And then get stuck with the tab for all their care.
For nearly four years, the Redmond couple has been fighting to prove to the state of Oregon that they are intellectually capable of raising their children. The Department of Human Services has removed both of their boys, saying the parents are too mentally limited to be good parents.
Fabbrini, 31, and Ziegler, 38, lost custody of their older son, Christopher, shortly after he was born. Five months ago, the state took their second child, newborn Hunter, directly from the hospital. Both are now in foster care.
“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.”
No abuse or neglect has been found, but each parent has a degree of limited cognitive abilities. Rather than build a network of support around them, the state child welfare agency has moved to terminate the couple’s parental rights and make the boys available for adoption.
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It’s impossible to know the full story when child welfare officials are unable to comment, but the case has left the couple and their advocates heartbroken.
The case lays bare fundamental questions about what makes a good parent and who, ultimately, gets to decide when someone’s not good enough. And it strikes at the heart of the stark choices child welfare workers face daily: should a child be removed or is there some middle ground?
For now, the divide is clear. Fabbrini’s father lines up against the couple. A state legislator is advocating for them. The parents themselves are struggling against a system that feels impersonal, unyielding and inscrutable.
“They are saying they are intellectually incapable without any guidelines to go by,” said Sherrene Hagenbach, a former volunteer with the state agency who oversaw visits with the couple and Christopher from last June through August.
Hagenbach is a professional mediator and a board member of Healthy Families of the High Desert. After she told state caseworkers she thought the couple was capable of raising Christopher, she recalls, she was told her volunteer services were no longer needed.
She’s spent the past year advocating for Fabbrini and Ziegler.
“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,” Hagenbach said. “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 state Department of Human Services says it cannot comment on cases because of confidentiality concerns, but some of its reasoning is spelled out in court filings.
According to documents provided by the couple, psychological evaluations tested Fabbrini’s IQ at about 72, placing her in the “extremely low to borderline range of intelligence,” and Ziegler’s about 66, placing him in the “mild range of intellectual disability.” The average IQ is between 90 and 110.
Fabbrini formerly worked as a grocery clerk. Ziegler worked as a carpet layer, he said, but now receives Social Security benefits for his mental disability.
“I have a learning disability, but it’s very, very mild,” Ziegler said. He understands that he learns more slowly than some, but says “everybody learns at their pace.”
Neither currently works, but they have steady housing: a three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot home owned by Ziegler’s parents, who live out of state. Ziegler has a driver’s license. Both have standard high school diplomas. And seven years ago, after a divorce, Fabbrini was granted shared custody of twin boys she had with her ex-husband.
But things changed when Christopher arrived – as a total surprise – on Sept. 9, 2013.
Fabbrini said she didn’t know she was pregnant.
“Here and there I have kidney issues so I just thought I was having kidney issues, that’s what I associated the pain with,” she said. “I was trying to go to sleep and trying to get comfortable … and I felt this weird pain down there.”
That was Christopher, who was born at Ziegler’s home weighing 7.4 pounds. The couple called for an ambulance, and a hospital evaluation determined both mother and son were healthy.
Fabbrini at the time was living at her father’s home with the twins, then age 6, but often spending the night with Ziegler. Her father, Raymond Fabbrini, says he urged her to put Christopher up for adoption.
Raymond Fabbrini, 74, is a gruff man who has strong feelings about Amy’s abilities. “She doesn’t have the instincts to be a mother,” he said.
He said he and his wife provided most of the parenting for the twins. His wife died of Alzheimer’s a week before Christopher’s birth.
He said his daughter had been primarily home schooled and he expressed frustration with her, unabashedly calling her a lazy child.
“Me and Amy were never close,” he said. “She got me mad so many times. She wouldn’t do nothing.”
Ziegler ended up taking Christopher home but Raymond Fabbrini said within days members of his family alerted the state to concerns.
According to child welfare records provided by the couple, Ziegler “has been sleeping with the baby on the floor and almost rolled over on him. There were also reports that Eric is easily frustrated and often forgets to feed his dog.”
Ziegler says he was lying next to his son while feeding him. The dog (which he still has) is well-fed, perhaps even too plump.
According to a court appeal describing the case, the state put Christopher in foster care because both parents had “limited cognitive abilities that interfere with (their) ability to safely parent the child.”
