State Powerless In Parents' Heartbreak

The Hartford Courant/April 26, 2006
By Tracy Gordon Fox

Gary and Judy Meucci watched their oldest daughter bloom into a typical teenager. They cheered for her at basketball games, made sure she had braces, and set limits.

But a month after she turned 16, Heather Meucci ran away to a former neighbor's home, to a family the Meuccis describe as ultra-religious Christians who conduct church services in an upstairs room in their house. The Meuccis told police and juvenile authorities they believe their daughter has been brainwashed by the Bansemers to live with them, and they fear Heather was hand-picked to marry their 23-year-old son.

Her parents complained to police, juvenile officials, probate court and hired an attorney. All have told them the same thing: There is nothing they can do because Heather has not committed a crime and legally can leave home at 16.

The Meuccis' case, according to some legislators, attorneys and child advocates, illustrates the inadequacy of the "youth in crisis" law, which was supposed to give parents, police and the courts a better way to rein in troubled teens by offering 16- and 17-year-olds more access to mental health and drug counseling. But the 1999 law also said they could no longer be incarcerated unless they had committed a crime or were truant, thus giving police and parents little leverage to control those who just run away.

"Might this be a test case for the need for the law to be made whole as to 16-year-olds? Yes," said the Meuccis' attorney, Denise Ansell, of New London. "Even though the judge can fashion all kinds of orders, including that the child should go home, the court can't enforce it because of the contradiction in the law."

Some of the same lawmakers who crafted the youth in crisis legislation say the system is flawed and the age of adulthood should be 18. Connecticut is only one of three states that give 16- and 17-year-olds adult status.

"They are children as far as I'm concerned," said Rep. Linda Orange, D-Colchester. "This sort of thing can happen and a parent has no control and it's awful."

Judy and Gary Meucci have filed a "youth in crisis" petition with the juvenile court, which is set to be heard May 2. But even if a juvenile court judge says Heather should return home, there is no leverage for compliance.

And yet, while many legislators concede the law is ineffective, a new law will take effect in 2007 that would make it easier for even younger kids to leave their parents, because judges will no longer be able to incarcerate them as long as they haven't committed a crime. Under that new law, if a child between 13 and 15 habitually runs away, the police could keep bringing them home, but would have little power to keep them there. Currently, children that age who keep running away can be put in detention.

"If they haven't broken any law, we can't send them to jail," said Rep. Gail K. Hamm, D-East Hampton, one of the proponents of the law, who advocates making the age of adulthood 18.

Superior Court Judge Michael A. Mack, deputy chief court administrator, said the new law makes the problem of runaways worse.

"There is a misguided attitude that you should never incarcerate or restrict the freedom of any of these kids," he said. "There is no law where there is no sanction."

Gary and Judy Meucci knew nothing about the law before their daughter left home. He is a supervisor at a trucking company; she works for an accounting firm.

When they tried to get back Heather from the Bansemers, they said, police told them they could not take her home. They have called their legislators and chosen to make their battle public in an attempt to get their daughter back.

"They are [taking] my daughter for their benefit," Gary Meucci said. "She is being brainwashed. There is no doubt about it."

With the help of the Bansemers, Heather has applied for emancipation, according to a petition filed by her on April 7 in juvenile court. That move would sever all legal ties with her parents.

The Meuccis say they fear emancipation would enable Heather to marry Jesse, the Bansemers' 23-year-old son. They are particularly worried because the Bansemers' daughters were married by the time they were 18 to older men, the Meuccis said.

The Bansemers hired New London lawyer, Peter Catania, to represent Heather, the Meuccis said. Catania said he could not discuss any aspect of the case because it is pending in juvenile court. The Bansemers did not return repeated telephone calls, but in a March 20 letter to the Meuccis said they are only trying to help Heather.

"Do you really believe I choose to have Heather live with us over you?" Coleen Bansemer wrote. "But how can I after hearing and seeing all that has gone on for the past 8-plus months turn a deaf ear to your daughter."

Coleen Bansemer said that through prayer "we become bold enough to take action and stand up for what is right."

Before moving to Waterford in October 2005, the Meuccis were neighbors to the Bansemers.

In May 2005, Judy Meucci's father died, a loss that jolted the entire family. That's when Heather started asking to attend services at the Bansemers'. Heather told her parents she liked how the Bansemers sang the prayers in their Fundamentalist faith and how their 23-year-old son played the guitar during the home services. The Bansemers would pick Heather up for visits after her family moved.

On March 17, Heather's parents tried to end the visits, saying they were becoming too frequent and Heather wasn't making new friends in Waterford.

Early the next morning, when the Meuccis awoke, Heather was gone. Gary and Judy Meucci drove to the Bansemers' home. They called Colchester police, who told Heather to return home. The Bansemers picked her up again later that day. A week later, the Meuccis got their daughter into Natchaug Hospital for a court-ordered psychiatric exam. She was diagnosed as having a "dissociative disorder," and lacks the capacity to make decisions, her mother said.

On April 5, two young men showed up at the Meuccis. Gary Meucci pushed one of the men off his porch and Waterford police arrested both young men, members of the Bansemer family, for interfering, according to police reports. Early April 6, a cab took Heather back to the Bansemers.

Judy Meucci laid down on her driveway and wept.

"We are desperate for help," she said. "We feel completely helpless. We feel like we've lost all parental rights."

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