Guardian Gone

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

News of the boy's expulsion from Mel Blount surprised Reisfeld, because a DCF plan had called for Occean to remain there. Reisfeld contacted Perlmutter and noted the department had not applied for a special immigrant juvenile visa -- a necessity if Occean was to remain in foster care after age 18. On April 3, 2000, Miami Beach attorney Alan Mishael filed a federal lawsuit against DCF on Occean's behalf, claiming the agency had been negligent in failing to apply for the young man's green card. The case was settled out of court November 21 of that year, and Occean's benefits, including education and medical care, were reinstated, Perlmutter reports.

In addition Reisfeld learned the DCF had failed to secure a green card for Occean's younger brother, O'Bryan, still a minor and in foster care. Cognizant of his older brother's fate, Reisfeld set out to help O'Bryan, a move that would directly lead to his dismissal.

Joshua Prezant
Irving Reisfeld fought for Broward's foster kids as a volunteer guardian ad litem until his dismissal last fall
Joshua Prezant
Irving Reisfeld fought for Broward's foster kids as a volunteer guardian ad litem until his dismissal last fall

Marvette McDowell, who is 22 years old, lives in a tidy complex just off State Road 7 in Lauderdale Lakes with her four children: Andrea, age 7; Kenoya, age 4; Keneka, age 3; and Keno, age 1. The five of them share a three-bedroom apartment with Kimberly Jones, a friend of Marvette's who is weeks from giving birth to her first child. The apartment is a big improvement, she says with certainty, from the two-bedroom place the six of them left in January. And it's a long way from the often-impoverished life she had as a teen living with her four brothers and Andrea in a succession of homes in Fort Lauderdale. Still, she sighs wistfully, she sometimes wishes Reisfeld were still her GAL.

McDowell was about ten years old when Reisfeld became involved with her family. Broward Circuit Court Judge Arthur Birken, who oversaw many local juvenile dependency cases until he was reassigned in early 1999, asked Reisfeld to check on Marvette's brother, Bobby, who had missed too many days of school. After investigating Reisfeld recommended Marvette, Bobby, and two other brothers be placed under DCF supervision. The children would continue living with their great aunt, Dorothy Shepherd, who eked out a living as best she could. A DCF caseworker would monitor their care. Shepherd had raised Marvette's mother, Shelby, who had become involved with drugs. Shepherd took on raising her great nephews and niece but was overwhelmed by the task.

Marvette recalls life improving once Judge Birken assigned Reisfeld as GAL for the four siblings. "For instance, my little brothers, they ain't never going to school, always getting kicked out," she says. "[Irv] is the type of person who'll push the issue, push the issue, push the issue, push the issue. You can't help a person who really don't want to be helped, but I think sometimes people give up too easy. He ain't never give up. No matter how hard he tried, he ain't never, ever give up. He'd take my brother to school, sign him up, then get him clothes to go to school. He tried a whole lot."

As a teen Marvette hated school; she says she picked fights to get kicked out. Reisfeld, however, was determined to start her thinking about the future. "He'd always be saying, "Marvette, what you wanna do? What you wanna be in life? Let's pick out a goal.' He'd take out a piece of paper and he'd write: This is what you're going to do in the future. He'd say, "In order for you to get your high-school diploma and be a nurse, you have to stay in school.' He was always telling me that, but it was, like, in one ear and out the other."

At age 14 Marvette gave birth to Andrea. Seven days later Shelby died of complications from AIDS. During a hearing soon after Andrea's birth, the court awarded custody of the newborn to Shepherd. "At the time I didn't know nothin' about no baby," says Marvette, who wanted her great aunt to receive custody. Reisfeld was assigned as Andrea's GAL, and he advocated for the two generations living in the Shepherd household.

However, during a November 1999 dependency court hearing, Reisfeld learned Circuit Judge John Frusciante had terminated Andrea's DCF supervision on June 22. Reisfeld had been on vacation at Bonita Beach near Naples during that hearing, but before leaving he had filed a report recommending continued department oversight. With his usual aggressiveness, Reisfeld began asking questions about Andrea's case, an inquiry that would soon have him butting heads with GAL administrators.

Ultimately the Supreme Court of Florida oversees the guardian ad litem program, but day-to-day administration is local. Any complaint about the program in Broward is filed with director Jeanette Wagner and can be appealed to trial court administrator Carol Lee Ortman. The county's chief judge, Dale Ross, is the final arbiter. In the months leading up to his termination, Reisfeld would get little satisfaction from any of them.

Reisfeld was still looking for answers about Andrea's court case as he prepared for a 4:15 p.m. court hearing on December 19, 1999. All morning his sciatic nerve had been nagging him. The shooting leg pains intensified as the day went on, becoming more distracting. He called the GAL office early in the afternoon and again at 3:30 before leaving for the courthouse to confirm the hearing with Master General Lee Seidman. (General masters hear testimony and make reports, which, if approved by a judge, become decisions of the court.)

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