A House Divided

When you enter the region where parental rights end and the law steps in, beware. The line is jagged, and it nearly always cuts both ways.

Two years ago on the day after Easter, Anne Lanzetta, once the mother of six children, now the mother of none, decided to end her life. She was watching soap operas at the time, drunk on vodka. A pack of single-edge razors, purchased from the drugstore down the street, sat in her lap.

A month earlier the State of Florida had taken custody of her four youngest children, alleging chronic neglect and emotional abuse by Anne and physical abuse by her husband Eddie. Five months before that, her two eldest daughters had run away from home. Anne had hoped to see all six kids on Easter, at a court-arranged visit, but the children failed to show. Her mood plunged, a drinking binge ensued, then the soaps, and finally the razors.

Her arms, once the supple limbs of a teenage model, were bloated from drink and scabbed with psoriasis. The single-edge blades, though, cut far deeper than the disposables she had used in a previous attempt. Blood quickly puddled beneath her. Seconds before passing out, Anne stumbled to the front door and, in a final act as senseless as her entire life felt, reached out to see if the mail had come. The mailman found her collapsed outside her empty North Miami home, still breathing, white as chalk.

Today, two years later, her friends, family, and therapists will tell you Anne Lanzetta is a different person. She has quit drinking and doing drugs. She has lost weight and taken a job. Her once disastrous marriage is on the rebound. "My life would be perfect," she says. "Except for the kids." Her two sons and four daughters, aged three to seventeen, have yet to return home. By court order, both she and her husband are forbidden to see the three youngest. Last month lawyers from the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) began drawing up a legal petition to sever all relations between the Lanzettas and their children, a process known as Termination of Parental Rights (TPR). By law TPR is the end of the line -- the last rites for parenthood.

For Kent and Heidi Keller, who have cared for the two youngest Lanzetta children since March 1992, TPR promises a new beginning. They didn't ask for the job, the Kellers emphasize; HRS, with the Lanzettas' consent, drafted them. "We went into this really as a rescue operation," says Kent Keller, a former assistant pastor at the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church. "We kept hoping that at some point reality would kick in and these people would deal with their problems and take their kids home."

But as the children's accounts of neglect, beatings, and sexual abuse grew into an Everest of court files, Kent Keller says, his optimism dimmed. Rather than owning up to the brutal acts they committed against their own children, Keller maintains, the Lanzettas have blamed others and shunned the very help they need in order to become fit caretakers. It has been left to a shifting cast of foster parents recruited from Key Biscayne Presbyterian to repair the damage done to the Lanzetta children. For this, Keller adds bitterly, the parents have branded them baby-stealers.

Keller can accept the name-calling. He can deal with the ways the child-protection bureaucracy has frustrated him. But he says he can no longer handle seeing his foster children cringe at the prospect of being returned to their biological parents. The two blond toddlers, who now call him "Daddy," have suffered enough, Kent Keller claims. He wants the abuse -- the anguish of uncertainty -- to end.

He is not wild about the notion of newspaper coverage, however. Like most people involved in child abuse cases, Keller views the press as yet another threat to the children. State and federal lawmakers tend to agree; they have drafted statutes that allow the child-protection system to operate in virtual silence. (The law, for instance, forbids publication of the name of any minor in state custody. Therefore, although the three eldest Lanzetta children say they want their story told and were interviewed for this article, their real names are not used. Their younger siblings are not referred to by name at all.)

A proliferation of abuse reports in the past decade has catapulted the issue into the headlines, but the kinds of cases written about are usually the extremes, in which the abuse is heinous, or the accusations false. In these sagas, good and evil are sharply defined. As in a fable, the morals to be drawn are transparent and, in their transparency, oddly comforting. Most protracted abuse cases, unfortunately, do not conform to type. They are messes of gray, fraught with unanswerable questions: To what degree should the government be allowed to interfere with families on a child's behalf? When do parental rights end and children's rights begin? At what point does the state decide, irrevocably, that parents are not fit to raise the children they bore?

The last of these questions has, for the past year, held the Lanzetta family hostage, where they have plenty of company. Although the vast majority of abused children removed from their homes are eventually reunited with one or both parents, today some 400 children are awaiting TPR proceedings in Dade. In most of these cases the parents have agreed to surrender the children or have abandoned them outright. But some parents have vowed to fight.

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