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.

Ironically, once TPR cases reach trial, HRS rarely loses. Trials last anywhere from a single day to two weeks, addressing the parents' alleged transgressions as well as what measures they have taken to correct their problems. One of the county's two full-time TPR attorneys can recall losing only one of the 100-plus cases she has taken to court in the past two years. But even if Judge Robinson were to order a trial, the proceeding probably wouldn't get under way for months. Fewer than half of the 400 children facing TPR in Dade have been accepted into the TPR unit for processing. Another 145 have yet to be assigned a lawyer, while the remaining 50 are awaiting a trial date. A concerted effort -- commonly known as "the backlog project" -- has been dedicated to relieving the jam.

"For the children to be put through living in this limbo is unconscionable," declares Kent Keller. "Once HRS and the judge decided TPR should be filed, it should have been expedited."

Still, the delay hardly surprises him. Keller says it took ten months to secure licensing and payment as foster parents; despite spending thousands of dollars caring for the Lanzetta children -- Jary Reed says he's still in debt -- they began receiving monthly checks from the state (typically in the amount of $300 to $400 per child) only this past summer. The state's Guardian Ad Litem program, which assigns advocates to represent children in court, also left the foster parents in the lurch. Until this past October no guardian had been consistently assigned to the Lanzetta case.

Like a growing number of foster parents, the Lanzetta children's custodians responded to these systematic shortcomings by bringing their own lawyer with them to court. (The attorney, actually, was one of them; he was caring for Mark Lanzetta at the time. He called his own witnesses at the trial and cross-examined Eddie and Anne Lanzetta.) "We were told by HRS, 'This has nothing to do with you.' Well, they didn't say that in March 1992 when they called us to say, 'You have to help us with these kids,'" Keller contends.

This posture, argues former judge Seymour Gelber, speaks to a deeper paradox. "We expect foster parents to be the most nurturing people in the world," Gelber says. "But we also expect they will not bond with the children." State law, in fact, requires foster parents to sign a contract with HRS specifying that they are only temporary custodians, not potential adoptive parents.

"It's quite simple. The longer you leave a child in foster care, the harder it is for a foster parent to give up that child," says HRS's Dade district administrator Anita Bock. "And I think we're seeing a trend that has to concern us. Judges are more frequently allowing foster parents to push for termination in court. That's partly a result of judges losing faith in HRS."

Although state and federal legislators have made periodic attempts to speed up the process of resolving abuse cases by passing laws and allocating money, they have done little to address the gut-level question of when the government should cleave the bond between parents and children. For most of U.S. history, children have been viewed chiefly as the property of their birth parents. But within the past decade, courts have granted children in custody disputes a greater say over their own fate. In 1992, for example, Gregory Kingsley, a twelve-year-old Central Florida boy, successfully sued to terminate his mother's rights and to be adopted by his foster parents. Some child advocates now argue that the standard used to terminate parental rights (i.e., abuse, neglect, or abandonment) should be broadened to address the issue of who is best suited to raise a child. "My own view is that parents don't have rights to a child," says William Gladstone, a retired juvenile court judge. "They have obligations, and if they meet those obligations, then they have the privilege of children."

Sadly, this legal tug-of-war has little bearing on what Seymour Gelber considers the system's overarching flaw. "What you've got is a family in trouble -- which is a social-service problem -- being channeled into a criminal justice setting where all sorts of lawyers and officers of the court get involved, and the whole thing turns adversarial," Gelber maintains. Thus, working-class parents like the Lanzettas are forced to pay lawyers with money that should be devoted to therapy. HRS flushes millions down the same litigious toilet.

As the legal feud simmers, each side distorts the other's motives: Eddie Lanzetta reduces the Kellers to baby-stealers; Kent Keller reduces the Lanzettas to chronic abusers. The true object of their wrath is an ill-devised system. The system that recruited the Kellers, encouraged them to pour two years of their lives into caring for two troubled children but will give them no assurance these children won't be taken away. The system that impelled the Lanzettas to straighten out their lives by dangling a promise of reunification but will not grant them a second chance.

But none of this resentment is permitted in court. There Kent Keller and Eddie Lanzetta must keep their mouths shut and leave the talking to the lawyers, whose arcane pronouncements seem to bear little relation to the human struggle at hand. There is so much to be said between the two men, but all they do is glare at one another. This past December, after one hearing at which the parents were denied visits with their youngest children, Eddie Lanzetta finally lost his temper.

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