he would be transferred. "I had a lot of hatred toward the people in HRS," he says. "Basically they looked at me as a dangerous person, so I was put in lockdown facilities.... What they never realized was that all I ever wanted was my freedom in the first place. When I was living with my dad, I was not free. When I was with HRS, I was not free.

After years in the foster care system, Joseph Mezynski now lives at the COSAC Foundation's homeless shelter in Hollywood
Joshua Prezant
After years in the foster care system, Joseph Mezynski now lives at the COSAC Foundation's homeless shelter in Hollywood
Nova Southeastern University law professor Michael Dale says only half of Florida's foster children are assigned guardians ad litem
Joshua Prezant
Nova Southeastern University law professor Michael Dale says only half of Florida's foster children are assigned guardians ad litem

"As I got shifted around the shelters, I was having my own problems, and the only person I talked to was Irv. Irv was known for speaking his mind. Not many people liked that. If you didn't return a call in an hour, he'd call back in an hour. He was very determined about what he was going to get for his kids. If they needed it, they were going to get it.

"Irv sticks up for what he believes in and what's right -- unlike a lot of other people. I call him my father, because that's what he's like. He's done many things for me that I could never repay him for."

Reisfeld learned the foster homes were not giving Mezynski a required $43 monthly clothing stipend. The DCF provides the money to foster homes, which are to hand it over to the teens. "Me and Irv got talking about clothing vouchers, because the only way I got clothes normally was Irv bringing them to me," Mezynski says. "He told me I was supposed to be getting clothing vouchers. Well, I hadn't seen any of it. I was 15, you know, when you're growing." Mezynski received his clothing stipend after Reisfeld intervened.

When Mezynski was 16 years old, the DCF transferred him to 45th Street Mental Health Center in West Palm Beach. He remembers calling Reisfeld from there after employees killed a girl in late 1998. "Early one night I woke up to hearing a PRT going on -- that stands for proper restraint technique. I walked out of my door and was told to "get back into my fucking room.' Here there was a girl who was put in a basket hold [in which one's arms are pulled across the chest straitjacket-style], and her face was pale blue. I knew there was something wrong. They forced me into my room, but I looked out." He and the other kids learned the next morning that the girl, Laura Hanson, had died. Mezynski called Reisfeld, who requested an emergency court hearing to have the boy moved to another home. Circuit Judge Arthur Birken subsequently removed all Broward County children from the center, Reisfeld says. In February 1999 a grand jury ruled the death an "excusable homicide," and the employees never faced criminal charges.

Now, a couple months from his 19th birthday and living in a shelter for homeless people, Mezynski says he is the happiest he has ever been. During the past year, he's increased his reading skills from second- to fifth-grade level while attending a GED program. His violent outbursts have lessened. But he still bristles about Supplemental Security Income benefits he claims the federal government should have paid him as a minor. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars should be in a DCF trust account. Though he has tried, Mezynski has been unable to obtain information on the cash. "I want to know where the hell my money's gone to," he says. "Irv was on the verge of finding out where everything was, then he was fired." Reisfeld is still making inquiries about the account.

Reisfeld's scrappy background prepared him for the confrontational duties of a guardian ad litem. Raised in the Bronx, he served in the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1954, including 17 months with the military police in Korea. He was a meatpacker in a unionized warehouse in Lower Manhattan after the service, then moved to South Florida with his wife and son in 1959. A daughter arrived in 1960 and another in 1962. He began selling insurance in the 1960s, while his wife, Olga, operated a music store in Hollywood called the Rock Haven with Reisfeld's brother, Ira. Irving Reisfeld was ardently involved with the union at the insurance company, which he says caused friction with his employers. The company eventually fired him, saying he owned and operated an outside business -- his wife's store -- which was against company policy. Reisfeld contends that was an excuse to remove a union activist. He took over operating the Rock Haven in 1971.

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