By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
High-profile Judge Renatha Francis and her husband, Phillip Fender, provoked a bizarre scene at a condo swimming pool on the Fourth of July, a woman whose family is still reeling from it said.
The woman, Olga Mervyak of Poinciana in Central Florida, and her four daughters were visiting relatives at Cityside Condominiums in West Palm Beach to celebrate the holiday.
By the time they left, a stranger – later identified as Francis – had accused Mervyak of neglecting her children and threatened to have the state take them away, she said. A complaint by the judge apparently triggered investigations of the Mervyak family by the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
Both are unresolved. No charges have been filed.
Last week Polk County Sgt. Peter Lawton told Florida Bulldog the sheriff’s investigation is over, so the case report is a public record; minutes later Lawton called Mervyak and told her the investigation is still active. The report remains off-limits.
‘WE’RE NOT GONNA BE BULLIED’
Lawton did not respond to an email asking him to explain the discrepancy. Nor would he say whether the matter is getting special handling because it was initiated by Francis, a mother, too.
Her words may carry more weight than other people’s. Any day now, Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to announce who will succeed retiring Florida Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson – and Francis leads a short list of candidates under consideration.
At first Mervyak had no idea who the intrusive couple at the pool was. Later she searched the Internet, examined some photos and realized the woman was Judge Renatha Francis of the Palm Beach Circuit Court family division and the man was Phillip Fender, her husband.
Mervyak’s husband, who did not visit West Palm Beach with his family on July 4, expressed outrage weeks later.
“We’re not gonna be bullied. We’re living in the U.S., it’s not freakin’ Russia,” said Oleg Mervyak, who emigrated from Ukraine more than 20 years ago. “Just because this lady is a judge, it doesn’t mean she can do whatever she wants.
“She put us through a wringer.” He said his children were traumatized by the thought of being separated from their parents and the oldest girl, who just turned 13, suffered panic attacks and a breakdown when a DCF investigator questioned her.
FRANCIS TARGETS BABY’S RASH
Still, Mervyak doesn’t plan to sue anyone or file an ethics complaint against Francis. “We just want to be left alone,” he said.
According to the Mervyaks’ account, on July 4 their oldest daughter was with her 10-month-old sister in a covered pool-side pavilion. The teething baby was crying when a man and a woman walked up to the stroller. Urged on by the woman, Francis, the man reached inside, unbuckled the baby and lifted her out. A red rash was visible on her back shoulder area. (A doctor diagnosed contact dermatitis and prescribed an ointment.)
The man, Fender, set the baby down on her unsteady little legs and her sister rushed over and grabbed her. By now they had the full attention of Olga Mervyak, who had been keeping tabs on her other two children in the pool.
She confronted Francis. Apparently incensed by the rash and the baby’s cries, Francis declared she was a judge and “mandatory reporter” of child mistreatment – and pounced, according to Mervyak.
“She was very assertive, almost yelling,” Mervyak said, “telling me, ‘I will take your children away from you for abuse and neglect.’ ”
In addition to blaming the mother for the baby’s rash, she said Francis scolded her for leaving her children “unattended for hours at a time” and for keeping the baby in a stuffy location. In fact, it was an open-air pavilion.
JUDGES REPORT ANONYMOUSLY
“If the situation was that dire, why didn’t she call the police on me or DCF right at that moment?” Mervyak asked recently. “Why didn’t she remove my kids from me right then and there if she thought I was such an unfit mother?”
The argument escalated into a dramatic scene that ended only when Mervyak and her children left the pool. She returned briefly with some final advice for the judge. “I told her the next time she has a problem with the way someone parents their kids, she can pull them aside and say something instead of blowing things out of proportion.”
Florida Bulldog sent Francis’ office a request for comment by Francis or Fender and received no response. Contact information for Fender was unavailable.
Certain types of “mandatory reporters,” meaning people who must report evidence of child abuse or neglect when they see it, are not legally required to identify themselves by name. As a judge, Francis is one of them.
Mervyak’s relatives said Francis’ presence at Cityside Condominiums was unsurprising because she and her family once lived there; they moved away about a year ago. Consistent with that, a Cityside address is listed for one of Fender’s businesses.
FRANCIS’S HUSBAND HELPS PICK JUDGES
Fender is CEO of Transformation Media Group Inc., which, according to his entry on the website about.me, does government consulting and legal and medical referrals and formulates global contact centers and merchant payment processes. He is also a motivational speaker and the director of House of Protection, a faith-based charity in Pompano Beach.
Fender is a non-lawyer member of the Judicial Nominating Commission that helps select trial judges for the 15th Judicial Circuit of Palm Beach County. Francis was already a judge there when DeSantis appointed her husband to the commission in early 2020.
Months later the governor chose Judge Renatha Francis for the Supreme Court. The appointment fizzled and DeSantis reportedly has pre-selected her for the upcoming opening.
The Mervyaks didn’t want to face the DCF and Polk County Sheriff’s Office investigations without legal counsel. But the first half-dozen lawyers they approached demurred, and the Mervyaks believe they found the Francis connection off-putting.
Finally, they found someone willing to represent them, Yuliya Pollack, a family and criminal defense lawyer in Casselberry. And they decided to tell their story about Frances.
“It’s an example for our daughters,” Oleg Mervyak said. “We decided if we go public, it would probably be the best protection we could get from her harassing us again.”