By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A police report released 10 months after a bizarre condo pool spat has vindicated a woman whose family suffered when a stranger claimed she’d ignored her baby, threatened to take away her kids and alerted child safety enforcers.
The woman, Olga Mervyak, identified the stranger as West Palm Beach Circuit Court Judge Renatha Francis. A month after the July 4 incident, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Francis to the Florida Supreme Court.
Mervyak said Francis’s husband, Phillip Fender, who was also at Cityside Condominiums in West Palm Beach, walked into a shaded pool pavilion and carelessly handled her 10-month-old baby without permission.
He reached into her stroller, unbuckled and lifted out the crying infant to examine a rash on the back of her shoulder, and set her down on wobbly legs; her 12-year-old sister rushed over to grab her before she could fall, according to Mervyak.
Fender, 60, who parented two young boys with Francis, died on Nov. 27. No cause of death was released.
Fender was a motivational speaker, government consultant and the director of House of Protection, a faith-based charity in Pompano Beach. He was also a DeSantis-appointed, non-lawyer member of the commission that nominates Palm Beach County trial judges.
PROBES TURN UP NOTHING
Following up on a complaint from a tipster at the Cityside condo pool, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) investigated the Mervyaks – Olga and her husband, Oleg – at their home in Poinciana. The agency referred the matter to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Poinciana is in Polk County, Central Florida.
The Mervyaks, who believe that Francis was the tipster, have clean police and DCF records. No child-protection action was taken and no charges involving the July 4 condo pool incident were filed against Olga Mervyak. Both investigations were over by the time Francis joined the high court on Sept. 1.
The police report doesn’t identify the tipster, in keeping with the confidentiality accorded judges and other mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect. The writer seemed to painstakingly avoid casting any blame on an unnamed “someone” the report depicts as scrambling to help an abandoned baby in distress.
“The child was released from the car seat and the child immediately stood up in the car seat to stretch,” Officer Michelle Groves wrote in her Aug. 30 report, obviously repeating the tipster’s narrative.
Shifting to her own observations, Groves continued, “The child had visible red markings on her back that appeared to the undersigned [officer] to be the beginning of, or already healed red skin breakdowns, that appeared to be caused by spending long periods of time on her back.”
The rash that incited Francis and Fender was contact dermatitis – treatable with an ointment – and the baby cried because she was teething, Olga Mervyak said.
“Contact dermatitis is an itchy rash caused by direct contact with a substance or an allergic reaction to it. The rash isn’t contagious, but it can be very uncomfortable” until it subsides in two to four weeks, according to the Mayo Clinic website.
NO ‘INADEQUATE SUPERVISION’
Oddly, the police report doesn’t say exactly where the condo pool encounter took place.
The only hint the location was West Palm Beach is a reference to the baby’s uncle. Olga Mervyak and her four daughters were visiting him at Cityside on that fateful Fourth of July.
The report says the uncle “who was also at the event…confirmed that [redacted] was not left unattended.”
The sheriff’s child protection unit “closed the investigation…no indicator for inadequate supervision. Based on the evidence presented to me this referral is being closed. The mother and older child [redacted] denied that [redacted] was left unattended. There were no disclosures from any of the children and no injuries,” Officer Groves wrote.
“Justice Francis respectfully declines to respond,” Supreme Court spokesman Paul Flemming wrote when Florida Bulldog asked for her comment. Francis has neither confirmed nor denied she complained to DCF about Olga Mervyak.
LAWYERS AVOID MERVYAKS
Mervyak said when she saw Fender with her baby she confronted Francis, who declared she was a judge and “mandatory reporter” of child maltreatment. “She was very assertive, almost yelling,” Mervyak said, “telling me, ‘I will take your children away from you for abuse and neglect.’ “
Mervyak responded angrily – she used “expletive-laden language,” the tipster complained – and left. Later, remembering the officious woman claimed to be a judge, she searched the internet and found Francis and Fender.
Their appearance at Cityside was unsurprising because Francis and her family used to live there, Mervyak’s relatives told her. One of Fender’s businesses had a Cityside address.
The following weeks were tough for the Mervyak family. They said sheriff’s deputies pestered their neighbors and tried to interview Olga and her husband Oleg, who refused to speak without an attorney present. Oleg Mervyak was away on business when his wife and daughters went to Cityside for the Fourth of July.
The Mervyaks approached at least a half-dozen lawyers who wanted nothing to do with their situation because it apparently involved Francis, a sitting judge everyone knew would soon be a Supreme Court justice. Finally they found a lawyer who was willing to attend a DCF interview with them.
“She put us through a wringer,” Oleg Mervyak said. His children were traumatized by the threat of being taken from their parents. And the oldest girl, the babysitter on July 4, had panic attacks and a breakdown when a DCF investigator questioned her, he said.
A SLOW RECORD RELEASE
Still, the Mervyaks decided to not take any action such as filing a complaint against Francis with the Judicial Qualifications Commission. “We just want to be left alone,” Oleg Mervyak said.
The couple spoke with Florida Bulldog soon after the condo pool incident. Last week they declined to comment about the police report that exonerates Olga Mervyak.
Florida Bulldog sent the Polk County Sheriff’s Office a public records request for the report on Sept. 8. There was no response until a second request went out last week, followed by chats with the records office and a sergeant. The children’s names were redacted from the report that was finally released last Wednesday.
Oleg Mervyak came to America from his native Ukraine more than 20 years ago. When he spoke to Florida Bulldog in late July, he said, “We’re not gonna be bullied. We’re living in the U.S., it’s not freakin’ Russia.”
Months later, he sent this text message: “We’re pretty disillusioned with the whole system at this point. One thing is for sure, we lost any trust we had left in police, courts or lawyers.”
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