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.

That bright prognosis was not shared by the Kellers and other families who were caring for the Lanzettas' children. While they were encouraged by the success of the drug treatment program, their view of the couple had darkened considerably after the youngest children arrived. HRS records indicate that the four kids were underweight and had lice. Jary Reed recalls that they also tended to hoard food. Keller says the three-year-old's upper teeth were rotted and badly in need of dental work. The girl's baby brother had poor motor skills and had trouble relating to those around him, possibly as a result of neurological damage from the cocaine in his system at birth.

Also alarming were the horror stories of the kids' family life that emerged in April, during interviews with an HRS-assigned child protection team. The lengthy summary of these interviews included the notation that "[the three-year-old] exhibits symptoms which may be related to sexual abuse," an observation based on the girl's masturbatory behavior and the lewd manner in which she played with anatomically correct dolls during her interview. Amy Lanzetta told psychologist Miranda that her father had twice made unrequited sexual advances toward her. Once, when Amy was fourteen, a drunken Eddie Lanzetta had "exposed himself and asked her to play with his penis," Miranda reported.

The foster families were so disturbed by the children's claims of abuse that, with HRS approval, they sent all six children to a psychiatric social worker. Robin Reisert, a Key Biscayne parishioner and associate director of a mental health agency called the Christian Counseling Ministry, offered the bleakest assessment to date. The boy Mark felt so much anger toward his father, she noted, that he was driven to "torture animals and hurt little children." A child-abuse specialist who was later court-appointed as the Lanzetta children's long-term therapist, Reisert also found that the three-year-old daughter exhibited signs of sexual abuse. "[Amy] reported great fear of her father and that she had been molested by him," the therapist added, seemingly in reference to the incident that took place when the girl was fourteen. (Citing confidentiality laws, Reisert will not comment specifically about her reports, except to say that they are accurate.)

Foster parents say they noticed that the children gradually became reluctant to see their own parents and would return from visits complaining that their father was pressuring them to come home. The encounters seemed to be most destabilizing to the two youngest siblings, who had remained with Kent and Heidi Keller since leaving home. The older children, by contrast, had been shuttled from home to home, usually because they proved unwilling to obey the rules set down by the families they'd been sent to live with.

Keller says relations between the foster families and the Lanzettas soured in October 1992, when Anne Lanzetta moved back in with her husband. "We offered to find a place for her to live so she could have her children," Keller emphasizes. "We were prepared to continue to fund the children's counseling and education and to help her financially get on her feet. We even had someone at church looking for real estate that would accommodate a mother and six children.... She chose her husband over her kids."

It would only get worse. On November 1 the Lanzettas' eight-year-old daughter told her foster mother that someone had touched her "private parts." According to Robin Reisert's subsequent report, when the girl was asked who had done it, she replied, "My father's friend, and I think my father." Reisert called HRS. Although they were informed of the allegations at a subsequent court hearing, the Lanzettas allowed the friend, Ronald Mashburn, to be present at two subsequent visits. Two months after the matter arose, HRS sent the eight-year-old to the State Attorney's Child Assessment Center, where she was interviewed. The girl made no mention of abuse by her father, except to note that he used to drink alcohol and that she would like to live with her parents "when they get better." No charges were brought. Ronald Mashburn denies he ever touched any of the Lanzetta children in a sexual manner.

On January 25 the Lanzettas' youngest daughter, who had just turned four, told a social worker that her father "put his fingers in my pee-pee." After speaking with the girl, Robin Reisert concluded the abuse must have taken place during the pre-Thanksgiving visitation, when Eddie Lanzetta was alone with his two youngest children for about half an hour. On February 1 the girl was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Rape Treatment Center, where a doctor reported finding a single "healed tear" on her hymen that could have been indicative of sexual fondling. The next day a police detective's interview of the girl yielded a statement that was muddled and at times contradictory. A second statement, videotaped two days later, was even more confounding. The detective closed her investigation, having found insufficient evidence to support the original claim.

The accusations demolished any goodwill that remained between Eddie and Anne Lanzetta and the foster parents who were caring for their children. Aghast at the young kids' claims, Keller and his fellow foster parents vilified Eddie Lanzetta. He in turn became outraged at Robin Reisert, whom he now accuses of "filling the kids' heads with lies." By this time, though, the therapist was inextricably involved in plans to put the family back together. The Lanzettas had signed a reunification plan with HRS, under which they were required to attend family counseling with Reisert. The pair refused, saying they didn't trust her. With the compact violated and frustration mounting on all sides, HRS and the Lanzettas agreed to go to trial in April.

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