Guardian Gone

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

When Reisfeld arrived in the courtroom, the bailiff asked Reisfeld if he'd seen the DCF caseworker, who hadn't arrived.

No, Reisfeld said, but he'd go to the GAL office down the hall and call her. There a staffer told Reisfeld the hearing had been postponed. Last-minute cancellations had become increasingly frequent, and Reisfeld had been growing more impatient with the guardian bureaucracy. Reisfeld headed to Judge Ross's office to complain, where by chance he met Seidman. Reisfeld complained about that day's cancellation, lost his temper, and accused Seidman of not caring about kids. Seidman claims he does not remember the incident. That night Reisfeld penned a measured, four-page letter to Chief Judge Ross recounting recent postponements and asking for a chance to address this and other issues. He did not hear back from Ross for several days.

Six days later Wagner sent a letter of warning to Reisfeld: If his behavior didn't change, the missive stated, he would be dismissed from the program. Reisfeld's "accusations" that Seidman "doesn't listen to Guardians and doesn't care about children were inappropriate," Wagner wrote. "You do not speak for the Guardian Ad Litem Program," she added, noting she would not tolerate his "combativeness" toward GAL staff and "derogatory comments" about the program.

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

On January 5, 2000, the GAL program's attorney, Christine Meyer, sent Reisfeld a memo telling him that he was not authorized to look into Andrea's case; it was closed. Reisfeld had been involved with Andrea's family for almost a decade; he believed it was his responsibility, as a GAL, to investigate. It wasn't until nine days later that Reisfeld finally received a copy of the court order regarding Andrea's case. The wording seemed contradictory, both recommending the baby remain under DCF supervision and suggesting the oversight end.

Next Reisfeld spoke with General Master Nicholas Lopane, who had handled Andrea's case. Reisfeld contends Lopane acknowledged he had not read Reisfeld's report. Had Lopane perused the document, the master told Reisfeld, he would not have terminated Andrea's supervision.

While Reisfeld believed the discussion with Lopane was in Andrea's best interest, it proved a critical misstep. On January 25 Wagner sent Reisfeld a fax alleging he had violated the program's code of conduct by talking with the master general. Several days later she faxed Reisfeld an agreement. Sign or face termination, she threatened. Among the conditions: Reisfeld would call his case coordinator only during a one-hour slot each week, except for emergencies. Reisfeld signed, under protest, and then relinquished all but five of the seventeen cases he had been assigned.

The next day Judge Ross called Reisfeld. According to Reisfeld, Ross's response to his complaints was: "Talk them over with your wife." (Neither Lopane nor Ross responded to New Times's requests for interviews.)

The breaking point came this past August, when Reisfeld learned O'Bryan Occean, still a juvenile in foster care, did not have his green card. Although Reisfeld was not O'Bryan's guardian, the boy's case was in the hands of the GAL program. Concerned O'Bryan might face a future like his brother's, Reisfeld called and left several messages for GAL program attorney Meyer.

Wagner notified Reisfeld on August 22 the phone calls were violations of the agreement he had signed. She terminated him as a GAL. "If we give our guardians specific directions, we expect them to follow [them]," says Wagner. "If he felt the child was at risk, there was a specific way to proceed." Reisfeld's behavior had reached a point where it was jeopardizing the credibility of the program, she says, adding, "Irv wants to make this personal. It was never personal."

But given the crises the foster system has faced in recent years, the decision to eliminate Reisfeld is perplexing. The public and the press have little access to the day-to-day operations of the public agencies involved in the foster care system. Thus GAL volunteers constitute the one group with unfettered access to those kids. Reisfeld's dismissal suggests a bureaucracy more interested in status quo than confrontation.

Some who worked beside Reisfeld say he possessed the right blend of chutzpah, common sense, and staying power for an outstanding advocate -- and the county is poorer for his dismissal.

"Irving is probably one of the best guardians we've ever had," says Muriel Abrams, a 78-year-old guardian ad litem who first volunteered around the same time as Reisfeld and is still with the program.

Nancy Weiser was the Broward GAL program director from 1992 until she resigned in 1996. "He looked for redeeming qualities in all his kids," she says. "He didn't always follow the rules. He rubbed people the wrong way sometimes. He's a very kind person with a gruff manner."

"I think to cut out someone like Irv is to cut off your nose to spite your face," Perlmutter says. "He's one of the few guardians I know who will take on what are usually the hardest cases, teenage boys."

"Irv is like a bulldog when he gets on a subject," says Judy Goloff, who was a GAL from 1990 to 1997. "He didn't care who got in the way. He didn't get swayed by politics. He held on to the best interests of the child.... I think what happened to Irv is a miscarriage of justice. I look at him as a casualty of what's happening to advocacy in Broward. What harm was he causing in being a watchdog in a system that doesn't seem to have any? Who's to gain from getting rid of Irv?... He was there for the kids. Who was there for Irv?"

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