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.

"Basically the Lanzettas saw no closure without a trial," explains Leonard Cooperman, their court-appointed attorney at the time. "The state wanted the parents to 'successfully complete therapy.' Well, what does that mean? It's not quantifiable. That plan could have lasted until the next century. And all the while their kids would be bonding with the foster parents. We didn't want this case to be just another zombie in the system."

Anne Lanzetta figured a trial would be pretty basic: "We'd tell the judge what we did to the kids and what we did to work on our problems."

She was half right. The "trial," in fact, was the hearing that should have been held a year earlier. By statute, this meant that Judge Steven Robinson's sole duty was to decide whether the alleged abuse that led to the children's removal had actually occurred. Robinson did make one exception: At HRS's request, he allowed testimony regarding Eddie Lanzetta's alleged recent sexual abuse of his youngest daughter.

The four-day proceeding, held this past April, amounted to little more than a recitation of the Lanzettas' past sins, delivered by social workers, psychologists, foster parents, and the Lanzettas' own eldest children. These witnesses were questioned not only by an HRS attorney, but also by a lawyer for the foster parents. Defense attorney Cooperman called only two witnesses A his clients. "We would have liked him to call other people," Anne Lanzetta says now, "but we only saw our lawyer for five minutes before court. We figured, 'He must know best.'"

Anne Lanzetta's testimony was heartfelt, if uneventful. She admitted that she had been a heavy drinker, that she and her husband had fought, and that she had allowed him to slap the children. She denied that Eddie had sexually abused any of the kids. Her husband, by contrast, self-destructed on the stand. A deeply insecure man prone to defensive outbursts, Lanzetta had been primed by hours of public humiliation. Though he confessed to slapping his children and verbally abusing them, his admissions hardly sounded contrite. "Amy walked in and I passed a remark," he told the judge in reference to his alleged sexual advances toward his teenage daughter. "But I didn't say anything about touching my penis. It was more or less in a joking way -- that she was a beautiful girl and all her girlfriends were. You know, they used to come to my house, Your Honor, I mean, wearing nothing, these kids. I mean, where were their parents?"

Robinson found the Lanzettas guilty of all the major charges lodged by HRS, including sexual abuse against his two youngest children.

Once again state workers set about negotiating a deal with the parents. In May the agency issued a report calling for the Lanzettas -- who had completed a class on parenting skills after the trial -- to begin family therapy, marital counseling, after-care treatment for substance abuse, and, for Eddie, a therapeutic class for sex offenders.

HRS also recommended that the children continue therapy with Robin Reisert, who had by now concluded that the two youngest should be placed with the Kellers for good. "To remove [them] from their present nurturing environment will cement permanent and serious personality disorders," the therapist warned in a letter to HRS. "Mr. and Mrs. Lanzetta, as evidenced by their behavior during the trial, are incapable of providing basic nurturing and safety. These little ones are too young and helpless to defend themselves against Mr. Lanzetta's narcissistic rage, violence and sexual abuse, and Mrs. Lanzetta's neglect and indifference."

Judge Robinson did not grant this request, but he did assign Reisert to supervise visits between Anne and her two youngest children. The judge also ordered that Eddie Lanzetta be evaluated by a third psychologist to determine if he should be permitted visitations at all. Having consulted with Reisert and interviewed both parents, the psychologist wrote a letter advising Judge Robinson to forbid all contact with the Lanzetta children until the parents underwent individual and couples' therapy for period of six months to a year.

On August 16 Reisert supplied Robinson with detailed reports about each Lanzetta child. She described Mark, who was then thirteen, as a "walking time bomb" who needed immediate and drastic treatment. She recommended a therapy called Dynamic Experiential Attachment Process, in which a child is held immobile for several hours "until rage drives him to let go of his defenses and express his deep sadness and pain." She closed her dispatch with another plea to end "the agony these children are living in every day" by initiating proceedings to terminate the Lanzettas' parental rights.

This time Judge Robinson heeded the request, which HRS seconded, pronouncing that TPR was the stated goal for all the Lanzetta children.

That was seven months ago.
Today the case isn't much closer to resolution. Though HRS attorney Ray Greenwood says the agency has begun drafting a formal motion for a TPR trial, he maintains that reunification is not out of the question, a sentiment implied by Judge Robinson himself at a hearing earlier this month.

According to Seymour Gelber, a retired juvenile court judge, such reluctance on the part of the state is not uncommon. "A decision like this is so tough emotionally that the tendency is to wait and see if all these different solutions have any effect on the parents," notes Gelber, now mayor of Miami Beach.

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