Eric Ziegler, 38, didn't do a good enough job teaching his son Christopher to wash his hands after going to the bathroom. So the State of Oregon put the boy in foster care.
That's not the only reason the government intervened. But a lengthy story by Samantha Swindler in The Oregonian doesn't shy away from the awful, outrage-inducing truth: The state has taken a couple's children away not because they're abusing or neglecting the kids but because it thinks the parents aren't smart enough to raise them properly.
Ziegler and his partner, Amy Fabbrini, both have below-average IQs—72 and 66, respectively—according to documents provided to The Oregonian. After Christopher was born in 2013, other family members (most significantly, Fabbrini's father, who has a troubled relationship with her) started warning the state's child welfare agency that there were problems.
When the state Department of Human Services began investigating, it found no signs of abuse. But they did find representations of the struggles and frustrations of people with learning disabilities attempting to be parents:
In reports of concerns about the couple's parenting skills, a MountainStar [a nonprofit Oregon group devoted to helping prevent child abuse] 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 year the couple had a second son, Hunter. The state also took custody of him. This time they didn't even wait to see how they'd behave as parents: Fabbrini was still in the hospital when they took the boy.
Oregon's justification for taking Christopher and Hunter away: "limited cognitive abilities that interfere with [their] ability to safely parent the child." In other words, the government declared them too dumb to be parents.
Meanwhile, Swindler's reporting describes Ziegler and Fabbrini's hard work in improving their parenting skills. It quotes other experts who are helping them and who believe the couple is capable of raising children. One volunteer mediator said she told caseworkers that she believed the couple was capable of raising Christopher. Her conclusion conflicted with the position taken by officials, and subsequently, she says, they told her that her services were "no longer needed."
America, sadly, has a lengthy history of using state power to interfere in intellectually disabled people's lives. What happened to this couple isn't as bad as what might have happened to them a century ago, where people with low IQs were often forcibly sterilized. Today Fabbrini and Ziegler's boys are hardly the only children to have been taken by the government because their parents have learning disabilities. Or any disabilities, honestly. According to the National Council of Disabilities, in 35 states it is perfectly legal to use a disability as a reason to terminate an adult's parental rights. The council calculates that between 40 and 80 percent of parents with intellectual disabilities have faced having their children removed. (They don't have more precise numbers because of a lack of research data.)
One expert quoted in The Oregonian noted that IQ doesn't really correlate with parenting problems until it drops below 50. And yet parents are losing custody of their children over fears of what might happen.
Culturally, we're well into an era where governments punish parents based on fears that are completely removed from accurate risk assessments. Reason's Lenore Skenazy regularly documents the brutal, punitive results of this mentality. Parents are abused by the state and their neighbors for the slightest of slip-ups or for misplaced fears of unlikely harms. For those with any sort of disability, intellectual or physical, these slip-ups can also be used to justify breaking their family apart.
The Oregonian also provided a short video about the family's struggles. Watch below:
Photo Credit: Family video