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.

Their stories are nothing like fables, but akin, as the Lanzettas' former attorney Leonard Cooperman observes, to Greek tragedies, in which all characters concede there are problems but no one seems capable of solving them, in which all believe they have done right but wind up feeling wronged.

On October 14, 1975, Edward Lanzetta and Anne Marie Finch were married in Hightstown, New Jersey, Eddie's hometown. The affair was small, owing in part to the fact that the bride was three months pregnant.

The second of three boys born to first-generation Italian parents, Eddie Lanzetta was by all accounts the family hell-raiser, a fiercely independent kid with a snaggled smile, a beak nose, and eyes as blue as Frank Sinatra's. By his late teens he'd fallen in with a bad crowd, begun using drugs of all varieties, and been arrested after an aborted pot deal. Upon graduating from high school he traveled, mostly on the carnival circuit, and flirted with becoming a jockey, a profession suited to his small, wiry frame. At 22 he met Anne, a winsome but troubled 18-year-old whose parents, both alcoholics, had divorced after she accused her father of sexually abusing her. Within months of their first meeting, Anne was pregnant and Eddie's wanderlust was extinguished by a marriage for which neither he nor his bride was fully prepared.

The next year the couple moved to Miami, where Eddie endeavored to become a golf pro like his father. When that failed he launched a yard maintenance business, a venture that thrived for a time, while his family multiplied. Amy, the eldest, was followed in two-year intervals by Linda and Mark. Four years later Anne gave birth to a third daughter. In 1987 the family moved to West Palm Beach, but a lucrative job offer there promptly fell through, necessitating a move back to Dade. Over the next five years the couple's finances plummeted, their drug use soared. To make matters worse, Anne bore another daughter and son. The latter, according to HRS records, was kept at Jackson Memorial Hospital for a month after birth because crack cocaine was found in his bloodstream. He, like his siblings, was blond, fair-skinned, and beautiful.

A self-described "working man" deeply stung by his failure as a breadwinner, Eddie began to vent his frustration on his wife and older children. Corporal punishment, which he had always employed, gave way to more serious altercations, usually triggered by excessive drinking. On several occasions he called Amy and Linda "whores" and branded Mark a "faggot."

"You were always in fright when he came home because you never knew how he was going to be," recalls Linda, who turned sixteen earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Anne Lanzetta recalls, she was retreating into a bottle. Her capacity to care for her two youngest children diminished, and her drug use, once shielded from her kids, became flagrant.

As Amy and Linda entered adolescence, their behavior started to reflect the chaotic nature of their home life. Both skipped school regularly, and Amy began using drugs. She also fought with her mother; during one fight she injured Anne Lanzetta. The girls would take off for South Dade for entire weekends, a two-hour trip on public transportation. There they stayed at the homes of friends, many of whom were members of Key Biscayne Presbyterian, where the family attended services when they first moved to Miami.

Their father viewed these forays as disobedience. "Those girls didn't care nothing about their own family," he mutters now. "They were doing whatever they wanted." The girls say that while they partied with older teens during these excursions, their primary motive was to escape the violence of their home.

There is little dispute about what happened one particular Sunday night in November 1991. Returning from a weekend in South Dade, the girls found their father in a drunken rage. He began yelling at Linda and gesturing in a threatening manner. Amy, who had exchanged blows with her father a few weeks earlier, became incensed. She lunged at Lanzetta with a kitchen knife and slashed his hand. He banged her against the wall and slammed her to the ground. Forcing both girls into their bedroom, he brandished the knife and an iron and spent the next two hours excoriating them.

The next day Amy and Linda called a friend from Key Biscayne Presbyterian, who contacted HRS. Officials at the agency's North Dade Investigations Unit allowed the girls to find temporary homes with Key Biscayne parishioners, and the agency assigned social workers from a county-run program called Family Builders to help the family recover.

According to the March 1992 report written by Family Builders social worker Althea Williams, the program's efforts met with little success. Eddie Lanzetta denied having a substance-abuse problem, downplayed the violence in his home, and attended only 1 of 26 domestic intervention classes. Anne Lanzetta admitted to an alcohol problem but refused treatment. Williams noted that Anne was in danger of neglecting her youngest children and she recommended to a juvenile court magistrate that the four remaining children be removed from the Lanzetta home.

The Lanzettas, meanwhile, were making plans to take the four kids back to New Jersey, where their families still lived. When Anne called two schools to formally withdraw enrollment, school officials alerted HRS.

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