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.

"We have never ever denied any of the siblings access to the younger kids," counters Kent Keller. Cathy Wyatt, the foster mother of Linda's nine-year-old sister, says she has not prevented Linda from seeing the girl.

But Wyatt, vice president of a company that markets religious cassette tapes, questions the motivation behind Linda's change of heart. "That child has been under incredible pressure [from her parents] and I think she has acquiesced to that pressure the way she has all her life," observes Wyatt, who took Linda into her home for more than a year. Moreover, she maintains that the Lanzettas' transformation has been partial at best. "There is still 100 percent denial when it comes to the specific atrocities they committed against their children," she states flatly.

"If the Lanzettas had ever said, 'We have done some terrible things here. We have committed some atrocities against our children and we're sorry for it, and we'll do whatever it takes to put our family back together,' we would not be having this conversation," Kent Keller concludes. There is an edge in his tone, one that suggests anger beneath the eloquence. He makes one final prediction: "If those kids are given back to their parents and the inevitable abuse continues -- and it will -- your newspaper will be all over the story, screaming for somebody's head at HRS for letting them go back."

In sheltered moments, away from the legal combat and the blows to his broken-down ego, Eddie Lanzetta does acknowledge that he is to blame for his family's woes. He does apologize to his children for the senseless blows he delivered. He is able to recognize the compassion Keller and the other foster parents have shown. "Yes, I admit it," he says. "My house was not functional. I made mistakes. Maybe I didn't try hard enough."

But these intervals of confession do not last long. More often Lanzetta lashes out in frustration, his diminutive frame curled in an ambivalent posture. Crouched against the punches life keeps delivering, he jabs at the air with his index fingers to emphasize the injustices. He blames the rich church that wants to divide his poor family. He blames the highfalutin judge. The deceitful agents of HRS. His own rambunctious children. He has worked hard all his life, he says; doesn't that mean anything?

In sum, while Lanzetta talks like the underdog he wishes he were, he sounds like the bully he too often was. "I'm not dealing with HRS," he says, his voice and the color in his sharp face simultaneously rising. "I'm dealing with a church that's out of control. I'm dealing with David Koresh. Just like Koresh burned those babies out in Waco, they've taken my kids and turned them against me. To hear your own babies call someone else 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' A that hurts. Those custodians, they laugh at me outside court, like I'm a joke!

"God gave me six beautiful children," Lanzetta says sheepishly, lowering his voice. "All I want is to have them back." It is not clear how deeply he understands his own complicity.

To all of this, his wife listens patiently. She smokes her cigarettes and loses herself in the bright images that flicker on the TV set. Every day she goes to work at a pizzeria and doesn't drink. She reminds her husband not to be late for the therapy sessions they have just begun. Whatever else she does, Anne Lanzetta does not dwell on the photos that stare out from her mantel, beautiful blond children with her husband's baby-blue Sinatras. But kids are tricky that way. They find a way to choke you up, regardless of whether you ever see them again.

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