Guardian Gone

Joshua Prezant

Irving Reisfeld has that sound in his voice. Sitting at a small desk in a disheveled office, he has just reached a human on the phone after a lengthy time on hold. From his end the conversation sounds lopsided; Reisfeld's words drip impatience and pick up velocity. He's slipped into advocate mode, a land where tact is checked at the gate.

Why, after two and a half weeks, he wants to know, has the doctor not yet provided a referral to a specialist for his wife's bone-density test? "Look, we're health-conscious people," says the 68-year-old Reisfeld, the Bronx of his youth quite audible. "We exercise. We watch our diet. We watch our salt intake. So when the doctor said he thought she should check this out, we took it seriously."

Then he hangs up. "Five times we've called for a referral."

The phone exchange annoyed him, yes, but it was also invigorating -- a blast of adrenaline that had been routine when he was a volunteer advocate for neglected and abused kids. Reisfeld is lanky with the efficient look of a long-distance runner. A tangle of tiny wrinkles cascades below his eyes, a crease for each of the 100 kids he's sweated over during the past 16 years.

Until he was fired last fall for disrespecting court personnel and ignoring rules, Reisfeld was an outstanding guardian ad litem -- rigorous, aggressive, and meticulous. The Broward program's director, Jeanette Wagner, nominated Reisfeld for a national advocate of the year award in 1998. One former guardian who worked with Reisfeld for almost a decade compared his relentless style to "a flea -- he just keeps scratching and scratching."

Reisfeld's dismissal calls into question the priorities of an organization charged with safeguarding foster children and underscores an inherent conflict of interest in the program, which is overseen locally by the Broward County Office of the Court Administrator. A guardian ad litem's mandate is to represent the interests of children "overlooked in the complicated and overburdened adversary process" of the courts, according to a brochure. The program administrators are part of the court system, a small, pressure cooker world of competing interests. Unlike many other states, where ad litem programs are administered by private foundations, Florida maintains no such independence. Nor does it have a credible appeals process for grievances.

Ed Pudaloff is 80 years old and lives in Las Vegas, but two decades ago he was one of Broward's first guardians ad litem. "It was tough to get started, because we were laypeople, and the court had a hard time accepting us," he says. "It's a very burnout thing. Some of the things you see... it can be very frustrating."

The Florida Legislature established the state's guardian ad litem (GAL) program in response to the federal Childhood Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974. The act offered millions in funding for abused children. To qualify for the money, each state had to set up a GAL program. The resulting programs vary by state, but all are intended to provide advocates for neglected children in court, at social service agencies, and in the community. All Florida's GALs are volunteers. They are assigned to conduct thorough, independent investigations on behalf of children, then submit recommendations to judges.

The number of volunteers in the Broward program has grown steadily, from a handful in 1980, to 75 in 1990, to about 426 today. But there still aren't enough to meet demand. Turnover is high because the work can be stressful. Volunteers typically last about 15 months. More than a third of Broward's foster children are without guardians ad litem because of the shortfall. Even if enough people could be found, the program's annual budget of $800,000 is only about half the amount necessary to coordinate a full complement of volunteers. (Statewide GAL programs assign guardians to fewer than half the children who should have them, according to Mike Dale, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University.)

Spurring the need for conscientious GALs is the area's lousy history of caring for foster kids. In October 1998 the Youth Law Center, a child-advocacy group based in San Francisco, sued the state on behalf of 1100 Broward foster children. The suit claimed the youths had been assigned to unsafe, overcrowded homes. In one instance, an older foster boy beat a three-year-old girl on the head with a ceramic towel holder. She suffered a concussion and was hospitalized for several days. In another case a teenage male forced an eight-year-old boy to perform oral sex. The class-action suit was settled in May 2000; an agreement specified the Broward district of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) would develop adequate foster homes, residential treatment centers, and therapeutic services.  

In June 2000 Tallahassee-based attorney Karen Gievers filed suit in federal court against the DCF for 22 foster children statewide who, she said, had been abused or neglected. Gievers describes the state's foster system as "entirely dysfunctional." The case remains in litigation.

Joseph Mezynski says he knows a good place to talk, a nearby favorite hangout. It's a wedge of a park squeezed between a railroad track and fishpond near Knights Road and Johnson Street in Hollywood. He discovered it during his free time wandering around the neighborhood. It's a quiet place to think, away from the hubbub of the COSAC Foundation homeless shelter, where the 18-year-old has lived for almost a year. He sports a mustache that remains boyish and fuzzy; his hair is moussed and spiky. He's clad in black faux-snakeskin boots, polo shirt, and black slacks. He takes great care in dressing neatly, he says, an idiosyncrasy for which he takes some razzing at the shelter, where he pays $410 a month for an apartment he shares with two other men.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.  

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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