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.

"Who are you people?" he roared at Keller as the parties left the courtroom. "Where did you come from? Why don't you leave my family alone!" His New Jersey holler sailed across the waiting room carpet, chasing Keller down a stairwell. Beside Lanzetta stood his mother, Flo, weeping inconsolably. Having come down from New Jersey for a visit, she had just been informed that her youngest grandchildren did not want to see her.

The scene was like something out of a Greek tragedy.
In late January Flo Lanzetta is back in court, again requesting to visit her grandchildren. At the front of the room a phalanx of lawyers stands before Judge Robinson discussing another TPR case. "Where's the father?" Robinson asks. A man in shackles clanks to his feet. "How about the mother?" Nobody seems to know. Robinson reschedules.

"This child is saying she was slapped around by her foster father," an HRS attorney explains, whisking on to the next case. "She's run away and now she wants to recant what she said about the parents and move back home. She also says her boyfriend raped her."

"This is the gang member?" the judge wants to know.
"Yeah, Your Honor. The department is drafting a reunification plan."
With a faint smile and a sigh, Robinson moves to the Lanzetta case. Joan Kleinman, the children's guardian ad litem, informs the judge that the ten-year-old daughter is willing to see her grandmother but her five-year-old sister refuses any contact. Flo Lanzetta huffs in disbelief.

Dan Macone, the attorney the Lanzettas hired after Cooperman left the case last year, asks Robinson whether the grandparents might be allowed to deliver Christmas presents on behalf of Anne and Eddie, a request that has been pending for more than a month. "There will be no secret messages embedded in them," Macone promises, as Anne Lanzetta begins quietly to weep.

Back at the Lanzettas' small house in North Miami, Flo Lanzetta busies herself hanging laundry in the back yard. "I don't believe that my little granddaughter would choose not to see me," she cries. "They love their grandmother. We had such a beautiful time when we visited last March. Those church people must be telling her something."

Inside, Eddie's younger brother Michael Lanzetta huddles with the family's lawyer. Michael has come from New Jersey to present himself as a candidate to adopt the kids. Grandfather Joe Lanzetta, a stern patriarch who says he is frankly disgusted by Eddie's current travails, listens in silence.

Also present are Mark, now fourteen, and sixteen-year-old Linda. Since the trial, both have become frequent visitors to their parents' home, as has Amy, the eldest, who has been living with her boyfriend. All three describe a gradual reconciliation that sharply contrasts with the experience of their younger siblings, who have grown increasingly alienated from their parents. Linda and Mark stand behind the testimony they offered at trial, which detailed abuse by their father and neglect on the part of their mother. But they maintain that their parents have changed. "They're not the same bad people they were before," says Mark, a curly-haired boy whose court-ordered psychological evaluations revealed a genius-level IQ.

What's more, they now contend that certain allegations against their parents -- at trial, for instance, the Lanzettas were accused of having fed their children dog food -- are nonsense. They blame Robin Reisert for much of the distortion, claiming that their accounts of abuse were exaggerated in her reports.

"I wouldn't say she brainwashed me, but she sort of suggested things that I might say at the trial," Mark adds. "I felt like she was persuading me to go against my parents. She told me a friend of hers had seen my dad drinking in a bar and right before trial she had my little sister stand in front of all of us and say that my father had molested her." Mark says he believed both these claims at one time, but that he is skeptical now. He also denies that he ever tortured animals or hit little kids, as Reisert wrote in her evaluation. He says he wants no part of the proposed therapy plan that involves being held immobile for several hours. He is living in a therapeutic group home for teens, but he recently told Judge Robinson that he would like to return home.

Robin Reisert repeats that her reports are completely accurate and maintains she never manipulated Mark or any of the other Lanzetta children. "If the older kids now want to lie all over the place that's fine," Reisert says. "My conscience is clear. It's okay with me if their parents want to focus on me rather than what they could have done in the first two years of this thing to get their kids back."

Linda says she has been troubled by the reaction of the foster parents to her renewed contact with Eddie and Anne Lanzetta. "All last year, especially after the trial, I used to have to sneak out of the [foster parents'] house to see my parents," she says. She also feels she is being kept from her younger siblings by their foster parents.

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