Since then, at the direction of child welfare workers, the couple said they’ve taken classes on parenting, first aid, CPR and nutrition through the Women, Infants and Children agency, the nonprofit MountainStar, Healthy Families of the High Desert and more.
They had supervised visits, but Christopher remained in foster care.
Over several in-person and phone interviews with The Oregonian/OregonLive, they seemed like capable and caring adults – frustrated and confused by the state’s intervention, but no more so than any parent would be in their situation.
“We’ve just done everything and more than what they’ve asked us to,” Fabbrini said.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s good enough for them,” Ziegler added. “They’re saying, ‘Who would parent Christopher better, the foster parents or the parents?’ is basically what they’re going on.”
Fabbrini and Zielger now live together. The twins Fabbrini had with her ex-husband are now living with their father.
Earlier this year, Fabbrini gave birth to another son – this time, no surprise. The nursery room was ready when Hunter was born Feb. 16, 2017, but they would never bring him home. The state took custody of the baby while Fabbrini was still in the hospital.
Fabbrini’s aunt, Lenora Turner, serves as a state-approved chaperone for the couple’s visits with Hunter.
“I would describe her (Fabbrini) as a strong person, because she’s going through all this and most of the family turned their back on her,” Turner said. “She is a strong young lady, determined, and I’ve always seen that in her. When she had something in mind she was determined to make it happen.”
She says Fabbrini and Ziegler have loving visits with Hunter.
“I honestly don’t understand why they can’t have their children,” Turner said. “I go to the grocery store and I see other people with their children and they’re standing up in the grocery cart… and I think, how come they get to keep their children? How do they decide whose child they’re going to take and whose child can stay?”
• • •
In reports of concerns about the couple’s parenting skills, a MountainStar worker recalled having to prompt them to have Christopher wash his hands after using the toilet and to apply sunscreen to all of his skin rather than just his face. Fabbrini and Ziegler’s attorneys argue these weren’t sufficient reasons to keep them from their son.
“This is a case that just simply presents this question to the court, and that is: What level of disability denies human beings the right to raise a child. There’s no smoking gun evidence of abuse,” Fabbrini’s attorney argued during a June 2016 hearing.
In December 2015, Ziegler’s lawyer filed an unsuccessful motion to return Christopher to his parents, arguing there was no current threat of serious loss or injury to him.
“A cognitively impaired parent can still parent,” attorney Aron Perez-Selsky said. “Their rights cannot be terminated simply because they suffer from cognitive impairment, so long as they are able to put together a plan for how they’re going to safely care for their kids with the support of people in the community.”
Across the country, a national study estimates that somewhere between 40 percent and 80 percent of parents with intellectual disabilities lose their parental rights. Susan Yuan is the former associate director of the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion at University of Vermont. She’s now president of The Association for Successful Parenting, which provides parenting assessments for parents with intellectual disabilities.
“They (case workers) have very little experience of people with intellectual disabilities, and because all their orientation is for the safety of the child, they err on the side of overprotecting the child without realizing that the parent can do it,” Yuan said. “It’s coming from a good place, but they need more exposure to people with disabilities.”
She said there are many myths about parents with intellectual disabilities, including the idea that IQ is an important factor in parenting.
“Research literature has found that the IQ really doesn’t correlate with parenting until the IQ is below 50,” she said. “A parent of any IQ, a parent with a 150 IQ, can be a bad parent. … I would say that if the child can be safe and loved in their own family, that this is appropriate parenting and you can put other opportunities in place.”
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In 2013, the advocacy group Disability Rights Oregon worked on legislation that would have barred the state from deeming a parent unfit based solely on a parent’s illness or disability, including intellectual disability.
But the bill didn’t pass out of a House committee.
Oregon Sen. Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican, has had several meetings with Fabbrini and Ziegler, who live in his district.
“My impression of them is that they were just like any other couple, and they were trying to be successful in life, just like anyone else would be, and they wanted to be together as a family,” Knopp said. “I didn’t see any issues when I met with them that would automatically disqualify them from being good parents.”
He said he would “absolutely” support a change to the law that would prevent a parent’s disability alone from being the basis for placing a child in foster care.
“The state has a responsibility to help parents reunite with their children, and if there are issues that are keeping them from doing that, especially for people with disabilities, I believe that as a state, we should be supporting them and trying to help them stay together as families,” Knopp said. “In a case where there is no specific allegation of abuse or neglect, I think the state should be looking to be supportive of uniting families and not sending kids into foster care.”