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Dyandria Darel is a tiny woman who speaks in a soft voice and often walk s hunched over a cane because of a decades-old injury. Yet when Darel, 58, plants herself outside the downtown offices of the New York City Administration for Children's Services, people stop. They stare. And when they finally move on, some can't help looking back.
Every week, Darel can be found pacing along the 150 William Street block, protesting the way ACS caseworkers have handled her now closed case. In 1997, the department alleged that Darel's ex-husband, a retired New York City police detective, had molested their daughter. But a series of complicated twists in Manhattan Family Court would cause judges to drop the accusation as "unproven," find Darel guilty of neglect, and place her daughter in foster care. Eventually, she lost custody for good to the man whom ACS had once accused of abuse. The outcome has fueled an eight-year war of words for Darel.
"ACS caseworkers are directly involved in giving custody to a pedophile cop!" she booms to the lunch crowd on a recent Monday. Nearly every passerby stares at Darel, who is carrying a sign almost as big as she is. It calls out caseworkers by name and reads: ACS GAVE A PEDOPHILE COP SOLE CUSTODY OF THE CHILD HE SEXUALLY ASSAULTED. But what draws people's attention isn't the text so much as the imagean old, blown-up photograph Darel purports to be of her former husband, naked, lying in bed with their young daughter, his hands on his crotch.
People walk past Darel without taking their eyes off that picture. They look bewildered, disgusted, angry. They mutter, "That's terrible!" or "That's some sick puppy!"
For Darel, their outrage may be the desired effect. But her tactics, including public displays of this photo, have gotten her into trouble in the past, even landing her in jail.
Darel first went public with the image in 2002, circulating it to school officials and broadcasting it on local cable TV. By then, she had long been posting flyers and producing a public-access show about what she terms the injustices of her case. For years she had been railing about the alleged sexual abuse and dogging Family Court judges, ACS caseworkers, and lawyers with ties to the matter. Judges had been issuing protective orders against Darel, citing her daughter's well-being. The more Darel protested, the more these judges limited what she could say and do on TV and in print. In October 2002, Manhattan Family Court Judge Helen Sturm sentenced Darel to three years in jail for contempt, finding she had violated those orders. Darel sat behind bars at Rikers Island for 28 months before her release, in February 2005.
Today, Darel is suing Sturm, among other city and private defendants, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, alleging that the sentence was unconstitutional and "in excess of jurisdiction." Dated September 1, the 17-page complaint argues that Sturm violated her due-process rights by incarcerating her for so long without a jury trial. The judge violated her free-speech rights, the suit further claims, by "interfering with plaintiff's ability to telecast criticisms about the family court and the Administration for Children's Services."
Family album: Dyandria Darel with her daughter
In a parallel strategy, Darel is preparing to file, on April 17, a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case. That petition is based on her constitutional right to a jury trial.
"The Family Court judge just went berserk," she charges.
Sturm (through the court's spokesperson) declined to speak with the Voice or to respond to an e-mailed list of questions, citing the pending litigation. A recent visit to her courtroom revealed a jurist acting with efficiency and empathy. Yet in her rulings on Darel's contempt, it becomes clear that the judge had lost all patience with the motherperhaps understandably.
"Since the child was removed from her care, [Darel] has conducted a reign of terror against her daughter and her former spouse," Sturm wrote, in one of three decisions on the contempt proceedings. "This Court finds this behavior to constitute very serious violence indeed."
Constitutional lawyers interviewed for this article say they can't fathom, at first blush, how Darel could sit in Rikers for nearly three years without a jury trial and without being convicted of any crime. Under established constitutional law, they say, no judge can send someone to jail for more than six months without offering them a jury trial. Nor do experts grasp how a person could be held in contempt for what amounts to public speech.
Sturm's orders of protection limiting Darel's ability to say and do certain things on TV and in leaflets didn't make sense to Leon Friedman, who teaches constitutional law at Hofstra Law School. "That sounds strange to me," he offers. "She should have a First Amendment right to tell the full story of her complaints against the Family Court and the agency," he says. The allegation against her ex-husband was dropped long ago; if he believes Darel is libeling him, the only available remedy is to file a civil suit. Friedman cites a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court appeal of a case in which noted attorney Johnnie Cochran got a gag order on a disgruntled client who'd taken to protesting outside his office. Wrong move, declared the Supreme Court. "They said courts cannot enjoin someone from libeling someone else," Friedman explains. "You have to file a civil suit for damages."