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Guardian Gone

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.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson

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