Two years ago on the day after Easter, Anne Lanzetta, once the mother of six children, now the mother of none, decided to end her life. She was watching soap operas at the time, drunk on vodka. A pack of single-edge razors, purchased from the drugstore down the street, sat in her lap.
A month earlier the State of Florida had taken custody of her four youngest children, alleging chronic neglect and emotional abuse by Anne and physical abuse by her husband Eddie. Five months before that, her two eldest daughters had run away from home. Anne had hoped to see all six kids on Easter, at a court-arranged visit, but the children failed to show. Her mood plunged, a drinking binge ensued, then the soaps, and finally the razors.
Her arms, once the supple limbs of a teenage model, were bloated from drink and scabbed with psoriasis. The single-edge blades, though, cut far deeper than the disposables she had used in a previous attempt. Blood quickly puddled beneath her. Seconds before passing out, Anne stumbled to the front door and, in a final act as senseless as her entire life felt, reached out to see if the mail had come. The mailman found her collapsed outside her empty North Miami home, still breathing, white as chalk.
Today, two years later, her friends, family, and therapists will tell you Anne Lanzetta is a different person. She has quit drinking and doing drugs. She has lost weight and taken a job. Her once disastrous marriage is on the rebound. "My life would be perfect," she says. "Except for the kids." Her two sons and four daughters, aged three to seventeen, have yet to return home. By court order, both she and her husband are forbidden to see the three youngest. Last month lawyers from the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) began drawing up a legal petition to sever all relations between the Lanzettas and their children, a process known as Termination of Parental Rights (TPR). By law TPR is the end of the line -- the last rites for parenthood.
For Kent and Heidi Keller, who have cared for the two youngest Lanzetta children since March 1992, TPR promises a new beginning. They didn't ask for the job, the Kellers emphasize; HRS, with the Lanzettas' consent, drafted them. "We went into this really as a rescue operation," says Kent Keller, a former assistant pastor at the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church. "We kept hoping that at some point reality would kick in and these people would deal with their problems and take their kids home."
But as the children's accounts of neglect, beatings, and sexual abuse grew into an Everest of court files, Kent Keller says, his optimism dimmed. Rather than owning up to the brutal acts they committed against their own children, Keller maintains, the Lanzettas have blamed others and shunned the very help they need in order to become fit caretakers. It has been left to a shifting cast of foster parents recruited from Key Biscayne Presbyterian to repair the damage done to the Lanzetta children. For this, Keller adds bitterly, the parents have branded them baby-stealers.
Keller can accept the name-calling. He can deal with the ways the child-protection bureaucracy has frustrated him. But he says he can no longer handle seeing his foster children cringe at the prospect of being returned to their biological parents. The two blond toddlers, who now call him "Daddy," have suffered enough, Kent Keller claims. He wants the abuse -- the anguish of uncertainty -- to end.
He is not wild about the notion of newspaper coverage, however. Like most people involved in child abuse cases, Keller views the press as yet another threat to the children. State and federal lawmakers tend to agree; they have drafted statutes that allow the child-protection system to operate in virtual silence. (The law, for instance, forbids publication of the name of any minor in state custody. Therefore, although the three eldest Lanzetta children say they want their story told and were interviewed for this article, their real names are not used. Their younger siblings are not referred to by name at all.)
A proliferation of abuse reports in the past decade has catapulted the issue into the headlines, but the kinds of cases written about are usually the extremes, in which the abuse is heinous, or the accusations false. In these sagas, good and evil are sharply defined. As in a fable, the morals to be drawn are transparent and, in their transparency, oddly comforting. Most protracted abuse cases, unfortunately, do not conform to type. They are messes of gray, fraught with unanswerable questions: To what degree should the government be allowed to interfere with families on a child's behalf? When do parental rights end and children's rights begin? At what point does the state decide, irrevocably, that parents are not fit to raise the children they bore?
The last of these questions has, for the past year, held the Lanzetta family hostage, where they have plenty of company. Although the vast majority of abused children removed from their homes are eventually reunited with one or both parents, today some 400 children are awaiting TPR proceedings in Dade. In most of these cases the parents have agreed to surrender the children or have abandoned them outright. But some parents have vowed to fight.
Their stories are nothing like fables, but akin, as the Lanzettas' former attorney Leonard Cooperman observes, to Greek tragedies, in which all characters concede there are problems but no one seems capable of solving them, in which all believe they have done right but wind up feeling wronged.
