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.

Jary Reed remembers the phone ringing and the rush of words that followed. "It was Eddie Lanzetta," the youth minister recalls. "He said, 'Jary, they're coming to take my kids! What am I gonna do? Can you help me?'" Reed, who had met the entire Lanzetta family several years earlier and befriended the older children, agreed to help. On the evening of March 13, 1992, a Friday, he drove to the North Dade Investigations Unit, where he found the four youngest Lanzettas huddled in the waiting room, terrified.

Initially Reed entreated HRS supervisor Gwen Coley to return the children to their parents. Coley, Reed recalls, wanted them moved to an HRS shelter, agency procedure when no relatives are available. The shelters turned out to be full, though, says Reed, and he was able to persuade Coley to release the children into his custody, with the parents' approval.

No big deal, he figured; the whole mess would be ironed out by Monday. But with a new bride and a two-bedroom house, Reed was in no position to accommodate four kids, even for a weekend. HRS allowed him to send the two youngest (then aged one and three) to Kent and Heidi Keller, a young South Miami couple with no children. The Reeds kept twelve-year-old Mark and his eight-year-old little sister.

As practical as the solution appeared to Reed, it set into motion a complex legal process. Whenever children are taken from an allegedly unsafe home, state law requires that a juvenile court "trial" be held within three weeks. If the charges against the parents are found to be true by a preponderance of evidence, the children are declared wards of the state and placed in foster care. Every month in Dade HRS files between 90 and 120 motions for such hearings, an infusion that has pushed to 3000 the number of children in foster care. Because of this volume, the three week mandate is rarely followed.

In the Lanzettas' case, HRS sought to devise a plan that would allow the parents to reclaim their children without going to trial. To accomplish this, agency officials laid out certain conditions for reunification, stipulating that the children would remain in foster care until a juvenile court judge determined the conditions had been met. In the meantime, weekly visits would be permitted, under HRS supervision.

At first neither parent was cooperative. But Anne Lanzetta's suicide attempt spurred a turnaround. A few weeks after the incident, she checked into Concept House, an intensive drug and alcohol treatment center. Although Eddie initially reacted by showing up at the facility and haranguing the staff, he too soon realized he needed help, and in June he signed on as an outpatient. The program required both Lanzettas to attend daily counseling sessions to deal with family and personal problems and to undergo weekly drug tests. Anne would remain at Concept House for six months, after which she spent three months as an outpatient. Eddie logged six months as an outpatient. The couple also became regulars at Alcoholics Anonymous.

"Our HRS workers told us we were doing the right thing and that we'd get our kids back," Eddie Lanzetta recalls of that time. "I thought everything was going great. Our visits with the kids seemed to be going good. Anne and I went to couples' counseling. I even remodeled the whole house for when the kids returned."

In July, one of them did. Amy, then sixteen, returned home to live with her father, after failing to adjust to several foster homes.

Progress was also reflected in court-ordered evaluations by psychologist Sim centsn Miranda. In a March 1992 report, Miranda wrote that the Lanzettas were "a basically dysfunctional couple [whose] ability to care for any child is marginal at best," but by autumn his assessment had changed. "Anne has greatly benefitted from psychological treatment," he noted in a subsequent evaluation. "It is highly likely that upon completion of her treatment, she will be ready to resume her parenting duties."

HRS workers, too, were impressed by Anne Lanzetta's progress. But as her Concept House checkout date neared, they recommended that she establish a separate residence to care for the children apart from her husband, at least until he had worked out his deeper psychological problems in therapy. Sim centsn Miranda concurred. "Mr. Lanzetta has been making progress in dealing with his problems and his successes should be rewarded with the opportunity to be with and care for his children in his wife's home," the psychologist concluded.

Anne Lanzetta says she considered taking the state's recommendation, but when she left the rehab program in late October, she moved back in with Eddie. "I didn't just want to throw away seventeen years of my life," she says now. "I wanted to make my whole family work, and that included my marriage." In November Juvenile Court Magistrate Marshall Farkas granted Anne periodic unsupervised visits with the kids and permitted Eddie to see them on the condition that his wife be present. The entire family spent the Sunday before Thanksgiving together and reconvened on Christmas Eve. "We had a great time," Eddie remembers. "Anne and I saved up all year to get the kids presents, and I had a friend dressed like Santa Claus who drove up in a limo to deliver them. It felt like everything was coming together."

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