Parents With Intellectual Disabilities Share Heartbreak of Losing Custody of Their Children
The parents of 8-month-old Hunter and 4-year-old Christopher have lost custody of their children — not because they have harmed them, endangered them or neglected them.
Rather, they have been told they are not smart enough to raise their boys and have fallen down a rabbit hole of trying to prove to child welfare authorities they are worthy parents, according to advocates and experts.
Amy Fabbrini, 31, and Eric Ziegler, 38, have been fighting for four years to regain custody of Christopher, and now Hunter, who was taken from his mother in the hospital just days after he was born.
The Oregon couple feels lost in a convoluted child welfare system, where up to 80 percent of intellectually disabled parents in America lose custody of their children, according to a government report.
It's a disturbing and largely unnoticed problem that harkens to the days of eugenics, when the "socially inadequate" were involuntarily sterilized so their offspring would not burden society, according to a landmark study by the National Council on Disability.
There is "persistent, systemic and pervasive discrimination against parents with disabilities," the report says. Those families have “disproportionately high rates of involvement with child welfare authorities and devastatingly high rates of parents... losing their parental rights.”
Few know that better than Amy and Eric.
"I don't think that IQ has anything to do with raising your kids," Amy Fabbrini told InsideEdition.com. "The only thing that should matter... is that you love them, you're able to support them and that you're just there for them and their needs.
“And I can do that."
Fabbrini and Ziegler both have high school diplomas, but Ziegler acknowledges he is a slow learner and receives disability benefits for an ADD-related problem. He currently works nights as a janitor.
As part of the state's investigation, each was given an IQ test, they said. An average IQ ranges from 90 to 110. She scored 72 and he earned 66.
"I guess they're thinking that because our IQs are so low, they don't think we're smart enough," Fabbrini said.
Last year, in an event the couple and their advocate find more than ironic, Ziegler was picked for jury duty in a housing dispute case, they said.
He served the entire four-day trial.
"So he's capable of deciding somebody else's fate, and yet he can't even raise his own child? It's just completely sad, actually, and ridiculous," said Sherrene Hagenbach, who supervised the couple's court-approved visits with Christopher and now acts as the couple’s advocate.
Fabbrini and Ziegler had their first encounter with Oregon’s Child Protective Services when Christopher was just four days old.
It started when a neglect complaint was lodged by someone the couple knew, they said. The person said Ziegler had been lying on the floor with the newborn and almost rolled onto the baby. The father was not attentive enough toward his son, the complaint also alleged.
A caseworker visited and took custody of Christopher, saying the parents were ill-prepared, both intellectually and in terms of having baby supplies and furniture, to care for an infant, the couple and their advocate say.
Christopher has been in foster care ever since.
"Eric and Amy have not been given a chance to be parents,” Hagenbach said.
As a volunteer observer for the child services department, she said she’s monitored far worse cases.
“I've seen other children taken back to a trailer park after a parent has just been released from jail on drug charges," she said.
There was no hint of Eric or Amy “being abusive or neglectful," she said. The state’s case consisted of a report that "Eric was not catching cues when the baby needed to be fed or changed, and that he almost rolled over on Christopher," Hagenbach said.
At the direction of child welfare authorities, the couple contends they have taken parenting classes that included learning CPR and first aid.
Fabbrini said she did not realize she was pregnant with Christopher until she went into contractions. She suffers a lingering kidney problem, she said, and she thought the pain and discomfort in her abdomen was caused by that.
Her baby was delivered at the home she then shared with her father, and her twin boys from a previous marriage who were 6 at the time.
Paramedics were called, and mother and infant were taken to a hospital, where doctors said both were fine and healthy, Hagenbach said.
Fabbrini's dad said he didn't want an infant in his home, on top of his daughter's other two children, so she and Christopher moved into Ziegler's home, she said.
Fabbrini and Ziegler were adjusting to the baby's unexpected arrival and trying to outfit Ziegler's house for an infant when children's services showed up, said Hagenbach, who serves as the couple's advocate within the court and the child welfare systems.
"They weren't prepared at all," she said. "But there's no reason for Christopher not to be living with his parents."
Children’s services workers also took custody of the twins and placed them in their father’s care.
Earlier this year, Fabbrini gave birth to Hunter. This time, the couple was prepared. They had a crib, a Winnie the Pooh coverlet, diapers, clothes and a well-stocked nursery.
Two days after delivering Hunter, a caseworker arrived and took custody of him.
Because Christopher was already in foster care under an active case to terminate the couple's parental rights, the state took Hunter as well and placed him with the same foster parents, Hagenbach said.
Children's services spokeswoman Andrea Cantu-Schomus confirmed to InsideEdition.com the department was investigating the couple, but said she couldn't provide specifics because of confidentiality laws.