On October 14, 1975, Edward Lanzetta and Anne Marie Finch were married in Hightstown, New Jersey, Eddie's hometown. The affair was small, owing in part to the fact that the bride was three months pregnant.
The second of three boys born to first-generation Italian parents, Eddie Lanzetta was by all accounts the family hell-raiser, a fiercely independent kid with a snaggled smile, a beak nose, and eyes as blue as Frank Sinatra's. By his late teens he'd fallen in with a bad crowd, begun using drugs of all varieties, and been arrested after an aborted pot deal. Upon graduating from high school he traveled, mostly on the carnival circuit, and flirted with becoming a jockey, a profession suited to his small, wiry frame. At 22 he met Anne, a winsome but troubled 18-year-old whose parents, both alcoholics, had divorced after she accused her father of sexually abusing her. Within months of their first meeting, Anne was pregnant and Eddie's wanderlust was extinguished by a marriage for which neither he nor his bride was fully prepared.
The next year the couple moved to Miami, where Eddie endeavored to become a golf pro like his father. When that failed he launched a yard maintenance business, a venture that thrived for a time, while his family multiplied. Amy, the eldest, was followed in two-year intervals by Linda and Mark. Four years later Anne gave birth to a third daughter. In 1987 the family moved to West Palm Beach, but a lucrative job offer there promptly fell through, necessitating a move back to Dade. Over the next five years the couple's finances plummeted, their drug use soared. To make matters worse, Anne bore another daughter and son. The latter, according to HRS records, was kept at Jackson Memorial Hospital for a month after birth because crack cocaine was found in his bloodstream. He, like his siblings, was blond, fair-skinned, and beautiful.
A self-described "working man" deeply stung by his failure as a breadwinner, Eddie began to vent his frustration on his wife and older children. Corporal punishment, which he had always employed, gave way to more serious altercations, usually triggered by excessive drinking. On several occasions he called Amy and Linda "whores" and branded Mark a "faggot."
"You were always in fright when he came home because you never knew how he was going to be," recalls Linda, who turned sixteen earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Anne Lanzetta recalls, she was retreating into a bottle. Her capacity to care for her two youngest children diminished, and her drug use, once shielded from her kids, became flagrant.
As Amy and Linda entered adolescence, their behavior started to reflect the chaotic nature of their home life. Both skipped school regularly, and Amy began using drugs. She also fought with her mother; during one fight she injured Anne Lanzetta. The girls would take off for South Dade for entire weekends, a two-hour trip on public transportation. There they stayed at the homes of friends, many of whom were members of Key Biscayne Presbyterian, where the family attended services when they first moved to Miami.
Their father viewed these forays as disobedience. "Those girls didn't care nothing about their own family," he mutters now. "They were doing whatever they wanted." The girls say that while they partied with older teens during these excursions, their primary motive was to escape the violence of their home.
There is little dispute about what happened one particular Sunday night in November 1991. Returning from a weekend in South Dade, the girls found their father in a drunken rage. He began yelling at Linda and gesturing in a threatening manner. Amy, who had exchanged blows with her father a few weeks earlier, became incensed. She lunged at Lanzetta with a kitchen knife and slashed his hand. He banged her against the wall and slammed her to the ground. Forcing both girls into their bedroom, he brandished the knife and an iron and spent the next two hours excoriating them.
The next day Amy and Linda called a friend from Key Biscayne Presbyterian, who contacted HRS. Officials at the agency's North Dade Investigations Unit allowed the girls to find temporary homes with Key Biscayne parishioners, and the agency assigned social workers from a county-run program called Family Builders to help the family recover.
According to the March 1992 report written by Family Builders social worker Althea Williams, the program's efforts met with little success. Eddie Lanzetta denied having a substance-abuse problem, downplayed the violence in his home, and attended only 1 of 26 domestic intervention classes. Anne Lanzetta admitted to an alcohol problem but refused treatment. Williams noted that Anne was in danger of neglecting her youngest children and she recommended to a juvenile court magistrate that the four remaining children be removed from the Lanzetta home.
The Lanzettas, meanwhile, were making plans to take the four kids back to New Jersey, where their families still lived. When Anne called two schools to formally withdraw enrollment, school officials alerted HRS.
