By Michael E. Miller
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By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
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McGillis is convinced the DCF is partly responsible for his sister's death. He's even filed a wrongful death suit in civil court against the agency. Karen Gievers, a top lawyer from Tallahassee who has won multimillion-dollar cases against the DCF on behalf of kids all over Florida, is representing McGillis. “There are children with no mom, and if the State of Florida contributed to their loss, then I will seek justice for them,” Gievers promises.
McGillis had first reached out to the department when Wendolyn came to Miami in September 1997. He assisted her in drafting a letter to the DCF, which she signed, asking the state's welfare agency to refer her and her children to therapy and waive her welfare-to-work obligations. In the letter Wendolyn also expressed that she feared an unnamed man who had “threatened to kill me and my children if I ever left him, and he is presently looking for me, calling all persons associated with me, including my brother, Darrin McGillis, who is responsible for helping me escape from him with the help of the Salt Lake City Police Department.”
Two months later McGillis had pleaded with Imran Ali, director of the division of family support for the DCF, and Anita Bock, Miami-Dade's former DCF administrator, to intervene on his sister's behalf, something Ali confirmed in court that first day. “Mr. McGillis met with myself and Anita Bock about three weeks ago, and he had shared a lot of information with us,” Ali told the judge.
“They just brushed me off,” McGillis claims. Eventually Gerald Benge managed to locate Wendolyn's whereabouts through a private investigator and began living with her in Section 8 housing, against subsidized housing rules, until her death. Benge turned down a request for an interview.
Charles Auslander, current district administrator for Miami-Dade's DCF, explains that while the agency could not provide a “fortress” for Wendolyn, she at least was receiving economic services, and a protective investigator had been to her home. Furthermore, upon receipt of the September letter, the DCF had referred Wendolyn for a mental examination, but she missed her appointment, says DCF's chief legal counsel Linda Wells. “That's a bunch of crock,” McGillis comments. “They never took action.”
McGillis also has one hell of a conspiracy theory. He believes the DCF is responsible for current criminal charges pending against him for not returning a rental car and for purchasing about $22,000 in computer equipment with a false company name and not paying for it. McGillis asserts both charges are bogus, part of the DCF's plan to get him out of the picture. Alan Soven, his defense lawyer, claims the state agency may have used its clout to influence the charges. “DCF has been trying to stick it to him,” Soven contends. Auslander scoffs at the idea. “There is no cabal against Mr. McGillis,” Auslander says. “If things were organized enough around here to conspire, I would be impressed.”
To say McGillis is persistent in his jabs at the system would be an understatement. “I've advised him not to file so many appeals and to lay low,” says an appeals attorney who asked not to be identified. “He's so emotionally involved with the case that he appeals every order he disagrees with.” Yet, with the calculated determination of a skilled attorney, McGillis has been able to hit more than a few raw nerves.
The high school dropout spends hours researching legal precedents at the University of Miami School of Law library, picks the brains of attorneys whom he befriends, orally argues his own appeals, and has even made case law. He has filed a Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) on his own against Benge, even though the DCF plans on reuniting the father with his kids, ages three and five. He has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to remove Judge Jeri Cohen from the dependency case because he thinks she's biased against him. (The high court turned down his request.) McGillis has even filed a bar complaint against DCF attorney Lucy Piniero for allegedly misrepresenting facts in court, though the Florida Bar concluded there had been no misconduct committed by Piniero. He also sued the paternal grandmother of one of the children for slandering him, and won. “He's not laying down,” says attorney Virginia Stanley. “A little gnat like Darrin comes along and points out there's a major screwup, and DCF digs in its heels. They've placed a lot of time and energy in trying to make Darrin look like the most sinister man to walk the Earth. I think it's basically been a smear campaign directed at him.”
Like Stanley, who believes McGillis is right to question Wendolyn's suicide given the history of domestic violence that existed between the mother of seven and Benge, Karl Hall, another attorney familiar with the case, contends McGillis's cynicism has merit. Hall asserts that in juvenile courthouse culture -- where most cases are brought to court by the DCF -- the relatives of minors who become litigants are generally discriminated against by the courts simply because the system is not accustomed to having family members present their cases. “If you're not with the program, then for some reason you're a troublemaker,” says Hall. “That's the problem with Darrin's case; he's not going with the program. The program being whatever the Department of Children and Families says it is.” Adds Stanley: “Darrin's style has cost him dearly.”