A judge will have final say — based on input from service providers — on who will get to raise the younger two boys. Being developmentally disabled, she says, is not the sole basis for removing a child from his or her parents.
"This family has been very public about this case," she added. "We have to protect the privacy of those children.”
Pennsylvania attorney Pietro Barbieri is advising the couple and has handled several cases involving handicapped parents who had their children removed by social workers.
"This is a slippery slope," he said. "My wife always says I'm not too bright. So does that mean I shouldn't have kids?
"That is the sum and substance of this case. There's no evidence of abuse and no evidence that they aren't intellectually capable of caring for their children."
The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents discrimination against handicapped people, including those with intellectual limitations.
The federal law has only gained prominence in intellectual disability cases in the past few years, says Susan Yuan of The Association for Successful Parenting. She provides parenting assessments for the intellectually disabled.
Advocates have increased pressure on child welfare agencies, armed with the ADA, after guidelines were issued in 2015 to help prevent discrimination against parents with what previously had been known as mental retardation.
"People just automatically think they are not capable of taking care of a child," said Yuan, who worked with the Justice Department and Health and Human Services to establish the federal standards. "There's very little exposure to people with intellectual disabilities. Even social workers don't have much experience with them."
Another boost to the cause of developmentally disabled parents occurred in 2015, when a Massachusetts mother with a "mild intellectual disability" won a two-year legal battle for custody of her daughter, who was placed in foster care at 2 days old after child welfare authorities ruled the mother's disability prevented her from being a responsible parent.
A judge ordered the toddler returned to her birth mother and her maternal grandparents after the Justice Department ruled child welfare workers acted illegally.
The mom "is a loving, caring, and conscientious mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to have her daughter in her life," the department said. "There is no discernible reason that [she] and her parents do not have the ability to care for her child safely."
A parent's IQ has very little to do with being able to take care of a child, Yuan said.
"A parent with any IQ can be a bad parent. But unless an IQ is below 60, there is no correlation between IQ and the ability to parent,” she said.
"That's the biggest myth that's out there."
In New York, five mothers filed a class action lawsuit in October, alleging city welfare authorities violated federal laws protecting the intellectually disabled by seizing custody of their children.
David Hansell, commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, has not specifically commented on the suit but he told The New York Times, “Treating all parents equitably is vital in our work.”
But the most definitive national survey on disabled parents to date found that some 40 to 80 percent of developmentally challenged parents have their children taken by child welfare authorities.
The National Council on Disability, an independent government agency that published the study in 2012, found more than four million parents, roughly 6 percent of all mothers and fathers, are disabled and constitute the only community of Americans "who must struggle to retain custody of their children.”
"Clearly, the legal system is not protecting the rights of parents with disabilities and their children," Jonathan Young, then-chairman of the council, said in a letter to the White House in 2012.
In an interview with InsideEdition.com, Young said the agency had been "hearing about people losing their kids, but nobody was paying attention to it."
The council agreed, he said, that "a person should be evaluated by their abilities and not some abstract idea" that mentally disabled people were bad parents.
"Somehow, we've gotten latched onto the idea that IQ is some kind of singularly defining characteristic," he said.
The parents of Christopher and Hunter say they aren't sure what to do if the court decides their parental rights should be terminated.
The next custody hearing for Christopher is scheduled for December. Court custody hearings for baby Hunter have not yet started.
Fabbrini says living in limbo, without her children, "is very, very stressful."
The parents visit their kids two to three times a week at a child protection services office, where they are under constant observation during visits that usually last for a few hours.
Fabbrini also regularly visits her twins, who are now 10.
"We feel like we're constantly having someone watch our back, watching our every move [and saying], 'Don't do this, don't do that,''' she said.
Hagenbach said that while she was observing the couple's visits with Christopher, she saw nothing out of line. If anything, the mother and father were too attentive with their son, she said.
One day at the park, Hagenbach said Ziegler was hovering over Christopher like he was herding him.
"I said, 'It's OK, you know, for him to fall or scuff his knee or whatever. That's how they learn.'"
Ziegler replied, "Well, I never know what to do. I have so many caseworkers telling me different things," Hagenbach recounted.
She supervised such visits at the couple's home for months. After she testified in court on behalf of the parents in their custody battle, Hagenbach said she was told by a supervisor that her volunteer services would no longer be needed.
Now she acts as their public voice in court and with children’s services. She helps with gas money, so they can drive to see their sons and Fabbrini can visit her twins.
"I shouldn't be judged on what my IQ level is," Fabbrini said. "It's just a number. It's not how I parent."
In her heart, she fans the flames of faith.
"I have high hopes that we get our kids back," she said. "Because they really have no basis to keep our kids... they think they can hold this IQ level above us [but] it's not a reason they can keep our kids."