Amy Fabbrini and Eric Ziegler are fighting to prove to the state of Oregon that they can raise their children. Oregon removed their boys, saying the parents are too mentally limited to parent. Can your intelligence be a factor in determining child custody?
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.
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?
Florida Child Custody
The Oregon case involves child protective services operating through dependency court. A child is generally found to be dependent if the child is found to be abandoned, abused, or neglected by the child’s parent or parents or legal custodians.
In Florida family court cases, as opposed to dependency court cases, shared parental responsibility is the preferred relationship between parents when a marriage or a relationship ends. In fact, courts are instructed to order parents to share parental responsibility of a child unless it would be detrimental to the child.
I’ve written about child custody cases before. Generally, when parents cannot agree, the dispute is resolved in court. At the trial, the test applied is the best interests of the child.
Determining the best interests of a child is no longer entirely subjective. Instead, the decision is based on an evaluation of 20 statutory factors, and one equitable catch-all factor, affecting the welfare and interests of the child and the circumstances of the child’s family.
Although the parent’s intelligence or IQ score is not specifically mentioned in our custody statute, the statute requires courts to consider the mental and physical health of the parents.
The Oregon Case
Back in Oregon, the parents 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.
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.
“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.
Across the country, a national study estimates that somewhere between 40 percent and 80 percent of parents with intellectual disabilities lose their parental rights.
The Oregon Live article is here.