Guardian Gone

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

Reisfeld says he lost interest in running the business, so he sold the store in 1982 and dabbled in real estate from his Pembroke Pines home. At age 50 he decided to volunteer and started checking around. He applied at the South Florida State Hospital, a mental-health institution, but never received a reply. Then he went to a recruiting session for Speak to the Children, a group that assists school kids. The work, however, would have been only a few hours a week, and Reisfeld wanted greater involvement. It was at the Speak to the Children session, Reisfeld recalls, that someone suggested he look into Broward's guardian ad litem program.

"Irv's a very funny kind of guy," says Ed Pudaloff, who trained Reisfeld as a GAL. "He gets very involved. He was very focused on the kids he represented. He wasn't the most diplomatic guy in the world." He recalls how adamant Reisfeld was that his Jewish foster children receive Hanukkah gifts when Christmas presents were passed out.

For his first case, program administrators assigned Reisfeld to a two-day-old baby named Angela, who had been taken from her mother, a drug addict and prostitute. A social worker's plan called for mother and child to be reunited. Reisfeld went to look for the mom, whose last known address was among a row of flophouses on South Beach. "It was raining, and there was water dripping into the hallways," he says. "I felt unsure of myself. I just had to knock on doors to find her. I didn't even know what she looked like." Although he located her, the reunification didn't work, and another family eventually adopted Angela. As Reisfeld gained experience, he started taking the difficult cases that involved teens.

Reisfeld charge Kervin Occean is serving part of a two-year sentence for cocaine possession in a Broward County boot camp
Amelia Melamud
Reisfeld charge Kervin Occean is serving part of a two-year sentence for cocaine possession in a Broward County boot camp

Bernard Perlmutter, an attorney and director of the University of Miami's Children and Youth Law Clinic, spoke often with Reisfeld through the 1990s about child-advocacy issues. "He has a tremendous eye for "issue-spotting,' as we in the field of law call it," he says. "He can see a fact pattern and recognize whether there's an injustice there. He knows almost intuitively if there's something rotten. Then he tries to engage lawyers for those issues."

A most notable example, Perlmutter says, was Kervin Occean, who found himself ejected from foster care, broke, and unable to work.

Given the woes of the past two years, Occean, now 20 years old, appears remarkably upbeat and cheerful as he walks into the visiting area in Tower A of the Conte Facility, the fourth and newest county lockup in Broward. He's serving two years for possession of cocaine, auto theft, and probation violation. When New Times arrives, he readily offers a handshake and an easy smile. As a teenager Occean was an outstanding runner, winning several trophies in the towns near the Mel Blount Youth Home in Georgia, where he lived for five years. But sedentary prison life has left him with a bit of a paunch, which is accentuated by the inmate-blue jumpsuit he's wearing. He'll have a chance to shape up soon at the military-style boot camp run by the Broward Sheriff's Office near Powerline Road and Commercial Boulevard. The boot camp was his choice; he figures it's better than sitting in a cell. "I think it'll be a good thing for me," he says. "I'll learn a lot."

Occean was born in the Bahamas, and at age nine he moved to Fort Lauderdale with his mother and two younger brothers. When he was 11 years old, the court determined there was parental neglect and placed him in foster care; Reisfeld became his GAL. He was transferred to Mel Blount at age 13. Occean recalls receiving birthday cards, gift certificates, and phone calls from Reisfeld. "He was the only guy who was trying to make [me] think about the future," Occean says. "He would encourage me: Just go to school, stay out of trouble. When I got out, Irv was the only person who helped me."

Occean's serious trouble began three months after his 18th birthday, on December 26, 1998. He was enrolled in extended foster care and was supposed to continue his education as well as learn independent living skills, according to court documents. Unknown to Occean DCF had closed his case when he turned 18. As a result, on March 16, 1999, a director at Mel Blount ordered him to pack his possessions, board a Greyhound bus, and head for Fort Lauderdale. He says he was given five minutes to pack. "I didn't have a chance to say good-bye to anyone," Occean recalls. "I had to lug a bag tied with a rope." He left without photos of friends or his running trophies. When he arrived in Fort Lauderdale, he walked to the DCF offices and asked what he should do: Get a job, he was told. That, however, was not an option because he did not have legal immigrant status. His Social Security card read: "Not valid for employment."

"I called Irv and he said, "Don't worry, I'll help you,'" Occean remembers.

Unfortunately Occean almost immediately ran afoul of the law after moving from Mel Blount to his mother's Fort Lauderdale home. He was busted for cocaine possession in April and May 1999, then again this January.

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