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Parents With Low IQ Lose Custody of Their Children

Photograph by Twenty20

For almost four years, Oregon parents Amy Fabbrini and Eric Ziegler have been fighting to regain custody of their children. According to the Oregonian, the state's Department of Human Services removed both of their sons because of low IQ tests and "limited cognitive abilities that interfere with (their) ability to safely parent the child."

Though child welfare officials are unable to comment because of confidentiality concerns, court documents provided by the parents show psychological evaluations that place the 31-year-old Fabbrini in the "extremely low to borderline range of intelligence" with a score of 72 and the 38-year-old Ziegler in the "mild range of intellectual disability" with a score of 66. The average IQ in the United States is 98.

Their first child together, Christopher, was taken a few days after he was born at home in September 2013. Fabrini didn't know she was pregnant then and thought the pain was from her kidney issues. Mom and baby were taken to the hospital for evaluation and were both found healthy.

Fabbrini and Ziegler's second son, Hunter, was expected and born in the hospital in February. Oregon's Department of Human services took him directly from the hospital. Both kids are now in foster care.

Fabbrini also has shared custody of two twin boys with her ex-husband. The twins are currently living with Fabbrini's father.

Both parents, one a former grocery clerk and another a carpet layer, are currently unemployed but have stable housing. They live in a three-bedroom home owned by Ziegler's parent. The parents both have high school diplomas and Ziegler has a driver's license. There are no reports of abuse or neglect.

But worried family members alerted the state of their concerns. For instance, welfare reports say Ziegler "has been sleeping with the baby on the floor and almost rolled over on him" and that "Eric is easily frustrated and often forgets to feed his dog." However, Eric says he was lying next to his son while feeding him, and the dog is well-fed.

Fabbrini's father, who mostly took care of the twins with his late wife, urged Fabbrini to put Christopher up for adoption. He told The Oregonian that she "doesn't have the instincts to be a mother."

The family's case raises important questions that are still being worked through: What makes a good parent and who gets to decide?

“They’re saying that this foster care provider is better for the child because she can provide more financially, provide better education, things like that,” said Sherrene Hagenbach, a former volunteer with the state agency who oversaw visits with the family several months last year. “If we’re going to get on that train, Bill Gates should take my children. There’s always somebody better than us, so it’s a very dangerous position to be in.”

The parents say they're trying everything the state is asking of them, like attending parenting and first aid classes.

"I love kids, I was raised around kids, my mom was a preschool teacher for 20-plus years, and so I've always been around kids," Fabbrini said. "That's my passion. I love to do things with kids, and that's what I want to do in the future: something that has to do with kids."

According to the National Council on Disability, removal rates of children born to parents with an intellectual disability are between 40 to 80 percent. Many cases are similar to Fabbrini and Ziegler, in which parenting skills are based on their IQ.

"Those are the most troubling types of cases because the people making the decisions often are not terrible well-versed in parenting with a disability. They don't know, for example, that we have 20 years of research that shows that IQ is not predictive of parenting capacity in and of itself, and yet IQ testing is heavily relied on quite frequently to justify removals," Ella Callow, a lawyer who works with parents with disabilities and their families, tells NPR during a talk about a different family.

Though Fabbrini and Ziegler hope to regain custody of their two children, it is unclear if they will ever do so.

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