By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
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One month later, police arrested Darel and charged her with custodial interference. Prosecutors dropped the charge, but the act has haunted her ever since. In court papers, ACS lawyers and Judge Sturm refer to how she "kidnapped" or "abducted" her daughter. Caseworkers and the Family Court judge stripped her of visitation rights. And they laid out a plan to grant her ex-husband temporary custody.
By then, Darel had become a vocal critic of the Family Court system. She organized protests outside ACS and distributed flyers outside the Brooklyn foster-care agency responsible for her daughter. She published a small book, Kidnapped, replete with her daughter's scrawled notes.
She also produced a cable TV show that she dubbed The Real News, which still airs in Manhattan on channel 57. At first, she would feature other parents with Family Court horror stories. But as her case escalated, she devoted more and more of the program to it. In the real world, she would show up at public events where the judge and ACS officials were to appear, and ask rude questions. Sometimes she would ambush her targets with a video camera, chasing them and yelling about her case.
"I would walk out of my office and, suddenly, there Dyandria would be taking pictures of me and shouting about how I handled her case," says one of her targets, who spoke to the Voice on condition of anonymity. Darel never threatened this source or got violent, but she spooked the source nevertheless. "She is very personal in the way she attacks those who have handled her case," the source explains.
In the winter of 2001, Darel began putting her daughter on TV too. Days before her January 24 arrest, she appeared with her kid on an amateur set, side by side, fielding questions from a local host. In the hour-long segment, Darel did most of the talking. Her daughter looked happy, bouncing in her chair.
"I feel great now," she told the host. "I'm with my mom."
The girl told the host how much she hated foster care, how her father could be "mean." When asked about the alleged abuse, she nodded her head.
"I want to stay with my mom forever," she exclaimed, holding her mother's hand.
It didn't take long for word of the interview to get back to court. On February 20, according to appellate records, the father "advised the court that [Darel] was broadcasting on a local access cable television show an interview she conducted of [the girl] about Mr. M. and purported sex abuse." In response, Family Court Judge Susan Larabee, who briefly presided over the proceedings, issued the first of many orders of protection against Darel.
As the name implies, such an order is meant to protect one litigant from anotherprimarily battered spouses from abusive partners. Family-law experts say a judge has wide latitude when issuing the orders. They can require a party to stay away from people and places, and refrain from committing criminal offenses like assault and harassment. Typically they're not intended to prohibit people from speaking out.
Family album: Dyandria Darel with her daughter
In this instance, Judge Larabee issued a fairly standard order, demanding Darel keep away from her ex-husband, his wife, and her daughter, as well as their home, workplaces, and school. "Refrain from assault, stalking, harassment, menacing, reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct, intimidation, threats, or any criminal offense," the order read. It also directed that Darel not interfere with the care and custody of the child.
For Darel, this language meant one thing: "Don't go near my ex-husband and daughter." But she kept airing her TV show and posting her flyers. She set up shop outside the Brooklyn foster-care agency, passing out leaflets and soliciting relatives of kids in foster care for a class-action lawsuit.
That's when ACS took legal action to stop Darel from speaking. Agency spokesperson Sheila Steinback refused to speak with the Voice about any aspect of the Darel case, citing confidentiality issues and the pending litigation. She referred questions to city lawyers, who also declined to comment. In September 2001, according to court records, ACS (initially through its designee) filed a motion against Darel alleging she had violated the protective order. The agency argued that Darel's repeated airing of the TV segment featuring her daughter and repeated posting of flyers "constitutes menacing and harassing the father . . . and it interferes with the care and custody of the child."
As part of the motion, agency lawyers submitted three affidavits from employees. Two said they had watched the taped show on a Long Island public-access station. The third said he had witnessed Darel posting flyers outside the foster-care agency, on "trees, electrical poles, and dumpsters." The motion included copies of the leaflets, one of which said:
THIS IS A FOSTER CARE AGENCY THAT IS OPERATED BY DEMONS WHO SLEEP WITH THE DEVIL . . . WE HAVE A CASE WHEREBY A COP RAPED HIS LITTLE GIRL. . . . ACS HOWEVER ARE 'POLICE FRIENDLY' . . . AND WILL LET COPS GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING.
The next day, Judge Sturm, who had taken over the case, amended the protective order. The judge banned Darel from using "the subject child's likeness or name in any broadcast television or radio show," as the September 25 document states, and to stop posting flyers using names of the child, the father, or the foster-care agency. She also prohibited Darel from communicating with the father by phone or e-mail. In court, Sturm began presiding over hearings on the ACS contempt petition.