Jary Reed remembers the phone ringing and the rush of words that followed. "It was Eddie Lanzetta," the youth minister recalls. "He said, 'Jary, they're coming to take my kids! What am I gonna do? Can you help me?'" Reed, who had met the entire Lanzetta family several years earlier and befriended the older children, agreed to help. On the evening of March 13, 1992, a Friday, he drove to the North Dade Investigations Unit, where he found the four youngest Lanzettas huddled in the waiting room, terrified.
Initially Reed entreated HRS supervisor Gwen Coley to return the children to their parents. Coley, Reed recalls, wanted them moved to an HRS shelter, agency procedure when no relatives are available. The shelters turned out to be full, though, says Reed, and he was able to persuade Coley to release the children into his custody, with the parents' approval.
No big deal, he figured; the whole mess would be ironed out by Monday. But with a new bride and a two-bedroom house, Reed was in no position to accommodate four kids, even for a weekend. HRS allowed him to send the two youngest (then aged one and three) to Kent and Heidi Keller, a young South Miami couple with no children. The Reeds kept twelve-year-old Mark and his eight-year-old little sister.
As practical as the solution appeared to Reed, it set into motion a complex legal process. Whenever children are taken from an allegedly unsafe home, state law requires that a juvenile court "trial" be held within three weeks. If the charges against the parents are found to be true by a preponderance of evidence, the children are declared wards of the state and placed in foster care. Every month in Dade HRS files between 90 and 120 motions for such hearings, an infusion that has pushed to 3000 the number of children in foster care. Because of this volume, the three week mandate is rarely followed.
In the Lanzettas' case, HRS sought to devise a plan that would allow the parents to reclaim their children without going to trial. To accomplish this, agency officials laid out certain conditions for reunification, stipulating that the children would remain in foster care until a juvenile court judge determined the conditions had been met. In the meantime, weekly visits would be permitted, under HRS supervision.
At first neither parent was cooperative. But Anne Lanzetta's suicide attempt spurred a turnaround. A few weeks after the incident, she checked into Concept House, an intensive drug and alcohol treatment center. Although Eddie initially reacted by showing up at the facility and haranguing the staff, he too soon realized he needed help, and in June he signed on as an outpatient. The program required both Lanzettas to attend daily counseling sessions to deal with family and personal problems and to undergo weekly drug tests. Anne would remain at Concept House for six months, after which she spent three months as an outpatient. Eddie logged six months as an outpatient. The couple also became regulars at Alcoholics Anonymous.
"Our HRS workers told us we were doing the right thing and that we'd get our kids back," Eddie Lanzetta recalls of that time. "I thought everything was going great. Our visits with the kids seemed to be going good. Anne and I went to couples' counseling. I even remodeled the whole house for when the kids returned."
In July, one of them did. Amy, then sixteen, returned home to live with her father, after failing to adjust to several foster homes.
Progress was also reflected in court-ordered evaluations by psychologist Sim centsn Miranda. In a March 1992 report, Miranda wrote that the Lanzettas were "a basically dysfunctional couple [whose] ability to care for any child is marginal at best," but by autumn his assessment had changed. "Anne has greatly benefitted from psychological treatment," he noted in a subsequent evaluation. "It is highly likely that upon completion of her treatment, she will be ready to resume her parenting duties."
HRS workers, too, were impressed by Anne Lanzetta's progress. But as her Concept House checkout date neared, they recommended that she establish a separate residence to care for the children apart from her husband, at least until he had worked out his deeper psychological problems in therapy. Sim centsn Miranda concurred. "Mr. Lanzetta has been making progress in dealing with his problems and his successes should be rewarded with the opportunity to be with and care for his children in his wife's home," the psychologist concluded.
Anne Lanzetta says she considered taking the state's recommendation, but when she left the rehab program in late October, she moved back in with Eddie. "I didn't just want to throw away seventeen years of my life," she says now. "I wanted to make my whole family work, and that included my marriage." In November Juvenile Court Magistrate Marshall Farkas granted Anne periodic unsupervised visits with the kids and permitted Eddie to see them on the condition that his wife be present. The entire family spent the Sunday before Thanksgiving together and reconvened on Christmas Eve. "We had a great time," Eddie remembers. "Anne and I saved up all year to get the kids presents, and I had a friend dressed like Santa Claus who drove up in a limo to deliver them. It felt like everything was coming together."
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
"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."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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.